SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Disasters: The Gujarat Earthquake

My research on the earthquake was sometimes gruelling. Dirty politics dominated the region. There was great uncertainty for much of the period between 2001 and 2012 when I was there.  Eventually a spirit of optimism and renewal emerged.

The book I wrote about this, The political biography of an earthquake: Aftermath and amnesia in Gujarat, India was published by Hurst in London and Oxford University Press (2013, 2014).  In it I argue that the aftermath of an earthquake presented opportunities to intervene in the lives of other people. Following the disaster of 2001, leaders in Gujarat were deposed, proletariats created, religious fundamentalism incubated, the state restructured, and industrial capitalism expanded exponentially. 

ANT-IMG- Edward Simpson Earthquakes Gujarat 2004
Removing ghosts and bad spirits from the land after the earthquake, Bhuj, Gujarat (2004).

   Rather than gazing in at those struggling in the ruins, as is more common in the literature on earthquakes, this book looks out from the affected region at those who came to intervene. Based on a decade of research amid the dust and noise of reconstruction, I focus on the survivors and their interactions with death, history, and with those who came to use the shock of disaster to change the order of things.

We see a society in mourning, further alienated by manufactured conditions of uncertainty and absurdity. We witness arguments about the past. What was important? What should be preserved? Was modernisation the cause of the disaster, or the antidote?

As people were putting things back together, they also knew that future earthquakes were inevitable. How did they learn to live with this terrible truth? How have people in other times and places come to terms with the promise of another earthquake, knowing that things will fall apart again?.

The book has been reviewed in a number of national and international newspapers, including DAWN, Financial Times, The Hindu, and The Indian Express.

Endorsements for the book include:

‘The Political Biography of an Earthquake is a magnificent account of the spaces for memory work and political contestation that are opened up in the wake of an apparently “natural” traumatic event. Simpson’s prose is taut and often beautiful, his major observations profound and sometimes haunting. All in all, this is a great achievement and a major work of anthropology.’ — Stuart Corbridge, Provost of the London School of Economics

‘The idea of looking at a natural disaster through its political biography redefines our understanding of both politics and nature. Carefully researched, cogently argued, this book will not only deepen how we read the politics of Gujarat but also how we conceptualise the relation between governance, politics and natural disasters.’ — Veena Das, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council.