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Countries in Crisis As Seen In Fiction & Non Fiction

Week 2 of Non Fiction November brings us one of the most stimulating and thought provoking topics of the whole event.

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

I got the idea for my topic from television news reports over the past week. It was full of stories about conflicts and protests. Police and protestors squaring up to each other on the streets of Hong Kong. Catalonian separatists taking to the streets in Barcelona. Thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters camping out in central London.

People around the world are challenging the status quo, resisting authority and campaigning for change in increasing numbers.

So I thought I’d take a look at books that can enlighten us about some of the most significant social movements from the last century. Ones that represented a paradigm shift for the country concerned.

Racial Equality in South Africa

I’ve chosen three books which deal with different periods of time in South Africa’s troubled history of relationships between the various ethnic groups within its population.

Cry, The Beloved Country  was written in 1948 just a few months before the South African government introduced the apartheid system, effectively a form of racial segregation. It was a policy that remained in place until 1994.

Through the different voices in the novel Alan Paton dramatises the differing attitudes within the country that would lead, he believed, to hatred and disharmony.

He wasn’t wrong, as Nelson Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom shows. Mandela reflects on his role in the campaign against the apartheid regime, which became increasingly violent with brutal crackdowns by the government. But Mandela also talks about the importance of reconciliation between the country’s racial groups  and how he sought to embrace that principle when elected as the country’s first black head of state.

Did he succeed? The picture of post apartheid South Africa depicted by one of the country’s leading authors, J. M Coetzee, is rather bleak. His Booker prize winning novel Disgrace is set at the time of Mandela’s government and shows a country in transition where the shifts in power between the different racial groups have created new tensions.

Communism In China

For 10 years until 1976. the lives of people in China were governed by the dictats of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The objective was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. But it caused huge damage to the country’s economy and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a must- read work for anyone interested in modern day history of China. Through the experiences of 3 generations of women in her family, Chang reveals a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty but also shows the extraordinary bravery of the country’s citizens.

I’m pairing this with a memoir. Mao’s Last Dancer recounts how Li Cunxin was plucked from a poor village to become a ballet dancer, part of an experiment by Mao’s wife to put China on the world stage. Having endured a brutal training regime in which every aspect of his life was controlled, he was allowed to go to the USA as an exchange student. And there he discovered everything he had been told about the West was a lie.

Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my fictional choice for two reasons. Firstly because like Mao’s Last Dancer it deals with the effects of an oppressive regime on creative and artistic talent (in this case, musicians). But more significantly because it gives us a sense of the instability that continued in China long after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Thein builds the tension powerfully, showing how it culminates in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops and tanks fired at demonstrators.

Nationalism In India

I’m slightly cheating here because The Jewel in the Crown is actually the first book in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and to get the full benefit, you do need to read all them. Scott’s novels take place in the concluding years of the British Raj in India; a time when tensions are running high between the colonial ‘masters’ and the people they are meant to govern.

The quartet begins in 1942 and ends in 1947 as India gains its independence, marking the end of decades of violent and peaceful protest. 1942 is significant because it’s the year when the man who had lead the nationalist movement –  Mahatma Gandhi – launched the the Quit India movement demanding an end to British Rule of India.

So it’s only fitting that my non fiction choice is a book which focuses on the man synonymous with Indian independence. The Words of Gandhi is a selection of the man’s letters, speeches, and published writings giving his thoughts on daily life, cooperation, nonviolence, faith, and peace. It’s a great book to dip into and a source of motivation and inspiration.

Peace sadly did not come to India as my fiction choice shows. Neil Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, is set against a background of the Naxalite movement in the West Bengal region of the country. It was a Communist Party of India armed struggle against large landowners to forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless. One of Mukherjee’s main characters gets swept along with the spirit of the movement.

I suspect I’ve left out many books that would make good reading partners on this topic. Anyone have some recommendations for me?

Fighting for Dignity Amid The Indian Maelstrom [book review]

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you ever end up as a passenger on a commuter train in Mumbai, there’s one word you will rapidly get accustomed to hearing.

Adjust

It’s the cry that goes up at each station as a new batch of passengers scramble to board an already crammed train. This will be a train built to carry around 1,000 people. But there are 4,000 who need to use it to get to work each day.

A Fine Balance

The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.

Prologue: A Fine Balance

Every seat is occupied. Passengers hang out of doors because there’s no standing space inside. Some have taken to the train roof. But the hoards on the platform still insist on boarding so the rule is everyone already inside, has to ‘adjust’ to accommodate the newcomers.  

Adjust isn’t just a word; it’s an expression of an attitude to life in Mumbai and across the whole of India.

