Category Archives: Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

seaofpoppiesTo read an Amitav Ghosh novel is not merely to get a glimpse of the best of contemporary Indian writing, but also a snapshot of an oft-ignored episode of history. The “Sea of Poppies” is no exception. After a somewhat lukewarm tryst with Sunderbans and the Gangetic Dolphin (Hungry Tide), the first novel of the Ibis trilogy is a tour de force.

 

Ghosh has a talent for suspense. The ghost anecdote from Calcutta Chromosome is still vivid in my memory, and certain parts of Shadow Lines gave me goose bumps. The climax of this work sees ample use of this prowess, and leaves one breathless. But the best sections of the novel, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the transformation of Neel – from the squeamish Raja Neel Rattan Halder to the denounced convict resuscitating an opium addict, as if in redemption. The abjectness of Neel’s incarceraton hits one with a retching effect, such is the power of his prose.

 

To read the novel is also to get a glimpse also of the beaten-to-death issue of caste system. So many people have written about it in so many different ways that it has become a cliché. So is the Kalua character and his escapade with Deeti. Ghosh however adds a linguistic tribute to Bhojpuri, the language spoken by the shipload of girmitiyas (indentured laborers) being transported to Mauritius:

 

“… of all the tongues spoken between the Ganges and the Indus, there was none that was its equal in the expression of the nuances of love, longing and separation – of the plight of those who leave and those who stay at home.”

 

This is immediately followed by what I think are the best lines of the book:

 

“How had it happened that while choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

 

What an awesome metaphor!

 

Another beaten-to-death theme of many post colonialists, the ills of colonization itself, is given a poignancy that blatantly stares us in the face and raises unanswerable questions for the guardians of so called modern civilization. The British in the eighteenth century attempted to freely sell opium in China. In today’s context, it is tantamount to allowing the drug lords of Columbia a free rein in the streets of LA. Yet, in the name of the free market and God, the British fought two wars with China over opium trade. Here is how the Mr. Burnham character, a businessman of the East India Company, justifies it when Neel questions him on the moral implications of opium trade:

“…the antidote for addiction lies not in bans enacted by Parliaments and emperors, but in the individual conscience – in every man’s awareness of his personal responsibility and his fear of God. As a Christian nations this is the single most important lesson we can offer to China – and I have no doubt that the message would be welcomed by the people of that unfortunate country, were they not prevented from hearing it by the cruel despot who holds sway over them. It is tyranny alone that is to blame for China’s degeneracy, sir. Merchants like myself are but the servants of Free Trade, which is as immutable as God’s commandments.”

 

Swap poppies with petroleum and the Emperor of China with Saddam Hussein and it sounds very much like George Bush and the Iraq war.

 

Noam Chomsky in his arguments often states that the standards set by developed Western nations are not the same when it comes to judging their own actions, that somehow they are above the very principles by which they hold others. When Neel is sentenced and every bit of his property seized, he has similar thoughts on the virtues of English law.

 

“There was something about this that seemed so absurd to Neel that he had to drop his head for fear of betraying a smile: for if his presence in the dock proved anything at all, it was surely the opposite of the principle of equality so forcefully enunciated by the judge? In the course of this trial, it had become almost laughably obvious to Neel that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr. Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins.”

 

The hypocrisy is further elucidated with Captain Chillingworth’s candid admission:

 

“…We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretense of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

 

 

In many ways, Sea of Poppies is a departure from his earlier works. It has a new publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, no doubt, but also a substantial chrestomathy in the appendix, as a reference to the eighteenth century British India lingo (sea faring and otherwise) used extensively throughout the book. While one can understand why bawarchi became bobachee and Pollock Saug the anglicized name of the popular dish, the ubiquity of such terms appear needless to me. I do not think that the novel would fall short, in the veraciousness of its context, with a lesser profusion of such nuances. Such background is really part of an author’s research and flouting it to the reader serves little purpose in a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a marketing ploy or an effort to optimize content for audiences with only a dithering knowledge of India or those inquisitive of the arcane. Is it also a marketing ploy to not publish the entire trilogy at once? My argument is, if Suitable Boy was suitable for it, why not this? The counter side is of course that Ghosh might be at work on the rest and was unwilling to wait as long. The sale of three volumes is certainly more enticing than one while appearing less onerous to the reader as well.

Another departure is a hint of magic realism. Deeti’s vision of the Ibis and her future does not appear to have an equivalent precursor, except perhaps in Calcutta Chromosome, which again is a different genre altogether.

Also, the generousness of humor is a markedly different approach. Nob Kissin Pander and Doughty doubtless attenuate the grim events, but their deliberateness seems quite intended. The Glass Palace, whose scope this work emulates, has a far darker tone.

 

At the end of the novel, one sees a chapter in the lives of the characters coming to an end, but there is a distinct undertone throughout the book (references to Deeti’s shrine) which does not see fruition. There is also a general inconclusiveness — of Neel in his new avatar, of the fate of Zachary and Paulette’s love, of Deeti in isolation, of Kalua and the band of mutineers fleeing Ibis. This is the buildup to part two, which I fervently await.

 

*Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker*

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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.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Title: The Hungry Tide Author: Amitav Ghosh Read: April 2007

hungry_tide_l2.png A young Indian American marine biologist, Pia, travels to the Sunderbans to study the Orcaella dolphin. She encounters Kanai, a successful translator, who is visiting his aunt Nilima, a social activist running a hospital in the delta. Nilima passes on a legacy to Kanai, her deceased husband Nirmal’s diary that he had left behind for Kanai. The diary documents Nirmal’s experience in Morichjhapi during the controversial refugee evacuation program undertaken by the West Bengal government.

Pia discovers interesting facts about the dolphin species that inhabits the Sunderban waters. She is aided by Fokir, a fisherman with deep intuitive knowledge of the surrounding ecology. Pia, Fokir and Kanai undertake a monumental field trip, one that ends with Fokir’s death and transforms the lives of the other two.

In the backdrop of folklore and recent political history, Ghosh carves out a tale that’s vivid in the narrative details of characters and environs but restrained in the aspects of political opinion. His handling of facets from marine biology to regional myth is masterly.

Reading this novel was an enriching experience.