I wasn't even 30 at the time of the original Union Carbide Bhopal disaster, but remember thinking that this was one of the worst things I'd ever heard...moreI wasn't even 30 at the time of the original Union Carbide Bhopal disaster, but remember thinking that this was one of the worst things I'd ever heard about in my life. Now I've revisited a slice of that incident here in Animal's People by Indra Sinha. And what I think is simply the best part of this novel is that now other people who may not have ever known about what happened when this disaster occurred, or those who weren't even born at the time may gain some interest in the topic.
The story is told by a young man known only as Animal; he survived the hell of December 3, 1984 only later to have his spine become bent and severely misshapen due to the effects of the poisonous gases released from the factory. The story does not actually take place in Bhopal, and Union Carbide is never actually mentioned, but it is the same story. Animal cannot stand upright; he walks on all fours and hears voices in his head. His close friends are involved in the struggle to get the Kampani to take responsibility for the disaster at the factory in terms of paying for ongoing medical problems, cleaning up and detoxifying the land & water into which poisonous chemicals continue to exist. However, Animal's people, the collective survivors of the chemical leak, all have nothing to fight the big and powerful Kampani from America. But fight they do, and it is a truly awesome story.
Highly recommended for absolutely anyone, you will thoroughly enjoy this book and if you're like me, you'll become so engrossed in it you won't notice the time going by. I read this in one sitting. Just be aware that there is a lot of swearing in here.
Please be sure and visit Indra Sinha's page: ; there you will find info on how he came to write this story that is very moving. (less)
Very broad in scope, Sea of Poppies is nonetheless an enchanting read, one that had me stopping normal routine so as to get back to it every time I ha...moreVery broad in scope, Sea of Poppies is nonetheless an enchanting read, one that had me stopping normal routine so as to get back to it every time I had to put it down. Before you read this, however, you should know that it is designed as the first entry of what will eventually be a trilogy based on the ship Ibis and a group of people who, for whatever reason, found themselves aboard her. I say this because without understanding this point, you may feel a bit cheated by the ending of the novel.
This was the first book I've read by Amitav Ghosh, and while he's writing his second book in the trilogy, I'm going to backtrack and read some of his other work. In Sea of Poppies, the story is divided into three sections: Land, River, Sea, moving the story along from the introduction to all of these very colorful characters to their assembly and journey on the Ibis (which used to carry slaves and now transports workers and convicts to Mauritius). The characters range from a young widow whose fate would have been to join her husband in death in sati, or throwing herself into his funeral pyre, which would elevate the status of her husband's family, to a group of lascars who will crew the Ibis, headed by a chief who seems to have his own agenda as regards the second mate, one Zachary Reid, a freedman from Baltimore. There are also a group of people being transported to work in Mauritius, many of whom were caught up in the cycle of being forced to grow poppies for the British opium trade with China. There is also a raja who has been brought down via a cocked-up set of false charges, and a half-Chinese opium addict who is the raja's cell mate in the brig. Others rounding out the list are the daughter of a French botanist who came late to colonial propriety, and one Baboo Nob Kissin, who feels that he has another's soul inside of him. Each one of these people has his or her own story, and these are woven into the fabric of the novel as the tale progresses. Underlying most of their stories is the hard and fast fact of British colonialism in India -- and all of its accompanying hypocrisy and self-imposed superiority.
Sea of Poppies is a wonderful tale on a grand scale and I can recommend it very highly. Don't get frustrated with the ending, though; look at it as the start of an epic adventure.(less)
Another fine entry on the Booker Prize longlist for 2008, and I must say, this is the first year that I've been reading the longlist where I've really...moreAnother fine entry on the Booker Prize longlist for 2008, and I must say, this is the first year that I've been reading the longlist where I've really enjoyed every book I've read. With only three more of these books to go I'm simply amazed at how well the judges chose this year. What's even more amazing is that White Tiger is Adiga's first novel. He will definitely be on my list of authors to watch in the future.
At some point the main character Balram Halwai recounts a story about the Buddha in which a Brahmin tries to trick the Buddha by asking him if he considers himself man or god. The Buddha answered saying "Neither. I am just one who has woken up while the rest of you are still sleeping." (270) Balram Halwai has certainly woken up in this story, in which he moves from a boy who broke coal in a tea shop to a driver and servant to a wealthy family, and then to self-made "entrepreneur." How he did it and why is the stuff of this book, which describes his awakening into the realities of the various levels of Indian society, and his understanding of the system that keeps servants in their place. His conclusion is that within the span of a couple of decades, the white men will no longer have a place in India, but at the same time, the system will continue to remain the same, due to the corruption and injustice that is so embedded within.