Adjustment and adaptation is how people in India deal with pretty much anything. Lack of physical space; new political regimes; half finished roads; energy shortages. The response invariably seems to be “We will manage this.” . There’s even a name for this attitude – bharosa – a type of trust, faith, belief and confidence that things will just work out in the end.

Survival is a Balancing Act

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Adjustment, flexibility, balance. The four characters in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry constantly bring those elements into play as they try to navigate the maelstrom that is India.

The novel is set during the State of Emergency in the mid 1970s, a time of political turmoil and human rights violations, including detention, torture and forced sterilisation. Although the prime minister Indira Gandhi is never named, her presence is felt throughout the novel as the instigator of a period of cruelty and corruption, press censorship

These events serve as a backdrop for a tale of four strangers whose lives intersect in a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea .

Strangers in Adversity

Dina Dalal is a spirited Parsi widow who is determined to maintain her independence from her rich brother and his pressure to re-marry. She supplements her income as a seamstress by renting a room to Maneck Kohlah, a naive college student from a hill station.

Joining them are two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash who had to flee their village as a result of caste violence. But their hopes of sanctuary and a new life in the city are dashed the very night they arrive. Jobs are scare and accommodation limited to a shack in a slum near a ditch running with raw sewage.

The life of a poor working man is a precarious existence they discover. As one of Mistry’s most memorable, and horrific characters The Beggerman puts it:

People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases, how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars.” 

As circumstances thrust the four strangers together they find that survival requires constant re-adjustment of their attitudes and expectations. As one character explains the reality to the tailors:

“You cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. In the end it’s all a question of balance.”

Which sounds good in theory but these two men get more than their fair share of despair in A Fine Balance. They lurch from one crisis to another: a forced labour camp; a slum clearance programme; compulsory castration. The only beacon of hope is the growing friendship they enjoy with Dina and Maneck.

Legitimised Violence and Anarchy

Rohinton Mistry portrays the huge effort of will it takes for the poorer members of Indian society to survive. All around them they see corruption, social anarchy and violence but little regard for individual desire, hopes or dreams.

Most of the plot is driven by Rohinton Mistry’s intention to show the worst elements of Indian society. The State of Emergency facilitates a period of legitimised violence and repression but Mistry shows that it also gives free rein to a world in which people will do anything to survive, even if what they do, harms other people. It’s a country of mob rule, where the helpless are exploited by those on the next rung up the social ladder.

As the characters move from distrust to respect and friendship, A Fine Balance provides a panoramic view of the constant struggle by Indian working people to maintain dignity and to survive in a world determined to crush them.

The Fine Balance of Despair And Hope

One ‘solution’ advocated by part of the population, is to balance positivity with despair. Yet it’s no surprise that at times some of Mistry’s characters are forced to question the validity of such an attitude. As Maneck reflects:

Did life treat everyone so wantonly, ripping the good things to pieces while letting bad things fester and grow like fungus on unrefrigerated food? Vasantrao Valmik the proofreader would say it was all part of living, that the secret of survival was to balance hope and despair, to embrace change. But embrace misery and destruction? No.”

Later, a rent collector forced to get heavy handed with his tenants asks:.

This was life? Or a cruel joke? He no longer believed that the scales would ever balance fairly.

The Fine Balance is a story saturated with pain relieved with few glimmers of hope. By the end of the book we’ve become such good friends with these 4 people, so invested in their lives that you hope they achieve even a modicum of happiness. But the closing pages bring a sickening finality to such hopes.

A Fine Balance: Fast Facts

A Fine Balance is the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Published in 1995 it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Giller Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry was born in 1952 and grew up in Bombay, India. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada, where he began a course in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

His debut novel, Such a Long Journey, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Governor General’s Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Greed breeds in slum city. Last Man in Tower [review]

Mumbai skyline

Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga

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 the towerLast 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.

Aravind Adiga: Key Facts

  • 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, (review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008.  
  • Last Man in Tower is his second novel, published in 2011.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]

God of all ThingsThe God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.  A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it  “profoundly depressing”.

Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author  for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty.  Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.

The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.

It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves

 … together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.

For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.

Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river.   What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.

It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases  uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version.  Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as  ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart).  On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:

RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways

And Again I say re-jOice

Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect

This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.

The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring  up trouble for everyone else.  So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.

In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …

She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.

 

 

With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy,  The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Footnotes

About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.

About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism.  She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.  Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading. 

 

 

 

 

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

suchalongjourneySuch a Long Journey was my first experience of Rohinton Mistry’s work. I usually enjoy novels set in India and this was no exception.

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.

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Glass PalaceThree 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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