Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does...more Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does not live up to the promise of its predecessor. Ghosh does a creditable job of telling us about life in the Thirteen Hongs during the interesting period that culminated in the First Opium War, and he chose a protagonist that is well-suited to the task of conveying the subcontinent’s perspective on the whole sordid affair --- but it somehow feels rather mechanical, as if he is merely following the dictates of history instead of creating his own vibrant, utterly believable version of a time long past (surely the test that anyone who dabbles in historical fiction must pass). He has obviously done his research: Pidgin English, the Chinese equivalent of the Anglo-Indian extensively employed in the first book; the Chinnery paintings; the surprising role of the Parsis in the British-led Opium trade; the Tanka boat people who eked out a living around the foreign merchant’s quarter in Canton; nearly verbatim quotes from historical figures who were involved in the war. These are well integrated, informative, and are never allowed to grow into overtly dominant historical voice-overs, yet something is missing from the story --- and it is not the history.(less)
Reading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university...moreReading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university. I lived with several other foreign students from Asia in an off campus apartment, and by the end of my first semester, we found ourselves a nucleus for a small circle of variously hyphenated Asian Americans. Perhaps some of them were simply drawn to people who look like them, regardless of the differences in our backgrounds --- we were Indonesian, Cambodian, South Korean, Vietnamese and Hong Kong Chinese --- people who wouldn't have been drawn to each other had we lived in our native continent. Soon, we began to perceive that each of our new friends had some sort of identity issue going on. I wouldn’t call it a crisis, since some of them seemed to breeze through it with little difficulty. But for others, especially our Cambodian-American friend --- let’s call her Nina --- it was particularly acute. Too little to remember much of her homeland when she left it, Nina felt that she was constantly torn between the culture of her non-English speaking mother and the country that gave her family asylum and a chance at a new life. Her brother was a juvenile delinquent, something that she tellingly attributed to “cultural confusion”. In contrast, she did well for herself, attending an Ivy League college on full scholarship. Her English was flawless, and she dated a white all-American guy --- yet somehow she always felt out of tune. Nina was neither fish nor fowl, and she was painfully aware of it. She confessed that she liked hanging around us because she desperately wanted to understand Asian culture; to hear the language spoken, to eat the food, to feel the humid monsoon --- all without leaving the safety of her adopted American home. We sensed that she was somewhat fragile, and that much of this fragility came from the dual identity that she bore.
Of course, this is the classic immigrant’s theme, one that has been played out over and over again in American fiction, of which The Namesake is a worthy addition. I would not say that there is anything new or profound in the story, which is actually quite predictable, but Lahiri tells it in such a fluid, elegant prose that one can’t help to read well into the wee hours, absorbed in the meticulously observed, if occasionally repetitive, details of the various characters’ lives. She might not have reached the heights attained by the classic Russian novels that are often referred to in the novel, but she wrote with a clear-eyed yet compassionate insight, and the end result is both emotionally resonant and genuinely moving.
One star deducted for the saggy middle when the titular character began to engage in pointless, dead-end romances that seem to revolve around dinner parties in which the entire catalogue of Dean and Deluca gourmet delicacies are conspicuously consumed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to highlight the contrast between Gogol’s humble immigrant roots and the profligate habits of posh, sophisticated New Yorkers, but even fancy oysters and artisan cheeses get old after a while. (less)
Long before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Ta...moreLong before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who first established Mughal rule over India. His claim to fame rests on three things: the story of his death, the controversy over the mosque that he built, and the Baburnama, the first and only autobiography in Islamic literature until the 19th century. It is a vast, complex narrative of an extraordinarily eventful life, full of battles and conquests, as befit his status as a Timurid prince in search of a realm, but also of moonlit drinking parties filled with poetry and music. The first Mughal emperor is both a sensitive man of culture deeply versed in Persian classical literature and a ruthless Ghazi (‘Slayer of the Infidels’) who reveled in erecting towers of skulls from the severed heads of his enemies. He sees no contradiction whatsoever between these different aspects of his personality, and is disarmingly frank, even at times confessional, about his weaknesses, such as his fondness for wine and the narcotic ma’jun, which he often indulged in between bouts of hunting and military expeditions.
