Monsoon Postcards By David H. Mould

A newspaper and TV journalist by training, with a 30-year career as a full-time faculty member at Ohio University, David H. Mould has travelled widely in Asia and southern Africa as a journalist, consultant and researcher.

In Monsoon Postcards, notebook in hand, Mould traverses the Indian Ocean from Madagascar through India and Bangladesh to Indonesia on an unpredictable journey on battered buses, bush taxis, auto-rickshaws and crowded ferries. His travels take him from the traffic snarls of great cities to the rice paddies and ancestral tombs of Madagascar’s Central Highlands; from the ancient kingdom of Hyderabad in India’s ethnically diverse and underdeveloped northeast; and from the textile factories and rivers of Bangladesh to Aceh on Sumatra’s northern tip, ground zero of the 2004 tsunami, and then on to Indonesia’s teeming capital of Jakarta, ancient Yogyakarta in central Java and finally the beaches of Bali.

Along the way, in markets, shops, roadside cafes and classrooms, he meets journalists, professors, students, aid workers, cab drivers and other everyday residents to learn how they view their past and future. Full of personal anecdotes, the book is a rare perspective on an under-researched field of Indian Ocean studies that was pioneered by Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2010). Although the work can stand alone as a compelling travel guide to seldom-visited developing countries, what interested me most were the writer’s reflections on what all these far-flung countries that border the Indian Ocean have in common.

All are linked by history, geography, politics, climate, trade, migration, belief systems and colonial legacy. All four also share poverty, dense populations, mounting environmental problems and intense competition for resources. All are over-dependent on mineral commodities. All have rural populations seeking economic opportunities in urban centres. In Indonesia’s case, this shift to urban areas has taken place for decades. In recent weeks, Indonesia has seen its largest mass protests since the “people power” movement that forced President Suharto to step down in 1998. Among a number of pro-democracy demands, the protesters want lawmakers to scrap a controversial bill governing land use that can be used to imprison rural citizens for defending their lands against incursions by private companies.

Additionally, all four of these Indian Ocean countries share widespread corruption, lack of transparency in government and difficulty in doing business. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Index, only India finishes in the top half of 176 countries, while Indonesia is in 90th place and Bangladesh and Madagascar are locked in an undesirable dead heat at 145th. Religion as well has always played a key role in the politics of these Indian Ocean countries. Lying entirely in an arc of Islam from the eastern fringe of the Sahara to the Indonesian archipelago, Islamic parties are represented in all levels of government all four countries. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population (225 million), followed by India (190 million), Bangladesh is fourth (after Pakistan) with about 150 million. Although attitudes are more relaxed than in the Middle East, all the countries regularly experience religion-based violence.

All the nations’ borders are artificial constructs, drawn up by European colonial powers pursuing their own economic strategies and interests. But because the forces of language, religion, culture and ethnicity have proven more powerful than political regimes or the constraints of cartography, all four countries have had almost continuous border squabbles with each other and with their neighbours. Indonesia has had a long-standing dispute with Australia in the Timor Gap and in the South China Sea where it faces off against Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and China over fishing rights, mineral resources, maritime boundaries and the ownership of islands. Since 2014, Indonesia has blown up hundreds of fishing vessels seized while illegally fishing in its waters.

In the concluding chapter, Mould summarizes and offers sharp glimpses into the significance of what the calls “The Indian Ocean World” which overshadows in land, water area size and perceived importance its big brothers the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which world maps always put in the centre. The Indian Ocean is more travelled than the other oceans, carrying about half the world’s container traffic. The Malacca Straits is one of the world’s main navigational choke points.

With its broad geographical sweep describing a giant circuitous arc around the Indian Ocean, Monsoon Postcards is not just a travel book but an extended essay that combines the author’s interviews, research, personal experiences, philosophy of travel, attitude towards politics, life and work. Although the chapter devoted to Indonesia comprises only 30 pages, it contains insightful and witty observations on the country’s rich history, contemporary life, the complexity of its national and ethnic identities, human rights issues and how Indonesians confront the looming challenges of climate change, uncontrolled urban growth and unequal economic development.

This is not an academic study but a series of vignettes that the author describes as “an oversized postcard that I would’ve sent to family, friends and colleagues.” Written by an academic who doesn’t write like an academic, the author’s viewpoint is that of an experienced traveller. Monsoon Postcards demystifies and amplifies with refreshing wit, clarity and honesty the true importance of a little known and misunderstood global body of water where navigation, commerce, religion and culture have always transcended national boundaries.

Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys by David H. Mould, Ohio University Press 2019, ISBN 978-0821423714, hard cover, 312 pages, illus., maps, index, dimensions 16cm x 23.5cm.

Review by Bill Dalton

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