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His essays spell out small truths in big conflicts

Those of us protected from the world's miseries by the accident of birth or circumstance find it easy to ignore the wars, genocides, starvations, tsunamis, and earthquakes that devastate so many regions. Still, there are some brave souls who seek out the dark places, who strive to understand, and then explain, to the rest of us, how the other two-thirds lives.

Novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh is one of those people, and his ''Incendiary Circumstances" is a compilation of essays spanning two decades. They cover different countries and crises, but each is enlightened by Ghosh's signature intelligence and humanity. This is a writer who delights in human complexity, who avoids generalities and seeks out the small truths that illuminate the larger story.

Ghosh does not pretend to be an objective, academic observer. In ''Countdown," an essay on the strange brew of pride and fatalism that Indians feel about their nuclear weapons program, Ghosh confesses that his antagonism toward the West's hypocrisy when it comes to Third World nations developing nuclear weapons was so strong that he was willing to put aside his own beliefs about the irrationality of such a development program. If there were good arguments to be made for such a program, he says, he wanted to hear them from the mouths of the Indians and the Pakistanis. After interviewing scholars and politicians and ordinary people, he admits that he hasn't heard a compelling argument to convince him of the need for such a program. .

In another, older essay, ''The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi," Ghosh himself becomes a part of the action. Describing the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination and the ensuing massacre of Sikhs by Hindu mobs, Ghosh writes about his small role in ensuring the safety of a Sikh couple, who, until it was almost too late, refused to believe that they could be the targets of a mob's fury. But despite the drama of that passage, the heart of the essay lies in the small acts of resistance mounted by ordinary citizens outraged by the carnage.

Despite its title, ''Incendiary Circumstances" contains several essays that are not in the least bit incendiary. Two, in particular, ''The March of the Novel Through History" and '' 'The Ghat of the Only World,' " are nostalgic homages to bygone individuals and cultures. These and other portraits of civilizations at the cusp of change give the book its measured, humane feel. Although some of these essays are almost 20 years old, the universality of their subject matter and Ghosh's fine, precise prose make them feel urgent and current.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels ''The Space Between Us" and ''Bombay Time."

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