Born as a minor prince in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur is a scion of the Timurids, a dynasty established by Tamerlane, which had ruled over much of Central Asia since the 14th century. The Timurid princes were constantly engaged in territorial battles, and from his early teens, Babur had been embroiled in the complex, ever shifting intrigues between his blood relatives. More than once he had succeeded in holding and losing Samarkand, and on several occasions, desperately holding on to his life after being defeated by stronger rivals. Necessity turned him toward the north, to Afghanistan, which he conquered at the age of 23. Several years later, he made his first foray into Hindustan, a much larger and wealthier realm that he finally conquered more than two decades later. He famously loathed his new realm, complaining about its heat and dust, pining for his beloved Kabul, where he was eventually buried. A man of lively curiosity, he wrote about the flora and fauna of India, its landscapes and rivers, and of its native princes and their palaces and temples. He destroyed naked idols that offended his Muslim sensibility, and allegedly built a mosque in Ayodhya, which later became a bone of contention between Muslims and Hindu extremists (who believed that the mosque stood on the birthplace of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu).
He died at the age of 47, not long after conquering India. The following is Amitav Ghosh’s retelling of the legend of Babur’s death.
“Of the many stories told of Babur none is more wonderful than that of his death. In 1530 Humayun, Babur’s beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought immediately to Babur’s court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babur consulted a man of religion who told him that the remedy "was to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God."
Babur is said to have replied thus: "I am the most valuable thing that Humayun possesses; than me he has no better thing; I shall make myself a sacrifice for him. May God the Creator accept it." Greatly distressed, Babur’s courtiers and friends tried to explain that the sage had meant that he should give away money, or gold or a piece of property: Humayun possessed a priceless diamond, they said, which could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor...
Babur would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth?" Babur is quoted to have said. "And how can it be a redemption for Humayun? I myself shall be his sacrifice." He walked three times around Humayun’s bed, praying: "O God! If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life and my being for a Humayun." A few minutes later, he cried: "We have borne it away, we have borne it away."
And sure enough, from that moment Babur began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well. Babur died near Agra on December 21, 1530. He left orders for his body to be buried in Kabul.”
Baburnama is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a medieval warrior and emperor, especially for those with interest in Indian history, but parts of it is also a challenging read for the general reader. As E.M. Forster observed, the greatest difficulty in reading it is not caused by the language (which had been translated into modern, even colloquial English), but is caused by the seemingly relentless onslaught of unfamiliar names of people and places. (less)
The story of Balram Halwai is a familiar story not just to those who know India but also to those who live in other Third World 'democracies' where th...moreThe story of Balram Halwai is a familiar story not just to those who know India but also to those who live in other Third World 'democracies' where the real dividing line are less ideological than economical. Despite belonging to the same nation and culture, there is a huge, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor. The rich, or at least the middle class, gets access to the best food, education, health care, in short to the best condition for life, while the poor languished in the darkness of poverty, ignorance and neglect. The half-baked men of the novel, men like Balram and his family, have no chance of ever breaking through this barrier, an artificial line defended not just by their exploitative landlords, but also by corrupt state apparatus and even certain men of religion. It is impossible for them to escape the 'chicken coop' into which society has consigned them for life except through an act of extraordinary defiance, such as what Balram finally resorted to. In a topsy-turvy world where the corrupt frolicked in five-star luxury with impunity while innocent men go to prison to atone for their masters' sins, who is to judge whether what he has done is right or wrong ?
An impressive debut novel, utterly unsentimental and clear-eyed in its view of the dark side of the rapidly changing India. (less)
A beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire its...moreA beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies, all brought together by the opium trade's many tentacled hands into the Ibis, on a voyage that will irrevocably changed them forever. The author has obviously done a massive amount of research into the period, and this novel is so rich with details that it could veritably serve as an encyclopaedia of early 19th century Indian life, both at sea and on land. However, this was never allowed to stifle the narrative, which deftly moves between a half-dozen main characters and different settings with ease. The novel is as chock-full of exciting incidents as a door-stopper 19th century adventure yarn, without abandoning a realism which makes it a compelling page-turner. The humorous episodes, largely supplied by the Falstaffian figure of Baboo Nob Kissin, enlivens the story between accounts of opium addiction, imprisonment and various corporal punishments.
Ghosh's experiment with Anglo-Indian dialects adds tremendously to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, although sometimes it could be rather distracting, especially in the earlier part of the story. There is a glossary ('The Chrestomaty') appended to the end of the book, which is quite useful to decipher the various lingos, but regretfully, not all of the words used is included. Obviously, it would be more helpful if all the words are included so that readers wouldn't miss any bit of dialogue.
Probably Ghosh's best and most impressive work to date. As this is said to be the first part of a projected trilogy, I'll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment.