Category Archives: South Asian literature

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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Literary potshots

In Fury, a Salman Rushdie character (Prof. Solanka) flays Hemingway, calling him the “most effeminate” of novelists, or something to that effect. It suits Rushdie, his writing leaning towards the opposite spectrum of literary style.

A few years down the line, Rohinton Mistry writes in Family Matters –

“…Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”

– obvious references to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Mistry makes up for it when Yezad is immediately penitent:

“…He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust…”

 

It is interesting to see some mudslinging between authors, through their own medium, a license to criticize one of the small pleasure’s of a writer’s life.

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

When Vikram Seth traveled through China almost twenty five years ago, the country was much less fashionable in popular parlance than it is today. Sinkiang and Tibet are likely to be far more accessible to the tourist today, possibly even to the hitch hiker, which is what was Seth’s choice incarnate – an interesting albeit woeful one, but without which the travelogue would likely have remained unattractive or half done.

 

Seth was a Stanford exchange student in Nanjing University when he wrote this book (1983) and the origins of his unconventional journey back to his home in Delhi for the summer vacation was a rather impromptu one – when he, tired of the limiting insights through a conducted tour, broke away from the school party to undertake this extraordinary detour on his own.

 

It is an engrossing read, not merely to discover the ethereal beauty of the harsh high desert landscapes of Western China and Tibet, but also for the human interactions – his bonhomie with Sui, the erratic but good natured truck driver with whom he spends the longest part of his trip, his travails on the way, the family he befriends in Tibet and their unenviable legacy in the gruesomeness of the Chinese occupation, and so on. It is probably well known that Seth, a polyglot, was quick to pick up Chinese during his stay in China (he has published a translation of Chinese poets for that matter) . This helped him immensely on the way, to talk to the people in remote places with little knowledge of the outside world, much less English.

He is observant of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people, despite the secrecy of its Government:

“Time and again, with no thought other than kindness, people have helped me along in this journey. And this experience is merely a continuation of what I have felt throughout my travels in China: a remarkable warmth to the outsider from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled.”

 

It is interesting to note that Seth compares the communist autocracy of China and India’s fledging democracy, a theme at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s successful novel The White Tiger. This was when Adiga was nine years old. Yet the similarity of their observations, although via quite different vehicles, is striking, and only helps crystallize the viability of such comparisons.

“I think about what the two countries have done for their people in the course of the last thirty years. One overwhelming fact is that the Chinese have a better system of social care and of distribution than we do. Their aged do not starve. Their children are basically healthy. By and large, the people are well clothed, very occasionally in rags. Most children in the eastern provinces go to school for at least five years; this is in practice, not just(as in India) on paper. Tibet will take a long time to achieve the standard of living of other parts of China; however, in this comparatively prosperous part of Tibet I have not, for instance, seen signs of malnutrition.

….

“I am often asked about the relative success of our two large overpopulated countries in satisfying the most basic needs of their people. What is sometimes forgotten when making this comparison is that, except for the greater mineral wealth of China (a result of its far greater land area), all the a priori advantages lie on India’s side. India’s needs are fewer, and its agricultural production possibilities are greater. First, less clothing and heating are required for the average Indian than the average Chinese: everyone in the north of China needs both a heavy overcoat and heating fuel in winter. Secondly, India has more arable land per capita, more sunshine for double and triple cropping, and a better potential for irrigation. Yet despite all this, the average Chinese is better clothed, better fed and better sheltered that the average Indian.”

 

Yet Seth is not unsympathetic to India’s achievements, its democracy.

“But the Indian achievement of the last thirty years has been in a different, more nebulous, and in a sense more difficult direction. The country has not fragmented: a whole generation of Indians has grown up accepting that an independent and united India is the normal state of affairs. In the first few years of a nation, that is already a great deal: one cannot expect patriotism.”

 

I wonder what Seth’s views would be today, with all the separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East. But while critical of censorship and infringement on personal freedoms following Chinese dictatorship, Seth lauds, and rightly so, the democratic framework in India, however fragile. We do hope to see it pay off in the future, though this appears a distant prospect till this day.

 

Finally, he concludes, rather abstemiously:

“I now see that China’s achievements are solid but have serious drawbacks; and that is about all that that can be said about India’s, too.”

 

Quite diplomatic. But undeniably true.

