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January 5, 2012 in Indian fiction | Tags: 1st book in the Ibis trilogy, Amitav Ghosh, Bengal, Bihar, Black Water, book review, British, British India, British rule in India, Calcutta, China, colonial India, East India Company, Ganga, Ghosh, Glass Palace, Ibis, Ibis trilogy, India, Indian author, indian fiction, Indian Literature, Indian novel, Indian Ocean, Indian writing, opium, opium addicts, opium farming, opium ship, opium trade, poppies, poppy farms, Raja Neel Ratan, schooner, sea, Sea Of Poppies, seas, ships | 2 comments
Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.
Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.
Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.
Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.
Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.
Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.
And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.
So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.
Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.
The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis. Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end. While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.
Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.
Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.
Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.
Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.
August 17, 2010 in best sellers, Indian fiction | Tags: America, Bengal, Bengali, Bengali writing, book review, book review of Unaccustomed Earth, book review on unaccustomed earth, brother, immigrants, India, Indian author, Indian couples, indian fiction, Indian immigrants, Indian Literature, Indian writing, Indian writing in English, Jhumpa Lahiri, love, marriage, Namesake, short stories, sister, Unaccustomed Earth | 3 comments
For me, Indian Fiction is irresistible and Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing draws me, attracts me to read her novels. I had read ‘Namesake’ which was an excellent book with a rare story of Indian immigrants in America. ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is pretty much written on the same lines with the only exception that it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Its worth spending your time and money over and its a really wonderful read.
The book is divided into 2 parts with Part One having 5 short stories about Indian immigrants of different age, gender, generation and they are all set all over the U.S. While Part Two is a short immigrant love story of Hema and Kaushik.
In Part One, the first story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about a husband and his daughter coping with the wife/mother’s death and how her death allows him to travel while the daughter worries about taking care of her father. In the second story, ‘Hell-Heaven’, a married woman falls in love with a younger man who does not reciprocate this love and instead marries an American. ‘A Choice Of Accommodation’, the third story narrates the loss of love between a married Indian-American couple and how they regain that love. The fourth one, ‘Only Goodness’ is a story of a sister trying to protect her brother from alcoholism yet shunning him away at the same time because of his addiction. It gives a curious look at brother-sister relationship. The last story,’Nobody’s Business’ is a singular story of an Indian woman living as a roommate with Americans who is in love with an Egyptian. Part Two has three chapters which narrate a singular love story that develops between Hema and Kaushik over the years yet ends in tragedy.
The first thing that hits the reader in the face is that these stories do not have a rosy picture. There is a fragmented despair and utter sadness and even isolation and depression that pervades each story. They do not have a single aspect of the American Dream. There is conflict in each story, a loss of identity, a strong sense of disillusionment or even anger. ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ provides harsh glimpses into the immigrant’s world which is unexpected as the majority of readers would expect a happy, better life in America than in India. Materially, the families are well off in each story but never emotionally or spiritually.
Although ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories, the characters really come alive in each of them. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fine writing brings out nuances, peculiar qualities, different characteristics that makes the reader easily form a good picture of the characters in their mind(just like in ‘Family Matters’ by Rohinton Mistry). Her writing is undoubtedly superb and elegant. It effortlessly captures the essence of Indian immigrant life in America (just like it did in the ‘Namesake’) Its a definite must read for all lovers of Indian fiction writing and for all those who love literature.
One warning for all who want to pick up the book to read: ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ requires a great deal of concentration and it is not our typical kind of ‘happy’ book, so for those who want to peruse only for fun and past time, please don’t bother to read ‘Unaccustomed Earth’. For others who would love to venture beyond the usual, stereotypical books, might find this book just right!
August 2, 2010 in Indian fiction | Tags: Amitav Ghosh, Bengal, book review, British, British period, Calcutta, Dhaka, East Pakistan, family, Independence, India, Indian author, indian fiction, Indian Literature, joint family, London, nostalgia, Partition, recollections, riots, West Bengal | Leave a comment
One word that can best describe ‘The Shadow Lines‘ by Amitav Ghosh is-Nostalgia. The opening lines set the tone of the book. It seems less of a novel and more of an elaborate anecdote from a family’s history. Its narration is very lifelike. The reader feels as if the events in the book are being narrated right there orally by an actual person. The book has an old world charm to it and seems authentic.
‘The Shadow Lines‘ is set in Calcutta and takes one to places like Dhaka, Delhi, London etc. The narrator recalls the events of his life. He recalls Tridib, Ila, his parents, his grandparents. These recollections focus on 1 single event that possibly marred his life. These recollections seem random and purposeless but that is not so. The end of the book is when these recollections start making sense and the reader understands why the narrator is talking about them. The nostalgia that the book evokes is incomparable to anything I have read. It has a curious sense of history, a tender love for the past and all things familiar in childhood and the good old days. The writing is simple, descriptive and beautiful.
The only con noticeable is the difficulty of establishing a chronology. The narrator jumps from one event happening in the present to another that happened 10 years ago to another that happened about 2 or 3 years ago. There are extracts from different time periods and about different people which can be difficult to piece together.
Other than that, ‘The Shadow Lines‘ is a good book suffused with nostalgia.