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Within a few minutes of arriving at Mumbai airport, passengers get their first experience of the gulf between poverty and wealth in this city. Right on the fringes of gleaming business districts and five star hotels lie some of the Mumbai’s largest slum settlements.
The contradictions of the new India – and particularly its sprawling metropolis of Mumbai – form the background to Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower.
Amid the slums of the Vakola district sits Tower A, a block of apartments that is a relic from the Vishram Society, a co-operative housing society established in the 1950s. Its residents pride themselves on their respectability and their spirit of comradeship. Though it’s not much to look at with its “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey’ facade and the tenants regularly complain about the unreliable water supply, they still consider Tower a model of a middle class abode. It’s a ‘pucca’ place to live in their eyes.
Not that they wouldn’t just as happily change it for an even swankier dwelling if the price was right.
When Dharmen Shah, an ambitious property developer, offers to buy each flat for a sum of money beyond the tenant’s wildest dreams, the residents immediately plan how they could use this new found wealth. Mr and Mrs Pinto will send some of the money to their children in America, Mrs Puri will get a better home in which to care for her 18 year son who was born with Down’s syndrome; social worker Georgina Rego, sees a way to “trump” her well-to-do sister while the Vishram Society secretary Kothari realises he can once again live in sight of the flamingos of his youth, obliterating “all the wasted decades in between.”
Just one problem lies in their way.
Or rather one man.
Long-standing tenant, retired schoolteacher known as “Masterji”, decides that no matter how much money Shah offers him, he will not sell his apartment. It holds too many memories of the daughter killed in a railway accident and his, now dead, beloved wife. Masterji quickly becomes the linchpin of opposition to Shah’s plans, persuading a few of his closest friends in the tower to reject the offer. Unless all of them sign, the deal will fall through.
The battle ground is drawn. Shah deploys his “left-hand man” Shanmugham to ‘persuade’ the tenants to turn on Masterji and get him to cave in. Will Shah’s strong arm tactics prevail or will Masterji stick to his principles? Which will prove the strongest driving force: sentimentality or material desire?
Last Man in Tower warmed on me ever so gradually. Initially I found the slightly comic tone used to introduce the characters rather irritating. They felt more like stereotypes than real people. That does however change as the novel gets fully into its stride.
There were some touches of humour that worked well, particularly the scenes where the residents gather on plastic chairs to meet as a “Parliament”, the seriousness of this event undermined by the necessity for each parliamentarian to lift their feet clear of one tenant’s dirty laundry water.
But about half way through the novel became far more interesting as Adiga ratchets up the tension and forces us to switch our allegiances, not once but several times. Masterji is initially presented as a sympathetic character who spends his afternoons breathing in the scent of his wife’s clothing but then doubts crept in about whether his highly principled stance is in fact selfish. He is denying his neighbours a brighter future.
And yet these neighbours are not exactly squeaky clean people themselves. As the money looks to be slipping from their grasp, their behaviour deteriorates. Their frustrations are understandable. Mumbai is a city where everything is already for sale:
In the continuous market that runs right through southern Mumbai, under banyan trees, on pavements, beneath the arcades of the Gothic buildings, in which food, pirated books, perfumes, wristwatches, meditations beads, and software are sold, one question is repeated, to tourists and locals, in Hindi or in English: What do you want?
Shah’s offer simply means another opportunity for a trade is opened up. This is in a city being transformed into a landscape of silvery skyscrapers at dizzying speed. The residents just want a piece of the action. If they don’t grasp Shah’s offer now they could lose out forever.
What Adiga shows is how their desire for a better future quickly becomes greed that drives them to behave more and more maliciously. Gossip and mutterings are set aside in favour of ostracising the teacher. When that doesn’t work, they resort to some particularly vicious actions.
In essence this is a novel about the nature of personal corruption and what it takes to turn perfectly decent law abiding citizens into nasty, monstrous creatures. Along the way Adiga takes a pop at some of the flaws within his native India: the corruption that allows people with ambition and money the ability to thrive for example, and the ineffectiveness of the police, legal system and the media to step in and aid people like Masterji.
Is this a fair portrayal of Mumbai? All I can really go on to answer that is some newspaper reports I saw while visiting the city a few times in recent years. Every time I arrived, it was to see yet more apartment blocks and business districts. Yet the slums were just as much in evidence.
About the author
Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in what is now called Chennai, and grew up in the south of India. He was educated at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford. His debut novel, The White Tiger, (the link is to my review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008. Last Man in the Tower, is his second novel, published in 2011.
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This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.
What did you recently finish reading? The Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga
I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way. Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.
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Given the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland IslandsMy plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK. So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.
Narcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.
As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.
As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.
Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.
It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :
An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”
The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.
Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.
I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.
The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.” These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.
Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.
The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).
I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.
I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.
Three minutes. In that time the Mishra family’s hopes of a new future are demolished. They’d left Delhi in search of a better life in New York and, although they now live in a cramped apartment it is one that has carpets and indoor plumbing. Eldest son Birju wins a coveted place at Bronx High School of Science and is seen as a role model among other aspirational Indian immigrant parents. But when he dives into a swimming pool and hits his head on the bottom, the family’s great American dream dissolve into a nightmare of brain-damage, alcoholism and marital discord.
Relating this tale of woe in Akhil Shama’s Family Life is the youngest son of the Mishra family, eight year old Ajay. He’s a bit of a rascal who loves to make up stories to impress other kids of his age. “Everybody in America has their own speedboat” he boasts to boys in Delhi even though he has no idea if this is true. After his brother’s accident, he concocts more and more fabulous stories about Birju’s condition. It’s partly his way of making a connection, of trying to fit in with an alien environment in which he is one of the very few Indians in his school. But it’s also his way of expressing the complex and conflicting emotions stirred up by the accident.
Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. birdie i said had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory. ….. I concocted the ideal brother. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju…. They also cultivated rage at the loss…
As Ajay gets older the conflicting emotions about his brother never completely go away Every moment of his mother’s day is devoted to caring for Birju while his father takes to drink. In their grief they often lose sight of the needs of the younger boy. One cheerless Christmas Day, Ajay erupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring — at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father one evening. “You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day.” Coming home from school one day he is desperate to tell his parents he was ranked first in his class. But all he gets from his mother is “very good’, not pausing even from a moment in her manipulation of the wasted limbs of his brother.
I had been feeling proud as well as guilty but now I felt a collapse. And then I became disgusted with myself for my vanity in wanting to be thought special…
This is the aspect of the novel that resonated most with me. Much of the early part of Family Life feels like well trodden ground as Akhil Sharma lays out what life is like for new immigrants. Look how different things are in America the book says although we already know that from works by other transplanted authors. Where Family Life felt fresh was in its treatment of Anjay’s guilt at being the surviving brother and the creative ways in which he tries to find an outlet – trying to become an author by meticulously adopting Hemingway’s writing style or daydreaming about conversations in which God gives him advice while dressed in a Clark Kent style cardigan. This is the emotional heart of the novel, yet its impact comes from the often understated manner in which Anjay describes his feelings.
“A year had gone by since Birju’s accident. My father began shaving him. The first time he did this was one afternoon. My mother and I stood and watched as he put shaving cream on Birju’s cheeks … Birju lay there calmly as my father lathered him. I thought of how Birju had wanted to be a doctor. It seemed unfair that something like this could happen and the world go on.”
Unfair and yet the world does go on since ultimately Family Life is a story about endurance and survival. Anjay achieves the glittering career denied to his brother, proving that the American dream can become reality though for the Mishra family it materialises only after they are brought to the brink of loneliness and despair.
Family Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel and is partly autobiographical. By the time he handed over his manuscript to the publishers he was nine years overdue. Their patience was rewarded when Sharma won the 2015 Folio Prize with this novel.
Claire is a single mum living in England with a teenage son. Thousands of miles away in India lives Arun, an elderly, reformed alcoholic whose relationship with his wife and children has never been close. The one thing that connects these two individuals is their work in the shoe industry and the pride they take in turning out a quality product.
For Claire, the mass-produced shoes she assembles on a production line still deserve attention to detail:
Sometimes the shoes I check don’t fit as well with each other as they would with another left, another right. The same model, but some thing doesn’t match. I rearrange them and find another one where the rosette’s slightly off-centre, or the shape of the vamp mirrors the other one. It’s a small thing. Who’d notice? But it’s satisfying, finding the right partner.
Arun considers himself a master craftsman whose handmade chappals are meant to last a man a lifetime.
Everything should be perfect. Why so much care forsomethingo a man will put between his feet and the ground? But the chappals will be his constant companions. He’ll spend more time with them than with his wife. The thing I make is with a man when he’s alone, unnoticed. He can rely on it. Our chapels aren’t like the cheap manufactured ones, stuck with glue; ours will be with you a long time.
Arun is in a reflective mood as he fights against the signs of advancing age. He considers the time when he betrayed his wife through an extra-marital affair, indulged in heavy drinking sessions with his friends and neglected his children. Could some of those wrong turnings have been avoided? What kind of life could he have led if he hadn’t been so stupid or shown more tenderness towards his family? In the final chapter after a meeting with an old friend and an episode in hospital, he finds a new accommodation with his life.
In alternating chapters we also experience Claire’s memories of her past and the enduring strained relationship with her mother and siblings. Flashbacks to her first love (her son’s father) mingle with the routine of her shifts at the factory and her attempts to find a new love in her life. Romance seems to be on the cards when a stranger takes a shine to her in a pub but, like many of her other relationships peters out quickly. By the end Claire is forced to consider that happiness has all the time been staring her in the face via John, a work colleague that she’s never considered previously simply because he was always around.
Neither of these stories contains dramatic turning points or revelations; life is not like that seems to be Joseph’s message. It’s made up of the everyday, the small moments and the small pleasures which for Arun means to to feel the sun on your face, to see your sons laugh and to be happy in the moment while for Claire it’s waking in a bed knowing that someone had been there so she didn’t have to feel alone.
