Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

In his essay on the anti Sikh riots of Delhi (The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi), this is what Amitav Ghosh has to say about “The Shadow Lines”:

a book that led me backward in time to earlier memories of riots, ones witnessed in childhood. It became a book not about any one event but about the meaning of such events and their effects on the individuals who live through them.

It is difficult to describe the book any better this. While the central, climactic event – that of a single riot which changed the lives of several people unwillingly pulled into its vortex – is only revealed in the end, the narrator’s journey through the “shadow lines” of geopolitical boundaries, through the past and present, is really an attempt to find some meaning of such meaningless (at least to the victims) violence.

 

At one level, it is all about personal relationships. There are a surprising number of characters, given the relatively short length (less than 250 pages in the first hardcover American edition), and I found myself fumbling between family hierarchies. Essentially there’s the narrator’s family, and the family of their close English friends.

 

 

 

 

 

As evident, the characters span three generations. I have highlighted the ones of central interest.

 

Grandmother and Mayadebi are sisters, who grew up in Dhaka before the partition. While Mayadebi, the more gregarious of the two, marries a diplomat and enjoys a life of stature abroad, Grandmother loses her husband in Kolkata and has to fend for herself and her only son, the narrator’s father. She’s a fighter, refuses any charity, and manages to raise her son, the narrator’s father, who eventually becomes a successful executive.

 

The narrator and Ila, to whom he is attracted, are thus distant cousins. His yearning for her however goes unrequited. The narrator’s character and that of Ila are an antithesis. While he tries to solve a puzzle of the past, she attempts, in her evasion, to obliterate it, at least for herself. She assumedly falls in love with Nick, and the two are engaged.

Then there’s Tridib and May, their unconsummated love, Tridib’s death and May’s guilt. Tridib, May and the narrator stand at the the opposite ends of perception defined by Ila and Nick.

 

Robi, who is closer in age to the narrator and Ila rather than his much elder brother Tridib, comprises the third character, along with the narrator and Ila, who reflect on the past, in the present from where the novel takes off. The three get together in London, where the narrator is a student and where Ila lives, and where Robi is in transit en route to Boston.

 

The story unfolds through flashbacks, then progresses occasionally in the present. The narrative is intricate, and Ghosh is laudable for handling the complex flow of time, from starkly different historical perspectives, masterfully.

In this setting, between the buildup of generations of history, the hitherto unknown circumstances of Tridib’s death is revealed to the narrator (and also to us) in the final phases of the book. To those having undergone the trauma of such riots and even to those living in the shadow of it, which essentially includes people of the entire subcontinent, the book poses a simple yet challenging question: Was it really worth it?

In Robi’s own words:

“…why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory?”

 

If there’s one book of Amitav Ghosh that’s undeniable, it is this. Here Ghosh the fiction writer takes precedence over Ghosh the researcher/academic, and by a wide margin. Unlike his later works – where the story sometimes takes turns that seem like props for a grander scheme on which it relies, unfortunately, like a crutch – there is clear focus, a deep, driving intent to unfold truth in the true novelistic style.

In the end, the futility of subcontinental politics intending to erase the truth of human lives by inventing “shadow lines” of divisions emerges acutely through the work. Therein lies its greatest success.

Incendiary Circumstances by Amitav Ghosh

Incendiary Circumstances is a collection of seventeen essays, written over two decades, on the many social and political crises besotting our world. Here, our world is mostly confined to South Asia, parts of South East Asia (Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia), and Middle East(Egypt, Kuwait), “Half-made worlds”, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, which Ghosh refers to in the preface. But “the incendiary circumstances of these essays are no longer exceptional anywhere in the world”, Ghosh illustrates through the short, ruminative piece on the WTC attack in New York, titled September 11, which, though seemingly banal, is quite effective and appropriate.

What sets these essays apart from being purely journalistic narratives is the touch of personal perspective that Ghosh adds, either by his close presence during the occurrences, or by contact with a victim he has personally known. Given his training as a social anthropologist and his profession as a fiction writer, some of the pieces read like stories almost, or certainly a mixture of memoir and travelogue

 

Terrorism, or repression as we have come to know in today’s world, is a recurring theme. Ghosh draws successfully from his rich personal experiences, though he is himself dubious about the fruitfulness of writing about such issues. In the preface he writes:

“…is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject? [Para] No doubt the reason that this question had a special urgency for me was because the “incendiary circumstances” of the title have been a part of the background of my everyday life since my childhood. … if there is anything instructive in the present turmoil of the world, it is surely that few ideas are as dangerous as the belief that all possible means are permissible in the service of a desirable end.”

