The publication in 1997 of Christopher Kremmer's first book
of literary non-fiction was hailed as a watershed in
Australian writing about Asia.
The Australian's Review of Books' Neil James wrote that
"Stalking the Elephant Kings (later updated and republished
as Bamboo Palace) is part travel book, part history, part
diary and part detective story. And sheer storytelling."
"Kremmer displays an almost fictive control over his
material. Each incident of his travels is brought to life with
the dynamic of a good short story. Despite this control, he
retains a journalist's stance, allowing the reader to form his
or her own judgments and to engage imaginatively with the
subject. He is a deft observer of the poignant detail, such as
the sight of billowing American parachutes; leftovers from
the war, these are employed throughout the temples and
markets of Laos as shade marquees. They are a symbol of
the massive impact of civil and global warfare and the
practical efforts of a people caught in the crossfire."
"After reading this book, the Elephant Kings and the fate of
Laos have become firmly etched into my cultural
consciousness. My marginal knowledge of the country is
permanently enhanced: from the former royal palace at
Luang Prabang to the archaeological sites at the Plain of
Jars; from the revolutionary caves at the heart of the communist revolution in Viengsai to the contemporary
mixed community in the capital Vientiane. Like Kremmer, I trace avidly the stories of the Elephant Kings, of
the Red Prince who was central to the revolution, of the royal puppeteers and silversmiths and their
"Here at last is a general book that addresses all the elements that the others in the survey failed to do. It is
accessible and it genuinely engages a nation and its people without judgment or paternalism. It builds
cultural understanding. I feel I know where Laos is and something of what it is. The cultural compass finally
has the right orientation."
"Stalking the Elephant Kings is a book that suggests that Australian publishing in Asia can succeed. It
deserves to do well because it places human engagement before gross domestic product, culture before
trade. Perhaps it can stand as an example to the rest of the publishing industry in Australia."
The book won the inaugural Qantas/City of Brisbane Prize for Asia-Pacific Travel Writing and was published
in the United States, Britain and Thailand. In 2003, it was updated and re-issued as Bamboo Palace.
With his next book, Christopher solidified his reputation
internationally as a writer of critically acclaimed narrative
The Carpet Wars, a portrait of Afghanistan and Islam in
crisis, was published in nine countries, including Japanese
and Spanish translations, and became an international
bestseller. It was shortlisted for all major Australian awards
for non-fiction, including The Age Book of the Year, the
Courier Mail Book of the Year, and the NSW and Victorian
Premier's Literary awards.
Christopher Kremmer's literary non-fiction has been
compared favourably with the work of such writers as Bruce
Chatwin, William Dalrymple and Nobel Laureate V.S.
Dr Juliet Peters, writing in Artlink magazine, said "I mean no
insult in placing The Carpet Wars by Christopher Kremmer
within Chatwin's genre. Kremmer's decade long textual
journey through the Middle East, Islam and its conflicts is
informed by the best aspects of this modern
genre...Evocative turns of phrase make visible far away
places for the couch-bound reader. Anecdotes flow freely,
well paced in classical writing style, until the denouement,
either humorous or tragic. People whom the reader will
never meet take on real dimensions through the text.
"I generally find current fiction ultimately unsatisfactory,
conversely the non-fictional Carpet Wars has a serious
mission. Accessible and moving, poetic and engrossing, it speaks of cultures and events usually rendered
fixed and one-dimensional by western media."
In 2003 The Carpet Wars was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier's History Prize. The
judges citation described the book as "an historical and contemporary war and peace travelogue,
political critique, a lesson in carpet-making history and trade, a personal account, a religious object
lesson and a window into ancient and modern Islamic culture, modern tribalism and modern war."
"Kremmer rolls out a number of broad and significant histories in an accessible way...Without writing
an apologia for past colonialisms, the barbarities of war, the tenets of Islam and the unpredictability of
human behaviour, Kremmer, a journalist and not an historian, has provided deep historical insights.