The Living apparently began as a short story in Granta: India in 2015 which might explain why it feels like two disconnected stories rather than a novel. The chapters featuring Arun were a lot more interesting than those dealing with Claire – where Arun felt a fully rounded character with whom we can cry and laugh (there is a wonderfully funny scene where he succumbs to pressure from his family and finally gets to see a doctor about his prostate problem) where Claire to me felt more remote and reserved. The Living wasn’t up to the standard of her debut novel Saraswati Park which I read a few years ago (see review here) but I have a feeling she is a talent that will be worth watching for the future.
The Living is published by 4th Estate. My copy was provided by the publishers via Net Galley. Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay but moved to England to study at Cambridge. She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The Living is her third novel.
Keiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants. Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.
It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses. Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.
The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai. They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.
Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York. Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.
Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.
‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.
The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation. Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption. But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.
The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.
The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.
It concerns Gustad Noble. The surname is significant for this is a fairly ordinary guy who tries to do the decent thing by his family and an old friend and ends up embroiled in a political scandal.
As the book opens Noble is working as a bank clerk and trying to deal with the problems posed by his offspring. His daughter Roshan has a mysterious illness and his son Sohrab has won a college scholarship to just about the best university India can offer but, to his parent’s dismay, refuses to accept it. Such problems pale into insignificance however when Gustad receives a letter from his old friend Major Bilimoria. The major works for Indira Ghandi’s secret police and asks Gustad for some help by collecting and depositing large sums of money into an account in a false name at the bank where he works. Scandal erupts when Bilimora is arrested under suspicion he was using the money to aid guerrillas in East Pakistan.
The experience shakes Gustad’s faith in his friend and opens his eyes to political corruption in the highest echelons of government. Gustav survives although around him the country is in turmoil when the war with Bangladesh escalates.
Such a Long Journey is a finely textured look at what happens to an honest, modest guy gets compromised by events he doesn’t understand. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai with its noise and poverty and into the heart of one corner of the city, the apartments of Khodadad where Nobel and his family lives. This is 1971 and a time of upheaval in the country but in the community of Khodadad, the difficulties are of a more domestic nature, sometimes uncomfortable in nature (especially when they taunt and tease Tehmul, who is a physically and mentally disabled man with the character of a boy) but often with gentle humour (the scenes where Gustad brings home a live chicken to feed his family are hilarious).
This is a novel populated with real people, they bicker with their neighbours, they hide long term illness beneath a veneer of bravado and resort to magical potions and rituals. But just like Gustad Noble they are simply trying to do their best for their family and their friends and to negotiate the difficult world around them.
Such a Long Journey is, in short, a wonderful novel. I’ve seen comments that it’s not as good as A Fine Balance which is magic to my ears since I also have that on my shelves to read.
This was the week when I discovered that it is not a good idea to start a trip to India having left my purse containing credit cards and cash back in the departure area of Heathrow airport. Forty minutes before touch down in Mumbai I made the discovery that my sole funds consisted of a £1 coin and a 10 pence piece. Even allowing for India’s lower cost of living, that wasn’t going to get me very far.
I could do nothing for five and half hours until my husband could give me contact details for the card providers so I could cancel the cards. And hope above hope that no-one had tried to use them and access our accounts. Fortunately we were able to wire money to a Western Union outlet so I was solvent by the next day but it was a frightening experience. Our funds are intact though the purse has not been located. A narrow escape.
Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey helped distract me from my woes, partially at least. I’ve meant to read him for such a long time and it seemed the perfect moment to begin since this book – his first novel – is set in Mumbai. I do enjoy reading books set in places I’m visiting since it makes the descriptions of the setting and people more meaningful. You read a passage in the book, lift your eyes from the page and there in front of you is the very scene or close to it.
Here’s Mistry’s description of the sprawling development of one Mumbai district.
Dr Paymaster’s dispensary was located in a neighbourhood that had changed in recent years from a place of dusty, unobtrusive poverty to a bustling, overcrowded, and still dusty, nub of commerce. Crumbling leaky warehouses and rickety-staired, wobbly balconied tenements had been refurbished and upgraded, from squalid and uninhabitable to squalid and temporarily inhabitable. The sewer system remained unchanged, broken and overflowing. Water supply continued to be a problem. So did rats, garbage and street lighting. …Soon there appeared enterprising individuals who serviced motorcars, retreated tyres, , restored refrigerators and allowed the waste products of their enterprise to run where they would. The barefooted now had to skip and hop over grease slicks, oil puddles, razor-sharp fins of broken cooling coils and long, twisting snakes of vulcanised rubber disgorged by tyre re-treaders.
The only bits he’s forgotten about are the piles of bricks and rubble left by the district government as a way of pretending they are about to start work on upgrading the work. And the cows that amble along the central reservation oblivious to oncoming traffic but forcing cars, mopeds and tuk tuks to halt.
I’m back home now, shaken by the experience of being driven weaving in and out of traffic for three hours so I could see the Taj Mahal; sobered by the experience of being away from home without money and looking forward to a slightly less adventurous week.
Three families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.
It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens. Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire, he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.
Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence. One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.
Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.
I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source: http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace_r.html)
It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.
I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses. He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.
EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace.html
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