An easy read, I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in India and its politics, social system and beliefs. It's interesting to watch Balram and his metamorphosis, although I can't say I could entirely sympathize with him throughout the story.
The title of "Between the Assassinations" refers to the seven-year period between 1984 -- when Indira Gandhi was assassinated -- and 1991 when her son...moreThe title of "Between the Assassinations" refers to the seven-year period between 1984 -- when Indira Gandhi was assassinated -- and 1991 when her son Rajiv was also killed. Set in India, the book captures a cross-spectrum view of life in a town called Kittur, where the characters include a drug addict's chldren who have to beg to keep up their father's habit; a 29 year old furniture delivery man who realizes that this is his life; a servant to a wealthy man who has no control over her own life; factory owners and workers; a student who explodes a bomb at his school in protest of caste distinction; a boy whose one ambition is to become a bus conductor, along with many more. The book is set up so that each story fits into a fake guidebook for tourists who might wish to visit Kittur.
Between the Assassinations looks at class and caste, poverty, corruption, politics, moral bankruptcy, and the overpowering awareness by many that change is not coming around any too soon. It is a sad but touching book, one that haunts you for a while after you've finished it.
The tourist guidebook setting works well -- the reader sees the city of Kittur as it could and should be, but once you get into the individual stories, the reader gets into the reality and hopelessness of the situation of many of the people who live there. Some of the stories work very well, but there are some that kind of wind down and just get strange so that you're left on your own to figure out what's just happened and why. This is definitely a book demanding reader participation.
The reader is left to decide whether or not there is hope for the characters in this book, and for India overall. Some of the characters realize that their situation is untenable and have hope for the future, while some (such as the servant, Jayamma) hope that the next life in the cycle of reincarnation will be better. Some know that this is it, and that they are locked in to their lives due to their station in life. Some struggle with their demons while trying to maintain the basic element of humanity and morality in their lives. In the meantime, life goes on, at least until someone comes up with a solution.
Bleak, yes, but very realistic in tone. Adiga's writing is excellent. I would recommend this book for people who do not mind a) having to put some thought and time into these stories and b) reading a book that leaves no room for warm and fuzzy feelings anywhere. Not all literature has to have a happy ending, because, well, in life sometimes there is no such thing. (less)
River of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies. In book one, set in 1836, the Britis...moreRiver of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies. In book one, set in 1836, the British colonial powers had changed the rich fields of Indian farmland into a veritable "sea of poppies," and had economically hogtied the people who used to raise their own food crops to the opium industry. Opium often forced farmers into debt and into leaving their homes, causing many of them to make voyage to plantations in Mauritius and other places where the abolition of slavery left a great demand for indentured workers. Now two years later, River of Smoke follows the opium from its origins in India to its final destination in China, where in thirty years the amount of the "black mud" penetrating throughout the country has increased "tenfold," and where
"...thousands, maybe millions of people ... have become slaves to it -- monks, generals, housewives, soldiers, mandarins, students,"
and now, in 1838, the Emperor has had enough, and he's sent an emissary to Canton to force the issue.
Despite what may be expected of the second novel of this trilogy, River of Smoke does not actually pick up where Sea of Poppies left off. Although some answers as to the respective fates of the characters from Sea of Poppies are partially revealed, and although some familiar characters continue on in River of Smoke, Ghosh sets the action in Canton and brings in new faces, most notably that of Bahram Naurozji Modi, a wealthy Parsi merchant from Bombay. He had married into a family of famous shipbuilders who had made their fortunes after being awarded a contract from the East India Company; he decided that he would like to get into the export business. At age 21, he made his first trip to Canton, where he was "stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum," and became a different person altogether, even taking on a mistress who gave him a son. Known there as Barry Moddie, he has returned after a three-year absence, sailing in his beloved ship Anahita, with a hold full of opium, "possibly the single most valuable cargo that had ever been carried out of the Indian Subcontinent." He is banking on making enough money to satisfy his investors, make a fortune for himself and prove something to his wife's family. Now that he is in Canton just as the Emperor has decided to crack down and start enforcing the longstanding ban on opium imports, his ability to sell his cargo is on hold; in the meantime he is appointed to "the Committee," which runs the Canton Chamber of Commerce, "the foreign enclave's unofficial Cabinet." Bahram has his appointment because he is the longest-standing merchant from India, not because of any feelings of equity from the other members of the Committee. It is there that the merchants' battles over the opium trade will be fought, and where Bahram, as the member from India, will be caught in the middle of the debate between free trade as a God-given right of imperialistic nations and the morality of the opium trade as well. With this role comes great responsibility, as his friend Zadig reminds him:
"You will have to ask yourself: what of the future? How do we safeguard our interests in the event of war?...And if the Chinese manage to hold off the Europeans, what will become of us, and our relations with them? We too will be suspect in their eyes. We who have traded here for generations, will find ourselves banned from coming again."