 

 

I seem to have gone off in a tangent while writing about a travelogue. But these were too relevant and inescapable in my perspective to ignore. Coming back to the travel aspect, Heaven Lake, from which the book derives its title, is actually a pristine lake in the North western province of Sinkiang. It is from here that Seth, deserting his school troop, retraces his path all the way back to Nanjing and then to Beijing in eastern China in order to obtain his passport, money, and a Nepalese Visa (which he didn’t eventually need, being an Indian citizen), thus completing a circuitous loop all the way back to Liuyuan, from where he continues further south to Lasha, then Kathmandu and home to Delhi.

 

I have an interest in Tibet, and have written earlier about an older, marginal turn of the twentieth century book by an European traveler (Amaury de Riencourt), who visits Lasha, virtually unknown then to Westerners, via Sikkim. Since then, Tibet has been far more exposed to the rest of the world. While the political aspect is almost unnoticeable in Seth’s book, it is delightful to read about Lasha once again, the city and its grand monasteries, their resilience and decay. In Potala, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism and once the residence of the Dalai Lama, Seth is overwhelmed by the inspiring experience of the mystical rituals.

 

One thing that distinguishes Seth’s book from the run-of-the-mill travelogue is the occasional doggerel. Besides their literary value, they are filled with quaint observations which are simply charming. Here’s a bit from a longer piece, which he had written while in the truck after a particularly difficult stretch:

 

Here we three, cooped, alone,

Tibetan, Indian, Han,

Against a common dawn

Catch what poor sleep we can,

And sleeping drag the same

Sparse air into our lungs,

And dreaming each of home

Sleeptalk in different tongues.

 

There’s one particular piece, of prose however, which struck a chord in me, perhaps due to the fact that I too, Mystic Wanderer, have been drifting away from my homeland, in this course of life. Seth is in Nanjing, before setting out for Beijing, and enjoys a valedictory meal with a friend, which includes some California wine. This makes him nostalgic, for California, and he observes:

“…I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”

 

How eloquent!

Adiga wins the Booker

It is probably news no longer, but I am happy with the choice, though it might sound strange when I haven’t read the other books in contention. On reading The White Tiger, I did get the feeling that it might actually win, no matter the competition. Congratulations to Aravind Adiga!

Link to BBC Interview.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

What becomes apparent soon into The White Tiger is its anger. This is the voice of the post liberal India, the generation after Rushdie and Mistry. While the principals of Mistry’s Fine Balance are crushed in subhuman surroundings, the one here rises in protest using the very system which keeps countless others like him in “darkness”. The novel brings to forefront the apparent anomalies in India’s economic growth, driven principally by a burgeoning outsourcing industry. Perhaps no where else in the world are the differences in social strata so stark – glittering edifices of the elite on one hand, and the destitute defecating in the open on the other.

 

The narrative is unique and extremely engrossing. Balram, a successful entrepreneur in booming Bangalore, tells the story of his life, with a lot of his native wisdom and insights about India included, to the Chinese premier Wen Jibao in a series of letters he writes late at night. Born in the impoverished rural India (a village called Laxmangarh), he has left his past behind to emerge successfully in a new avatar. It is a story of his transformation, his gruesome leap to alter his destiny.

 

Adiga paints India in two shades. One is Darkness, where Balaram and his ilk are taken advantage of generation after generation by a deeply unfair social system, by the corrupt political class. Then there’s the India of Light, which is still as corrupt, but with a glimmer of hope.

“This city has its share of thugs and politicians. It’s just that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. In Laxmangarh, he doesn’t even have this choice. That is the difference between this India and that India: the choice.”

 

The work is searing in its criticism of the fatalistic belief system that keeps millions in hopelessness, in the “Rooster Coop” of degeneration. It celebrates Balram’s release, albeit the criminal means.

I’ve made it! I’ve broken out of the coop!

But his freedom itself is a question mark on the system of law and order and corruption in modern India.

“I have switched sides: I am now one of those who cannot be caught in India.”

 

Balram is one of the few who make it over from one world to the other. A rarity, like the “White Tiger”.

 

Scathing and irreverent, the book questions the very foundations of India’s democracy, much touted in the image presented to the rest of the world. It is reminiscent of Khushwaht Singh, only Adiga is more incisive.

 

But regardless of its profound implications, the novel succeeds also as a great entertainer. Hugely readable, it is a page turner, with a thriller like pace at times. It should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker, for which it has been shortlisted. Kudos to Adiga, for such a refreshing and delightful read.

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.

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.