 

Ghosh unambiguously heightens the intensity of an alarm, which to us, aware to a degree of the dire state of affairs, has been dulled to background noise in the frenzy of day to day living. The book, while serving as a chronicle of modern history in patches, also brings forth a sense of urgency in our awareness to these events and their significance in our lives today.

 

While many of the pieces spell a sense of doom, of a world at the edge of a cataclysm, there are diversions. “Tibetan Dinner” is his experience in a NYC restaurant where a Hollywood star (Richard Gere, I presume) is hosting a dinner for the cause of Tibet. During his meal, Ghosh recalls the Tibetan refugees in India, between looking up to the solitary monk being felicitated.

“When I next caught the monk’s eye, his smile seemed a little guilty: the hospitality of a poor nation must have seemed dispensable compared to the charity of a rich one. Or perhaps he was merely bewildered. It cannot be easy to celebrate the commodification of one’s own suffering.”

The essay titled “Four Corners”, continues on the theme of marginalized people in our modern world, this time for the American Indians.

“…The names of the dispossessed tribes of Americas hold a peculiar allure for the marketing executives of automobile companies. Pontiac, Cherokee – so many tribes are commemorated in forms of transport. It is not a mere matter of fashion that so many of the cars that flash past on the highway carry those names, breathing them into the air like the inscriptions on prayer wheels. This tradition of naming has a long provenance: did not Kit Carson himself, the scourge of the Navajo, name his favorite horse Apache?”

 

“The Imam and the Indian”, the last of the lot, is an encounter of with an imam (a Muslim cleric) during Ghosh’s stay in Egypt. While humorous, it poignantly reflects on the strange sense of irony in the interpretation of western progress in the rest of the world. The imam tries to belittle Ghosh in pointing out to the village crowd that Ghosh is from a place where they worship cows and burn their dead. The two get into a heated argument, where Ghosh says that they burn the dead in the West as well.

“The imam could see that he had stung me. He turned away and laughed. “He’s lying,” he said to the crowd. “They don’t burn their dead in the West. They’re not ignorant people. They’re advanced, they’re educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.”

“We have them too!” I shouted back at him. I was as confused now as I was angry. “In my country we have all those things too,” I said to the crowd. “We have guns and tanks and bombs. And they’re better than anything you have – we’re way ahead of you.”

The imam could no longer disguise his anger. “I tell you, he’s lying,” he said. “Our guns and bombs are much better than theirs…

So there we were, the imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West.”

 

Ghosh writes well, and one is awed by his scholarship and understanding of the issues he writes about, as well the vast spectrum of human populace he observes. He is honest in his assessments. Yet, when it comes closer to home, he provides an instance where his honesty is called into question. In the introductory part of the essay titled ‘The Fundamentalist Challenge”, he talks of how, in his own words, “intellectual pedigrees of most versions of religious extremism around the world today can be traced to [similar] moments of conversion”. He goes on to give some example, relevant to South Asia and Middle East. For the lack of anything else, he chooses to say this, for the case of Hindu extremism:

“Swami Vivekananda, the late nineteenth-century thinker who is today claimed by Hindu extremists as a founding father, was famously a rationalist in the best positivist tradition, until he underwent a dramatic conversion.”

This statement is ludicrous, not because of the claims of Hindu extremist groups, which is irrelevant, but in the manner in which it tends to imply that the conversion turned him into an irrational, as if Swamiji was a proponent of Hindu extremism thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The extremists may claim anything Mr. Ghosh, but don’t you, as a conscientious writer, realize the fallacy hidden behind your statement? Swami Vivekananda was a sage, a saint, and the “dramatic conversion” that your scholastic prose is talking of is bluntly termed as a spiritual experience, in the grace of his guru, the great, Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Surely Mr. Ghosh, you are aware of his secular and reformist influences on Hinduism?

The statement thus appears laughable to anyone but pseudo seculars out to prove a point. Or is it that too much of intellectual study blinds one from simple truths? The futility of all this scholarship is perhaps it leaves behind little else but interesting essays, some confusion and a dread of the place we call home.

Fury by Salman Rushdie

 Professor Malik Solanka, a man in his mid fifties, scholar and dollmaker extraordinaire, is having a rather belated mid life crisis. “Fury”, which he sees around him, in the rage of destruction, or the fire of creation, overwhelms him suddenly, when he leaves his wife and three year old son in London. He travels to New York, to resolve his existentialist dilemma, but gets entangled in the “fury” of the city, and the people he meets there, in the dawn of the new millennium.