But it is not just the future of trade that Bahram must contemplate: first, he must acknowledge his own role in the opium trade currently devastating China, since
"almost all the 'black mud' that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien."
and this truth will have ultimately have devastating implications for Bahram as a human being.
There is a great deal of use of the term "civilized nation," and it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what this means. River of Smoke also presents the flip side of relations with China, in which cultural exchange has benefits for all nations: in art and poetry as represented by the character of Robin Chinnery and in the exchange of plants, carried out by Mr. Penrose, a wealthy man whose nurseries in Britain were famous for their wide variation in imported plants, and Paulette Lambert, one of the original passengers of the Ibis from Sea of Poppies. While Paulette sort of sits on the sidelines of all the politics since as a woman she cannot enter the foreign enclave in Canton, she and her patron work to collect and trade plants with the Chinese, but even their work is interrupted by politics.
If you read Sea of Poppies, you will remember the fast-paced action of that story; don't expect the same here. I have to admit to being skeptical of this novel at first because the action in River of Smoke is slow to build, but once the story got to Singapore, the pace picked up and I found myself in the role of observer of events leading to a critical moment in China's history. I often use the phrase "I couldn't put the book down," meaning I was absorbed in the pages in front of me, but this time I literally did not stop reading until I had come to the very end and I have the dark circles under my eyes to prove it. This book put me in the skins of the main characters and I was caught up in the all of the political and moral debates, felt the tensions rising in the foreign enclaves, and then became ultimately saddened by knowing what's in store for the Chinese within the next year or so and where it's all going to lead. And in today's global geopoliticking, the same old songs are being heard again and as in the past, the big powers aren't listening. Although tempered by humor, especially in terms of language misunderstandings, River of Smoke is an intense novel that rises above the ordinary to tell an incredibly devastating story while offering a glimpse of what could have been if greed and nationalistic pride hadn't interfered. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is an excellent book, and I recommend it very highly. (less)
Although events in Jimmy the Terrorist happen in Northern India and deal largely with the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, the story is applicable...moreAlthough events in Jimmy the Terrorist happen in Northern India and deal largely with the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, the story is applicable in any place where the communal interests of any privileged or powerful groups edge out the interests of others, pushing the latter to the margins of power or influence. Whether these interests are political, religious or based on other economic, cultural or social factors does not matter as long as the majority maintains its status quo and sets its own interests above those of a society as a whole. In this sense, Jimmy the Terrorist is a very human and very global story, one that has always and probably will always continue to play out throughout the world.
The novel actually begins with its ending. In the town of Moazzamabad, an 18-year-old young man emerges from a movie theater, and comes across two policeman, one of them beating and threatening to rape a prostitute, while the other, an Inspector, watches from the side urging on. his colleague. They hadn't heard him leave the theater, and decide to harass him just for being there. Although he is generally a quiet person who never seeks out trouble, "the Fates rode him at that moment," and he sticks a knife into the Inspector's belly. As the knife reaches its target, he yells “I am Jimmy the terrorist.” The police then beat him to death. The act results in a media frenzy, but while the reporters are off chasing down the story, the narrator decides to tell the real story to one person -- but makes the point that the story of Jimmy the Terrorist can only be understood if one understands the story of his parents. After all, "there was nobody named Jimmy in Moazzamabad, just a young man named Jamaal Ansari, son of Rafiq Ansari and Shaista Shabbir, who prepared the long road their child would one day take." And, the narrator notes, "because their story played out in Rasoolpur, he was also the story of this mohalla. And of Shabbir Manzil."
