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Posts Tagged ‘subcontinent’

I’m making my way back to book blogging by linking to my review of Empires of the Indus on the Lonely Planet website. Do read!

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One of the great joys of unravelling the skeins of history, I think, is definitely the process of linking causes with effects and understanding how something that happened several centuries ago led, however indirectly, to something that happened today. Alternate universes with “might have been” scenarios based on one change in the history we know are always fascinating.  To think of how different Indian history would have been is a little intimidating; but without the British and the Portuguese landing in India in search of spices, would I have been an English-speaking, baptized but lapsed Catholic, fond of bebinca and the architecture of colonial Bombay? And would any of us ever have sat down to eat a humble aloo parantha?

John Keay’s history of the Spice Route starts us on the trail of “might have been”, asking and answering questions about how the spice trade changed the history of the world. Drawing on maps, ship’s logs, travelogues, histories, and other documents, he pieces together this long and complex story, starting from more than a thousand years before Christ and continuing until the late eighteenth century, when spices finally became commonplace; as Keay says, the end of the mystery has finally come in our time, when we can pick those once-rare commodities off supermarket shelves. Lost the mystery may be, but his narrative remains alive to it, of what these strange, exotic substances were, where they came from, and how they travelled the world.

Keay sets out the background to his narrative with the Banda Islands of Indonesia, whence came nutmeg and mace, two of the rarest of spices. These islands he compares, quite directly, to paradise; an untouched Garden of Eden in his writing. But, we are aware, if this is the Garden of Eden, there must be a fall. The entire book leads up to the history of how that fall came about, when the Dutch laid the islands waste and spilled blood savagely all over them, in their quest to control the trade routes.

It starts out quietly enough, with Keay painstakingly taking us through piecemeal, fragmented accounts of trade routes so early that they are only sketchily mapped out and no particular names are associated with them. We know only the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks. Perhaps the only specificity here is Pliny, who comes in for a good deal of witty snark from Keay.

But as the marked routes extend and start to link continents to each other, Keay gives us a taste of the violence of greed, as it focuses on controlling the trade and rivalries start to come up, and other concerns, such as those of religion and its dissemination, come into play. The Portuguese in Kerala, under Vasco Da Gama, are particularly brutal. And slowly, as the trade routes of the world are mapped out and discovered, as continents are rounded, oceans crossed, and the very globe itself circumnavigated, the famous names appear on Keay’s pages — Columbus, Magellan, Alberquerque… until the power finally shifts to the hands of the British and Dutch East Indian Companies.

Nobody could accuse this book of not being scholarly enough; it is erudite, precise in its wit, and highly readable, but never self-indulgent. Presenting its reconstructed history lucidly and intelligently is its paramount aim. Its points of view are simultaneously cultural, sociological, economic, and historical, approaches that it perfectly balances, while always retaining some measure of lyrical fascination with the spices themselves.  But this is a dense book, which is why it is hard to summarize Keay’s narrative; each page, if not each paragraph, brings forth a new name and a new voyage of discovery, a new account of some spice and a new route attempted. It is not, therefore, a fast read; I must have taken three weeks over it.

Still, it was three weeks very well spent. To understand in some measure exactly how the world changed because of the yen for bits of dried vegetable matter and how globalization and its discontents are not entirely new to humanity, you could do no better than this engaging history.

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Cover of 'Monkey-man' At one point in Usha K.R.’s new novel, Monkey-man, one of the protagonists, Neela Mary Gopalrao, is vetting correspondence addressed to her boss, deciding what will actually reach him and what isn’t worthy to.

National Trust College, she thought, had become very ambitious of late—there were two proposals from them. One from a film studies person, a Shrinivas Moorty, asking for funds to upgrade their equipment—which she threw into the dustbin without a second thought—and another from the head of their Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies suggesting a collaborative workshop—which was a cleverer way of asking for money—that she put into the Important pile.