 

Rushdie’s world is chaotic as ever, his penchant for sarcasm undiminished. There’s also the arbitrary, even whimsical, emerging from time to time. Who would name a character Krzysztof Waterford-Wajda, and mention Kieszlowski in the same book? It seems Rushdie had been into Polish directors at the time of writing the book (Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrjez Wajda. two of Poland’s most famous directors ). 

There are perhaps echoes of his own life in the Solanka character, how he befriends and falls in love with head turning beauty Neela Mahendra in NY.  For a while, it is not difficult to put Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi in their shoes. 

 

Things seem to be coming together well in the Rushdie world, the angst of the disenchanted professor, the lunacy of modern living – personification of fury itself, love, incest, sexual obsession, even a little of fashionable anti Americanism here and there. But things really begin to tumble when Rushdie jumps into hyperspace, with Solanka’s venture into the Internet (remember, this book was written around the time of the Internet bubble, talk of cashing in) – with his sci fi dolls and the world of Akasz Kronos, Baburia and what have you. The latter half of the book, as we quickly enter the political crisis in Lilliput-Blefuscu via the imagined life of space age puppets, thus deteriorates into mindless prattle. It is a huge letdown.

 

There’s no question of Rushdie’s intellect, but when great minds wander, it is not difficult to foresee that illusions of grandeur persist in all. A disgruntled reader begins to question: To whose benefit is the writing, so devoid of the possibilities of social satire or poignant introspection with which it begins, but the kitsch waste into which it eventually degenerates? The outcome is thus the loss of trust between the reader and writer, originating not only from the question of whether the reader has been wasting his precious time behind the book, but whether the writer has been wasting his, disguising something fickle in a seemingly profound package. Whatever the answer, it is certainly not a win-win.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Michael, a brilliant but temperamental violinist, finds that the love of his life happens to be living in the same city he calls home: London. Julia, a pianist, his first and only love, is someone he cannot forget, though they had parted on unfavorable terms ten years ago. He clings on to her memories, from their days in the conservatory in Vienna, the deep influence she has had on him. Initially aimless after the separation, Michael eventually finds some footing in life, joins a quartet, has a schedule of sorts and a decent livelihood, though her absence haunts him constantly.  She has moved on, has married, and has a son. But when they meet again, she discovers that she still loves him. Michael, blinded in rekindled passion, refuses to acknowledge the futility of their tryst. Impetuous, the possessive lover begins to form an unbearable threat between Julia and her family. Deeply hurt, she tears herself away with steely resolve. Michael, heedless of his career as a musician, withers away. Yet, despite the irreconcilable separation, it is music that strangely binds him to life, and the cause of living.

 

An Equal Music is a love story. But not just so. Music, and the lives of musicians, is a parallel theme, which becomes inevitable, an outcome of the central character’s profession and the first person narration. Michael’s world, his friends, his activities and interests involve classical music at some level. Seth paints this world with authenticity – whether bringing up an arcane Beethoven Opus, discussing contrapuncts or fugues, or with musicians talking about the finer aspects of playing a piece – everything is very realistic. This is to such an effect that it could lead a reader who is only somewhat familiar with classical music, to delve deeper. Seth’s accomplishment is not merely in the depth of his writing about music, but also his success in keeping the work extremely engrossing at the same time. Divided in short, manageable chapters, the book is a page turner, in the restrained manner of his earlier novel – A Suitable Boy.  Love, the central theme, comes in many forms. The illusory passion possessing Michael, his bonds with his father, and the altruistic love of true friends. Finally, there’s the love of music, which permeates, without intrusion, the entire course of the novel. The fact that Julia, like Beethoven, is deaf, and yet continues playing, which sustains her, as it does Michael, is Seth’s tribute to the redemptive powers of music. There is also subtle humor now and then that keeps one light hearted. The eccentric Piers, a member of the quartet that Michael belongs to, is probably the most memorable of the side characters, his tactlessness reminding me of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

It is not a dark and serious work like, for instance, Disgrace. With hope and humour, Seth counterbalances delusion and disjointedness. While this makes the work less depressing, it also takes some of the edge off.

 

The title of the book is from a John Donne verse, which appears before the beginning of the novel:

 

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they 

shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no

darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor

silence, but one equal music…

 

In the course of reading, it becomes apparent that this kind of writing would not be possible without the writer’s love and interest in music. At the end, in the Author’s note, Seth acknowledges that, saying: “Music to me is dearer even than speech.”

It his his love for music that enables such a virtuoso performance.