And what a story it is -- As a young man, Rafiq Ansari's parents sent him to St. Jude's, where the greatest lesson he learned is that while "success was a small thing, social standing was the greater goal." Rafiq's one goal in life is to enter the Shabbir Manzil, the gathering place for intellectuals and home of what was once the most prominent Muslim family of the area. Eventually and by accident, Rafiq's goal is met, and it just so happens that Ahmed Saeed Shabbir is on the management committee of a college with a vacancy. Coincidentally, his cousin's unmarried sister will also be joining the staff, and needs a husband. This is Shaista, who dreamed of great of academic success, but whose aspirations were ended by this same brother. Rafiq is married into the family and into Shabbir Manzil, with a conscious understanding that he "had not really existed before the marriage..." and that he is definitely still beneath them. He is also expected to ignore the parts of his life that came before, including his own family. When his son Jamaal is born (nicknamed Jimmy by Ahmed Saeed Shabbir), the women of the house become the main force in Jamaal's life, leading Rafiq to attend prayers and commune with the other men at the local mosque. But when eventually, Rafiq and Jamaal are separated from the Shabbir Manzil and Rafiq from his livelihood, he wants to use the space to find the "sense of honor that he had never had."
Rafiq is always afraid of what others will think or what others will say about him, and even later when he realizes that what he must do is to show anger and "miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of the Muslims," tends to remain in the background in the presence of others in the mosque. Slowly, however, he begins to understand that his ticket to regaining some of the power he'd lost after Shabbir Manzil could be found in "well-articulated anger," the product of which gave him the "kind of respect that none of his social climbing had." Jamaal, in the meantime, grows up and watches as his father and other Muslims, descendants of the great Mughals, become increasingly marginalized in the face of the competing political, economic and social/cultural interests of the area. Jamaal attends St. Jude's like his father, and learns the same lessons -- he is consistently tormented and bullied, even wrongly accused of theft because he is poor and because of his religion. After finishing school, he he has plans for himself that will empower him to take control of his life, but the realities of the situation are made very clear in one brief moment that encapsulates and brings to the surface everything Jamaal has witnessed and has learned throughout his life. It will move him from the Jamaal who was a "bit of a dreamer" to becoming Jimmy the Terrorist.
What's important in this novel is not just the politics, not just the religious issues, but the question of what leads people to do what they do in any given circumstance. While their actions may not make much sense to others, there is always some driving force behind decisions people make and actions that they take. At some point in the story, Rafiq notes that "The British are gone ... we're all free men now," not quite understanding that for the Muslims in his town, the perception was not quite the reality. It is Muslim homes that were dynamited, Muslim businesses and livelihoods that were destroyed during the riots of the 1960s, and it was Muslims and the poor who, during the Emergency of 1975-77 became part of the target of a forced sterilization campaign. Rafiq has trouble getting a job, as employers are increasingly reluctant to hire people with Muslim names in a "bad time for the economy" when it was "stupid to be a visible minority of any sort." But it's not just Hindu/Muslim politics at work here: Jamaal witnesses his father's powerlessness -- first at Shabbir Manzil then afterward; he watches as his father changes from a rational and intellectual man to one who gains respect from saying things he doesn't really believe and perpetuating the flames of other people's anger. And as Jamaal begins to face his own issues at St. Jude's and seeks help from his trusted imam, his concerns are lost in a discussion of politics couched in a discussion of religion, going so far as to debate the rightness of the actions of the man responsible for the Mumbai bombings. If anything, Jamaal learns that religion isn't applicable to secular or political issues. And to be very fair, the author also notes through his characters that not all Muslims are incited to violence by religious rhetoric. When all is said and done, this is a story of marginalization of a certain group of people by a majority ("the inheritors of the Raj") who were once marginalized themselves under the rule of another. I read it like this: as Jamaal becomes Jimmy, he becomes the spokesman for the oppressed and the marginalized, and as such, unlike his father, is able to find a real sense of honor and meaning in his existence. I could be wrong; like all good novels, this is a book each person needs to experience individually and define it through his or her own experiences.