The Carpet Wars offers a new understanding of a particular history at a time when it has been - and
still is - most needed."
SHORT LISTED FOR THE
INDUSTRY AWARDS BEST
Exhaling the Mahatma
From Megasthenes to Mark Twain, Alberuni to Orwell,
visitors from antiquity to the modern times have
interpreted India to the world. In time, Indians
themselves have sought in the works of these writers
a picture of their past.
Two recent books by foreign correspondents in India
worthily carry forward this rich tradition. Edward
Luce's In Spite of the Gods, published last year,
supplied in lucid, muscular prose a magisterial
analysis of the Indian state, economy and foreign
relations since Independence. Luce's book is
complemented perfectly by Australian journalist
Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma, which,
although covering some of the same territory as
Luce's, is in spirit a wholly different work.
More personal and lyrical than Luce, roving widely and sympathetically among both high and low, and
providing superb eyewitness accounts of key events of our recent history, Kremmer tells a double story: of
watching a country change, and of being reshaped himself in the deepest ways. Kremmer served two stints
in India during the 1990s, and closely saw many of its most tumultuous happenings.
Following Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 1991, he spoke with the former prime
minister, confident of a second term in office, only a few days before he was assassinated. Thirteen years
later, accompanying the newly elected MP, Rahul Gandhi, on a tour of his constituency, he notes the uncanny
similarities between son and father, and the unquestioning, even comical, devotion the Gandhi name
inspires among the masses. "On one occasion, a knot of elderly women mistook me for Rahul," writes
Kremmer, "and had to be prised off my feet before falling at his."
Kremmer was also present when the Babri Masjid went down in 1992. His account records the
pandemonium of "thousands of kar sevaks teeming over the crumbling structure like ants on an anthill" and
his own scramble for safety, but it goes much further than that.
The heart of Kremmer's book is a meditation on Ayodhya leading out in several directions: on the meaning
of the Ramayana in Indian life, on how faith can shade into religious chauvinism, on the politics of India's
past and the divisive "history wars" of the 1990s. ("History wars," he notes sensibly, "are civil wars
without the gunpowder.") His must be one of the fullest accounts of the repercussions on Indian life of the
events of 6 December 1992. To a journalist's nose for a good story—the title of his book turns out not to be
a metaphor for his Indian experience, but a case of quite literally "inhaling the Mahatma"—Kremmer adds a
practised eye for detail (he has previously written two travel books, on Afghanistan and Laos) and a
novelist's love for the riches of language.
Returning to New Delhi after six years, he finds that "the staid, bureaucratic capital wasn't just growing, it
was proliferating, throwing off far-flung suburbs like sparks from a Catherine wheel." On the banks of the
Ganga in Varanasi, "dhobis slap wet laundry not far from cadavers roasting on pyres, life's drudgery and
death's drama played out on a common stage." Investigating the problem of legal pendency, Kremmer
arrives in Allahabad, where more court cases are filed than in any other Indian city, to find that the oldest
case being tried dates back to 1965. An official confides that "slowly we are moving forward to the
As with the incident in which he finds himself breathing in the Mahatma's ashes, the real flows naturally into
the surreal. Travelling and observing, and changing from "New Delhi expat to old Delhi local" after marrying
an Indian girl, Kremmer finds himself being infiltrated by the ways of his adopted country. "Small
superstitions or words, particular festivals and customs, had permeated my being as if by osmosis," he
recounts. Pestered with the standard Indian question about why he has no children, he learns to say
"Bhagwan ki merzi hai" (It's the will of god) while "glancing skywards with a resigned expression."
"Barriers were falling away," writes Kremmer towards the close, "and I experienced a feeling of being at
home in India, taking pleasure in what is, rather than fussing constantly over what it should be."
Inhaling deeply of much more than just the Mahatma, Kremmer has exhaled an account of India of almost
unmatched richness and subtlety.' --published in 'Mint' (INDIA)
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