There is sometimes a feeling—it may even be a sort of implied ASEAN policy—that Southeast Asia will, or at least should, converge: that the countries of the region will develop economically and differentials in standards of living will lessen, that the military will ease itself out of politics, that civil society will strengthen. This has, if seen with a perspective of decades, been a trend largely born out if far from completed.

Geography used to be considered destiny, but this once-popular notion that terrain and climate drove history has gone out of fashion. Now a new generation of environmental historians are bringing hard, physical materiality back into mainstream history with a more nuanced approach, looking at the historically situated interaction between people and their physical environments.

A war correspondent and overseas bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, Megan K Stack never had much occasion to concern herself with gender equality even when she married another foreign correspondent and the two moved to Beijing a decade ago. But their marital dynamics changed when Stack became pregnant. She quit her job and stayed home with the baby; her husband Tom became the sole breadwinner and continued to jet off to remote parts of China and other countries on assignment.

Sudipta Sen appears to have premised his encyclopedic Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River on the words of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: that the story of Ganga was the story of Indian civilization and culture. Written over twelve years using a wide range of sources from Hindu scriptures, archeological findings, writings of foreign travellers, and historical documents, Sen’s history of India’s “national river” begins in the mythological past and ends with controversies around the dams built on the river. It explores how the river and its valley have “sustained the imaginative life, material culture and daily subsistence of millions of inhabitants of the subcontinent.”

Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press. April 2019)
Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press. April 2019)

Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.

Commentaries on Islam in Indonesia—especially those attached to major political events such as the recent presidential election—often deal in simplistic binary terms: a uniform mass of apparently ascendant “conservative Muslims” is ranged against similarly uniform blocks of embattled urban liberals or rural traditionalists.