I very highly recommend this novel -- it is powerful, very moving, and especially appropriate in today's world. It is also a very thought-provoking story, so much so that now, a week after finishing it, I'm still thinking about it. If you're expecting a novel on the inner workings of an al-Queda type person, you're not going to find it here. But if you want something intelligent and well written, you're going to love it. (less)
Partitions is the Amit Majmudar's first novel, although he is also an award-winning author of poetry. According to the acknowledgments, his family was...morePartitions is the Amit Majmudar's first novel, although he is also an award-winning author of poetry. According to the acknowledgments, his family was not caught up in the 1947 partition of India which created the new nation of Pakistan, his relatives have no stories about that time, and everything he knows about this tumultous period of history he learned through reading. In this book, "partition" refers more to what happens after the politics are settled and Pakistan has become a reality; it also finds meaning in the dislocation of people as they are separated from their homelands and families as well as their ordinary day-to-day existences. In such a dark and violent time, the author also reveals little pockets of human kindness here and there that offer some hope for a future in which people can set aside what keeps them apart and work together. It is a novel of historical fiction combined with magical realism, and that fact alone means that the reader must prepare to suspend his or her disbelief.
In both India and Pakistan, the newly-created border led to a massive exodus as people sought safety from revenge killings occurring on both sides. Millions of people found themselves uprooted due to a tide of violence and the new political and sectarian realities brought about by this partition. Majmudar's core group of four characters become representatives of the human river of refugees that followed in its wake: Shankar and Keshav Jaitly, a young set of Hindu twins separated from their mother waiting for the train to India; Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim doctor who sees people as people not as their religions; and Simran Kaur, a young Sikh girl who finds herself dangerously alone after running away from her father, who takes extreme measures to protect the females (and one little boy) in his family.
The story is told via the ghost of the twins' dead father Roshan, who moves in and out of the lives of the four main characters. While he moves the narrative along, the reader is also introduced to his own story. Roshan was the son of a Brahmin doctor and became a well-respected physician himself. He had it all until he married the twins' mother Sonia, who was of much lower caste than his own family and much younger than he. His marriage separated him from his family; even when his sister comes surreptitiously to perform the naming ceremony for the boys, she doesn't forgive: she will not even accept water given to her by Sonia. Now as he hovers on the edge of the living in spirit form, he is able to see evil in people's hearts as he steadfastly keeps his attention on this children. Roshan's ghost is the reader's guide through the burnt-out buildings, the piles of dead bodies and the vultures (literally and figuratively) waiting to get at them. At the same time, it is also the illuminator of random acts of human kindness throughout the characters' respective ordeals and after they eventually come together.
While the story is compelling, the author's poetry background enlivens even the smallest moments in the novel. The clinic where Dr. Masud works becomes "the only place he feels safe...protected from further suffering because of the suffering already there." A man playing a drum "inhabits his music." The crowds in exodus are "Great human rivers, the vanished Sarasvati reborn with all her tributaries," where "Migrant field hands who walked one way to eat now walk the other way to starve." A particularly nasty man has "seen delicate things up close only after they have been broken." And at one point, Dr. Masud is just two hours away from reaching Pakistan when Roshan notes "He never knows when he crosses the border. It is too early in the border's life cycle; it hasn't budded checkpoints and manned booths yet, hasn't sprouted its barbed wire thorns." It's a striking and even chilling moment in this novel -- a point at which the novel's contemporary future meets up with the reader's present; that particular story still has yet to be written in 1947.
What I'm not so sure about is the ghost of Roshan Jaitly. When I first picked up this book and realized what was going on with the narration, I did the mental equivalent of an eye roll, trying to decide whether or not I would even read it. And having finished it, I thought this tack sort of cheapened this story. Aside from the fact that it's a ghost, there's just too much of Jaitly's own self interjections throughout, especially at the end of the story where Roshan's ghost intervenes to stop a terrible act. I get where the author was going with this approach, but still, if there had been some omnicient narrator rather than a ghost, that would not have changed the core story except at the last. Although that would have meant a rather terrible ending, when writing about human tragedy, sometimes the heartbreaking consequences produce much more impact. I thought this bit was annoying and unnecessary. The other thing I think that would have helped would have been a map of the area both before and after the Partition. I was a little confused at times and had to often refer to the internet for help.
If it's possible to get past the ghostly narrator, Partitions is a fine opening effort from this author, and brings to light a chapter in history that is especially relevant to events today. Even if you don't know anything about the partitioning of India, Majmudar's story will carry you through part of its aftermath. Readers who can't deal with often-brutal scenes of violence or suffering should probably pass, but if you like historical fiction on the literary side, this one will probably appeal. (less)
I rate this like a 3.85, rounded up to a 4. I see that other people have noted that this book is only available in India; I went to Penguin India for...moreI rate this like a 3.85, rounded up to a 4. I see that other people have noted that this book is only available in India; I went to Penguin India for my copy which was surprisingly cheap with very fast shipping. On my blog entry for this book, I appended a message to whoever gives a crap about availability of books nominated for international literary awards. If you're interested, go take a look. Now on with the review.
