Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants
By Sunil s. Amrith
2013, Harvard UP, 078-0-67472-483-9, $3150 hb.
Reviewed by Louis Werner on January 31, 2016
To consider an ocean as a frame of reference is not unusual. Think of Fernand Braudel’s pioneering work on the Mediterranean, NATO’s policy building for the North Atlantic, or new trade agreements along the Pacific Rim. Social historian Sunil Amrith has taken the Bay of Bengal, the mirror image of the Arabian Sea in its own eastern half of the Indian Ocean, as his unit of analysis. He examines a body of water that until 100 years ago functioned almost as an organic whole along its coastal arc from Ceylon to Sumatra, unified by trade, labor migration, and cultural and religious exchange. Post-colonial independence movements later divided it down the middle between South and Southeast Asia (to use relatively new, Western-inspired geographic terms), but the Bay has more recently been reunited—in both problem and in promise—by the emerging economic superpowers of India and China and their regionally integrating investments. Even as typhoons and tsunamis sometimes still wreak havoc upon the half billion people living on its littoral, today they are threatened by environmental challenges such as river pollution and sea-level rise, while at the same time they are shown a model future in Singapore (as Amrith shows, the city state is a practical extension of the Bay proper) with its successfully fused multicultural identity, social stability and affluence.