‘The Town By The Sea’

Just a few days after the Asian tsunami, Amitav Ghosh went to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In a New Yorker essay titled “The Town By The Sea,” he wrote of the environmental devastation, the physical destruction, and the unendurable tragedy that were visited on the people of the islands. Ghosh describes a middle-aged scientist, a man referred to merely as “the Director,” who was traveling to the town of Malacca to look for his wife and daughter among the few survivors that had been found. This was not the first time the Director had undertaken this trip, and sadly there was no trace of his family.

As he walked among the ruins, however, the Director came across a set of slides from his epidemiological research, and he picked them up, carefully selecting which ones he would keep. A little later, he spotted a yellow paint box that his daughter had owned. He chose to leave it where it lay. Ghosh writes:

I had expected he would stoop to pick up the box, but instead he turned away and walked on, gripping his bag of slides. “Wait!” I cried. “Don’t you want to take the box?”

“No,” he said vehemently, shaking his head. “What good will it do? What will it give back?” He stopped to look at me over the rim of his glasses. “Do you know what happened the last time I was here? Someone had found my daughter’s schoolbag and saved it for me. It was handed to me, like a card. It was the worst thing I could have seen. It was unbearable.”

He started to walk off again. Unable to restrain myself, I called out after him: “Are you sure you don’t want it – the paintbox?”

Without looking around he said: “Yes, I am sure.”

I stood amazed as he walked off towards the blazing fire, with his slides still folded in his grip: how was it possible that the only memento he had chosen to retrieve were those magnified images? As a husband, a father, a human being, it was impossible not to wonder: what would I have done? what would I have felt? what would I have chosen to keep of the past? The truth is nobody can know, except in the extremity of that moment, and then the choice is not a choice at all, but an expression of the innermost sovereignty of the self, which decides because nothing now remains to cloud its vision. In the manner of his choosing there was not a particle of hesitation, not the faintest glimmer of a doubt. Was it perhaps, that in this moment of utter desolation there was some comfort in the knowledge of an impersonal effort? Could it be that he was seeking refuge in the one aspect of his existence that could not be erased by an act of nature? Or was there some consolation in the very lack of immediacy – did the value of those slides lie precisely in their exclusion from the unendurable pain of his loss? Whatever the reason, it was plain his mind had fixed upon a set of objects that derived their meaning from the part of his life that was lived in thought and contemplation.

There are times when words seem futile, and to no one more so than a writer. At these moments it seems that nothing is of value other than to act and to intervene in the course of events: to think, to reflect, to write seem trivial and wasteful. But the life of the mind takes many forms, and some time after the day had passed I understood that in the manner of his choosing, the Director had mounted the most singular, the most powerful defence of it that I would ever witness.

You can read the essay in full here.