Rebirth is Jahnavi Barua's first novel, although in 2008 she also authored a book of short stories entitled Next Door. It is narrated by the main character Kaberi, and the narrative is addressed to her unborn baby, the type of thing I normally shy away from in my reading choices. No wait. I normally RUN from this type of thing. However, to be perfectly honest, and much to my own surprise, there are several features that elevate this novel from being just another book of women's fiction or chicklit. It has a vividly-evoked sense of place and time, quality prose that does not fall prey to overdone cliches, and the reader catches a glimpse into issues facing not only modern Indian women, but a bit of India's ongoing regional, political strife that affects people in all walks of life. There is also a nice, reflective symmetry at work that is well constructed: the story takes place over the few months between Kaberi's discovery that she is pregnant and the first pangs of labor contractions, and as Kaberi is patiently awaiting the baby's emergence, she is also on a path toward her own.
Kaberi is married to Ranjit (Ron) and lives a very middle-class existence in a nice flat in Bangalore. She has been working on a children's book for about a year, unbeknownst to her husband, and the book is now ready for her to begin the editing process. But despite her environment, upscale life and her happiness about being pregnant, things are not so great for Kaberi: Ron is having an affair and living with another woman, and has moved many of his things out of the flat. Ron's behavior toward Kaberi fluctuates erratically; often when Ron wants something from Kaberi, she usually acquiesces with little protest, but he is not above using physical violence on her from time to time. Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy to her husband; she wants him to return to her not because of the baby, but because he still loves Kaberi. Actually, Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy or Ron's absence from their home to anyone; the one friend in whom she may have confided early on was killed in a bus explosion during an insurgency in Assam, and Kaberi just lets on that Ron's company frequently sends him away on business. When Ron comes to her to ask for a divorce, he expects that she will give in to his request, but Kaberi realizes that now she is in a position of strength, one that is only bolstered by a trip home to Assam when an unforeseen event occurs. Obviously there's a great deal more to the story, but to say any more would be unfair.
Yes, yes, yes, I know it sounds like the standard women's fiction/chicklit kind of story, but there is an unusual amount of depth at work in this novel which lifts the premise of this story from what it could have been to something on a much higher plane. The sense of place moves the reader from modern city -- where even in the midst of the city's hustle-bustle an open verandah attached to a flat can be an isolating experience -- to muddy roads to the lush jungle near Bangalore and then to the scenic river views in Assam where people float on barges for parties, each with its accompanying wonders and vivid colors in terms of flora and fauna. Moving along, the author never feels compelled to document incidents of domestic violence in graphic detail, nor does her main character wring her hands, bemoan her fate in a "poor, poor, pitiful me" kind of way, take revenge or take a lover to spite her unfaithful husband. The spotlight is always on Kaberi, her sense of isolation and the slow realization of her empowerment that comes about as a result of her inner strength, and the prose moves steadily and is, if anything, quietly understated. Finally, the author manages to weave in some of the political and social issues of the agitation in Assam, where people took to the streets to make their voices and agendas heard, only to be betrayed in the long run.
Rebirth is a very fast read but a good one, and if this is Jahnavi Barua's very first novel, then she's off to a running start in her writing career. I did get a bit tired of reading through longish descriptions of different outfits the women wore in this book, and the colors and styles various people used in decorating their homes -- it was just too extraneous for me to really care about and added little to the overall story. But really, if that's the worst I have to say about this book, then that's a good thing! I'll look forward to more from this author in the future.
The Thing About Thugs is a difficult book to pigeonhole into a single category, and I'm not even going to try. It is part thriller, part examination o...moreThe Thing About Thugs is a difficult book to pigeonhole into a single category, and I'm not even going to try. It is part thriller, part examination of London's Victorian invisible underclasses, a look at the flaws in "superior" Western rationalism and the attitudes behind British imperialism, and it is a novel which turns the familiar colonial narrative on its head.
