Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants by Sunil S Amrith - review by John Keay

John Keay


Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants


Harvard University Press 353pp £22.95 order from our bookshop

I once fetched up in the south Sumatran town of Bengkulu on what proved to be the tenth day of Muharram. Thanks to several punctures and a stray bullet, the overnight bus from Bukittingi had taken longer than it should have. It was noon before it reached its destination and I was hungrily grappling with a soft-boiled egg without the benefit of egg cup or spoon when the uproar began. ‘Tabot, Tabot,’ urged the waitress. ‘You must hurry,’ beamed the receptionist. The street, deserted a few minutes before, now heaved with festive jollity. Expectant thousands lined the narrow tarmac as the sound of gongs and drums grew louder. From the crowd extravagantly capering dancers emerged, while in the distance there swayed into sight a cavalcade of towered and tinsel-bedecked architecture. There were forts and palaces, ships, mosques and temples. One had two dozen storeys and a large bird of prey that flapped its wings and kept getting entangled with the telephone wires. Sometimes known as tazia, the floats (of which there were over sixty) were drawn by gangs of bandanna-wearing lascars with long knives in their waistbands. Among them cavorted a miscellany of horses, maharajahs, elephants and monkeys, along with a whale, Walt Disney’s Pluto and a mermaid in a naval officer’s cap and sunglasses who gave a rather fetching salute. This was Tabot, south Sumatra’s one real carnival.

‘Tabot, it

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