It’s a quiet but telling moment in Usha’s narrative, contrasting two approaches to making connections and getting something done. And, arguably, this moment operates as a reminder of how urban India has changed in the last twenty years and continues to change, how the route to success has changed. No more does achievement come from assuming that power is concentrated in somebody else’s hands, that one must work, be recognized for one’s work, and accept what the power bestows. Achievement is now in setting oneself up as a centre of power, an entity with much to offer, a collaborator—even if the Neela Mary Gopalraos of this world recognize that this is just ‘a cleverer way of asking for money,’ the fact is that, sooner rather than later, the money, the success, the achievement, the greater power does come. In the new urban India, there are more opportunities than ever before, for the taking—but only the confident can take them.

And it is this new urban India that Usha is concerned with, setting her novel at the beginning of the new millenium, a few days into January 2000. Four people have encountered a strange, savage beast the previous evening on Ammanagudi Street, Bangalore. Now, three of them are at a radio station’s studio with an RJ, Bali Brums, ready to talk about that they saw and what it might have been. Monkey-man is not a thriller—it’s not about what or who the monkey-man is and the process of hunting it down. Instead, it traces the stories of these  people–Srinivas Moorty, lecturer in History at National Trust College, a man who realizes how far his friends have drifted and how much he has not achieved, and whose marriage has become the mere sharing of a house; Neela Mary Gopalrao, personal secretary to the head of a research institute, who uses her power to play with the lives of her colleagues, but has once secretly opened herself up to another person and been humiliated; Pushpa Rani, who has risen from living in a one-room home on the edge of the city and earning a daily wage to become a Team Leader at a call centre, a girl who has turned her family’s fortunes around and is finally able to pay for the care of her ailing father. And Bali Brums (whose name is actually Balaji Brahmendra), the RJ, who dropped out of engineering college to take up one of the opportunities he came across in the changing India, a man who lives at home with his parents, even though he and his father disagree all the time, a man who trades on, in both personal and professional life, his ability to talk — not so much talk with people as talk at them — and to keep women, especially, swooning. Monkey-man is about each of their stories until that brush with terror on Ammanagudi Street and about how their lives have changed in the new India, along with the new tensions, negotiations, and opportunities that accompany these changes in what they might have thought of as immutable.

With a third-person narrative that speaks from the perspective of each of the main protagonists in turn, Usha perceptively constructs each of their lives. She has an eye for observing and describing the abstract and concrete minutiae of ordinary life–signboards on the street, the titles of public lectures, the colors and style of apparel, food preferences, passing encounters, smells, and so on–that her characters engage with every moment of the day, and it is through these minutiae that she painstakingly puts together a picture of how they live. This is a narrative that is deeply concerned with the internal, the life of the mind–not as it philosophizes or reflects on the abstract, but as it processes the constant stimulation from the material world around it—successfully chronicling some of the many facets of middle-class urban Indian life.

Usha’s prose is not without humour–it has a certain dryness, a subtle wit, in dealing with these minutae, that manages to simultaneously invoke both amusement at any evident pettiness in her characters’ existences and a strong feeling of sympathy for them, perhaps, most importantly, a feeling of recognition. This is what makes her work such a pleasure to read, as it helps the reader enter into these other lives, not in a voyeuristic sense but with the potential for deep understanding.

The journeys of her main characters take in several broad swathes of life in urban India. With Srinivas Moorty, the long road of boyhood friendship, the slow alteration of the street on which he lived, from semi-rural to urban, college days, the introduction to philosophy and politics with Marxism, to social life, to arranged marriage, all the way up to the sense, in the novel’s fictional present, that he might not have made the most of his life, as the world moves on around him and he is unable to quite keep up. With Neela Mary, the hierarchies and pecking orders of society, the ways in which they are reinforced and subverted, the confusion of women who have never been fully conditioned to professional ambition and yet never have an opportunity for marriage or partnership, because social mores stand in their way. And with Pushpa Rani and Bali Brums, the young, the hopeful, the way in which new technology has led to new employment and new optimism in urban India, even spaces where young people can engage in ways previously closed to them, while superstitions die hard and the burgeoning modernity is not of the European, individualistic, irreligious sort.

Churlish as it feels to level this criticism against such a finely written and imagined book, I have to say that, while I appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the telling of Srinivas Moorty’s story, I did not entirely see why it had to take up so much space. For, while Usha’s writing of college life is as nuanced as you could hope for, it is simply not compelling in the way that the rest of the book is compelling. It gives the reader a background, yes; but Srinivas, and his friends Geeta and Jairam, remain curiously concave throughout, gawky cyphers of youth. It is in the depiction of his marriage to Lily that Srinivas becomes a character to care about, not in that of his life before. Neela Mary and Pushpa Rani, on the other hand, are both strong, fascinating woman characters, and I do feel Usha would have done better to give them more time and space. Bali Brums, I have to say, was not a character I found myself drawn in by; somehow, he’s less sympathetic, less compelling than any of the others and that feeling doesn’t change by the end of the book. In sum, it does seem that Ushain this novel wrote her women far more confidently and fluently than her men—and perhaps that was an attempt to make a point.

That said, the strongest point of this novel, and Usha’s strongest point, is that she is genuinely interested in the journeys of each of her characters, men and women alike; as the words she uses to express Pushpa Rani’s thoughts say, “[E]veryone, she knew, had a story, a path down which they had walked, a journey that had formed them, that they were indistinguishable from.” This is a book to read for those stories. The new Bangalore, and urban India, has found in Usha a storyteller with a great capacity for compassion.

Edited because Harini pointed out that Bali Brums was missing from the first review I posted!

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Burnt Shadows… a time

to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all

that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.

First impressions can be deceptive, but this one wasn’t. When I saw the end of my favourite poem by Agha Shahid Ali in Burnt Shadows, as the epigraph to Kamila Shamsie’s novel, I knew: this I was going to feel strongly about, but it would not be a happy read, inasmuch as anything can be solely happy.

Reviews I read have, almost all of them, described Burnt Shadows as “ambitious.” I would have to agree. It is ambitious, indeed. This is a novel that starts off in Nagasaki, on the day America drops the Bomb, with the young Hiroko Tanaka and her fiance, Konrad Weiss. It moves then, out of a cloud of ash, to Delhi, 1947, where Hiroko has come to meet her now-dead finace’s sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and James Burton, and meets also Jame’s protege, Sajjad Ashraf. With the next large leap in time, we are in Karachi, in the early 1980s, with Hiroko, Sajjad, and their son Raza, and the Burtons’ son Harry re-entering their lives. And then, suddenly, it’s a post 9/11 world, and Afghanistan and New York are the arenas of tragedy, as the novel swings back to explain its prologue, in which an unnamed character, at the beginning of an incarceration at what (it is hinted) is Guantanamo Bay, wonders, “How did it come to this…” In the novel is the answer.

This sounds like an epic, like a grand sweeping saga, but it firmly isn’t. Shamsie’s novel is deeply concerned with a sweep of understanding rather than with spectacle. Her ambition is in finding her way into the hearts and minds of characters across the historical expanse of the last 60 years and telling their deeply personal stories of how their cultural, linguistic, and geographical differences collide, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes not. This is a world in which such sympathy is possible, but sometimes based on misunderstanding and often tenuous, and when it breaks down, it breaks into sorrow.

Shamsie has a knack of picking on memorable and, indeed, haunting images–cranes on fabric burnt onto a woman’s back, a fish leaping in a silvery reflection seen from a bridge… the visuals do what her clear, but not particularly accomplished, writing can’t do–they bring in a certain poesy to the work. This doesn’t, unfortunately, last all the way through the novel, but is used more often with the older characters–Hiroko, Konrad, Sajjad. When we understand what a character sees, it somehow becomes easier to understand what they feel. The younger characters, our contemporaries, Raza and Kim Burton (Harry’s daughter) think and are written more literally. As the point of view in focus shifts to become theirs, the book itself loses some of its emotional weight, in odd contrast to the immediacy of the theme of terrorism, Afghanistan, and Islam and its discontents.

(Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead)

There is in these younger characters, Raza and Kim, a narrowness, an inability or refusal to think in broader terms and enter easily into the experience of others–something that is starkly in opposition to the importance of language in the book as a whole. Raza, the son of Hiroko who speaks four languages fluently, is another gifted linguist, whose skills are ultimately used by the CIA in its war for Afghanistan–and we see the shadow of Kipling’s Kim behind him, reminded of that by two lines in which Harry Burton thinks of that other boy with a gift of speaking in the tongues of the North-Western subcontinent. But it is Harry’s daughter who is named “Kim” and it is ultimately she who both fails miserably and unutterably in understanding someone vastly different from her–Abdullah the Afghan, who Raza knew as a boy–and yet manages to understand Raza at the end of the novel, bringing it to a conclusion that surprised me, though it was not a satisfying ending.

I thought I could see the point Shamsie was making about language–and yet it seemed that she was unable to show it as often as she spelled it out. There is much made of characters speaking different languages, of characters taking language lessons from each other, of characters actually avoiding certain languages–but it is, ironically, in the scene where Kim misunderstands not Abdullah’s words but rather his silence that the difficulty of speaking to each other really becomes clear. That’s when I realised that Shamsie’s point was, perhaps, that language alone, the symbols and their system, cannot help us communicate if we do not understand experiences alien to our own. Something that, without including any spoilers here, Raza does demonstrate, eventually.

It’s telling that I do have a lot to say about the themes of this book, even though it was far from pitch-perfect, because it does, ultimately resonate with a genuine desire to write the people who have been caught in the history of our times and it succeeds, up to a point, in making the reader aware of that impossibility of perfect communication that we must yet strive for. But its unevenness became a real problem towards the end, when so much happens so fast that it took me two readings to arrive at an understanding of why Raza does what he does. And then, there was a problem of probability–I can understand how Hiroko could come out of Nagasaki and be a witness to 9/11, but it was more difficult to see a character disappear into an Afghan mujahideen camp and yet emerge again, years later, apparently unscathed in many ways. What happens at the end of the novel is fitting, but not entirely believable in its symmetry with the past; Raza has a chance to make up for what he did to Abdullah by helping Abdullah himself, not just anybody who happens to cross his path.There are shades of melodrama here, in terms of the reunion of Raza and Abdullah, and I don’t think they are in the best of taste.

Considering what Abdullah goes through, I find him an incredibly underwritten character. He’s too good; he truly lacks the shades of grey that, for instance, Kim Burton and Harry and even Raza are all allowed by Shamsie. It’s actually hard to disagree with him. This is a good thing–I think it’s immensely valuable to be in a position of understanding how such a character must feel, though that might just be my leftist leanings talking–but it’s hard to believe that he’s quite as white as he’s painted. Especially when nobody else in the novel has that luxury–nobody.

This is where Shamsie really seems to oversimplify things and succumb to the pressures of writing Pakistan and Afghanistan in the times we live in, when international attention to them is at its highest and any text can end up being viewed as a sociological discussion. Under such circumstances, where one finds or doesn’t find one’s villains can become a point from which much can be extrapolated. I would be enormously surprised if I heard that Shamsie hadn’t been criticized in Pakistan for writing this novel in English, for the international audience, and for various perceived sins of omission or comission therein. And then  praised by other people in Pakistan for exactly those sins.

All of that being said, perhaps my favourite lines in the book are these, which made me chuckle aloud on a train journey from Bangalore to Bombay:

‘Do you think an Englishman will ever write a masterpiece in Urdu?’

‘No.’ James shook his head. ‘If there ever was a time we were interested in entering your world in that way, it’s long past. And you wouldn’t know what to do with us if we tried.’

It seemed to Sajjad that these were the kinds of things said so often that repetition made fact out of conjecture. He’d know what to do with an Urdu masterpiece written by an Englishman. He’d read it. Why pretend it was more complicated than that?

Touche, Kamila. Touche.

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