In Bihar, India, a young man is sitting in the library of his grandfather's house, which was once filled with shelves brimming with books. In one of these he has come upon a book of handwritten notes in Farsi, which belonged to one Amir Ali, along with a newspaper clipping reporting the death of a British lord and "scholar of phrenological science" on board a ship headed for Africa. His grandfather's library was filled with books by Dickens, Mayhew, William T. Meadows and Jane Austen among others; later libraries he would visit would also help him to imagine the story connecting the notebook and the report of the British lord's death. This is the frame on which the story of Amir Ali is told, and during the course of the story the author returns to reflect on writing, his life and other things of interest.
Amir Ali has come to London with the help of Captain William Meadows, who is writing a book on the Thug Cult of India. It is 1837; the book will eventually be published in 1840, but for now, Meadows is finishing up a series of interviews with Amir Ali, who for reasons of personal safety had to leave India, found out about Meadows, and told him a story of his life in the Thug Cult. It was, of course, made up, but Meadows didn't know that. Meadows is also a member of the London Society of Phrenology, the most current "scientific" fad, one that laid out a person's destiny depending on the shape of his skull. Lord Batterstone, another phrenologist, is building a "Theatre of Phrenological Specimen." He hopes his collection of the most exotic skulls will put the lid on the currently-popular theories of George Combe and silence Meadows "who had, since his return from India with his reprieved thug, Amir Ali, taken society by such storm." Batterstone is also toying with the idea of a trip to the Congo in hopes of more specimens. While Meadows is tending to his narrative based on Ali's fictitious account of being a Thug, Ali, in the meantime, is writing down the real story of his life in Farsi, which he hopes will be read someday by the object of his affections, a part-time maid named Jenny in Meadows' household. Jenny also happens to be the niece of the first victim of an extraordinary series of crimes.
Just who committed these outrages is a matter taken up by the local news reporter, who notes that "no Christian" could have done this -- that this sort of crime is associated with "other, hotter climes, with people reared on suspicions and barbarities, and not on the milk of human mercy that flows through Christian veins in the lands of civilization" and " some heathen, recently imported into our parts, who either practices a devilish or esoteric rite or consumes human flesh."
But despite all of their enlightened scientific reasoning, the London police are unable to solve these crimes, and as they increase in number, the same newspaper reporter stirs up the pot regarding immigrants coming to London:
"There are officers to inspect and certify the goods that are downloaded at West India and East India docks at the Isle of Dogs and the London Dock Company's docks at Wapping. But only if the goods are dead and inanimate. Every day hundreds of living goods are downloaded at those very docks, and they slip into the great city of London with hardly any inspection. There is no one to test if these living goods are of sufficiently high quality or not, to certify if they are undamaged and not rotted."
With the public fanning of the flames pointing to a "heathen" perpetrator, it's time to settle things once and for all. A group of the invisible underclasses, "lascars, ayahs, beggars, some impossible-to-place oddities..., and riff-raff, mostly but not entirely from the lands of Hindoostan" decide it's time to take matters into their own hands.
If this was all there was to this book, it might make for an interesting Victorian-style crime novel, but there's a great deal more in here. The story is really the frame holding together for "novelized history," as the writer puts it, done in a most tongue-in-cheek kind of style. Victorian London, as the seat of the British Empire, has its "ghosts" to be dealt with -- colonialism; the justification of racist attitudes via pseudosciences based on western rationalism and its fear of the outsider; society's treatment of the underclasses -- as well as the caste system among the middle and upper classes along with their servants. But at its heart, The Thing About Thugs is a story about stories and the people who tell them: the narrator back in Bihar acknowledges that there are things missing in Amir Ali's notes, so he has to "fill in the gaps." In his story, he turns the colonial narrative around to the point where Amir Ali and the ragtag group of lascars and the rest of the people one normally considers as marginalized are the heroes of the day, while the enlightened Londoners are either easily duped, led astray by their dependence on enlightened reason, or at their very worst, savage murderers, or filled with the potential to become the future Kurtz, a la Heart of Darkness.
I get the sense that Khair had a great time writing this book, and I had an equally great time reading it. I realize that not everyone is going to agree with me, largely because many readers may have trouble with the multiple narrative strands and the switching between time and place. And many people may be put off with the subject matter -- I mean, beheadings are never a fun topic, and not everyone will like the Victorian murder story format. I must admit to a bit of confusion at the start of the novel, and had to stop and take stock of what I actually thought was happening here in terms of structure -- you should see my little notebook full of question marks. But once I figured it out, I was off and never stopped. There is an excellent book underneath all of the potentially problematic issues, and if people can get underneath the surface of this novel, they will be richly rewarded. I actually am in awe when I find a book this good. (less)