Sunday, June 22, 2008


I was introduced to Amitav Ghosh when I happened to pick up his Calcutta Chromosomes from a friend who hailed from Calcutta. In my impressionable college days, when I did the bulk of my reading (sort of am still passing on that dated habit for being well-read now), that was easily the most unputdownable read for me. Difficult one to decipher, the only novel to equal it in terms of thrills (though not necessarily quality) came almost a decade later, The DaVinci Code.

There was something about Ghosh. I had discovered my other favourites, Lapierre & Collins, whose dramatized accounts of history in Freedom at Midnight, Is Paris Burning and O Jerusalem had me totally enthralled.

I would like to thank my blogmate, Itinerant, who actually sold me on to Ghosh when he got me to read one of my favourite, The Shadow Lines. It was Ghosh' second novel, and won him the Sahitya Academy Award (no celebrated Booker nomination). The novel is an unnamed narrators' account of relationships that are doomed to remain in the shadows. Apparently, it is semi-autobiographical, and its depiction of ties of idol-worship, romance and sacrifice, gives it a melodramatically haunting though absolutely realistic touch. I re-read the novel again a couple of years earlier to discover if the liking was a sort of growing up fixation, and the bond only grew deeper. As it is put so well, 'need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed'. The net takeout was an early Kundan Shah,

Ghosh does not really write eloquent prose, like say Rushdie. However, being an anthropologist (his In an Antique Land is almost a thesis, a boring one for me), he gives his novels a uniquely surreal historical-geographical perspective. As I heard him an interview, every novel has a background noise. He just gets it so much more Indic (around the Indian Ocean as he defines his sphere of operation) than the other Indian novelists. His novels are so much the rooted Lagaan than the vacuumed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

I have read all his books, except his collection of essays The Imam and the Indian. However, I was terribly disappointed when in one his earlier non-fiction book, Countdown, in the zeal to establish his anti-nuclear posture, he got some political numbers wrong.

His new century novels are getting more exciting. He specialises in fictitious history, where he spins yarns around actual happenings in Indic geographies. The Glass Palace is an unprecedented sweeping (albeit at times over-ambitious) India-Burma saga. And just on the eve of the release of the first of his ambitious trilogy The Sea of Poppies, I finished his last The Hungry Tide (his first with Harper Collins, after being with Ravi Dayal, Khushwant Singh's son-in-law, forever).

The Hungry Tide passes my primary rule of success - it makes me want to visit the Sunderbans (or the Tide Country as he calls it). The depiction of the terrain, the cyclone and the dolphins do a superior job to Al Gore (on climate) and all the different reports on the 2004 Tsunami. More importantly, for a tale with only seven main characters, the empathy established with each is stunning. The novel also establishes for me why RK Narayan's Guide worked so well in its filmi format. As the back cover reads, "The Hungry Tide explore another and far more unknowable jungle: the human spirit. It is a novel that asks at every turn: what man can take the true measure of another?"

It is a pity that unlike their Hollywood counterparts, Indian film-makers do not really turn novels into films. Apparently, Suman Mukopadhyay has been working on The Hungry Tide movie for the last couple of years. Hopefully, that should allow us to produce more of our own Cold Mountain or even Gone with the Wind.

A full-time traveling corporate job makes blogging difficult. However, it makes reading fiction even more difficult (because of the gaps in reading, I lose track of the characters quite quickly). My immediate endeavour will be to review The Sea of Poppies in 2008 only. Till then, let me wait for Abhishek Bachchan and Rahul Bose to sign on the dotted lines for The Hungry Tide.


Absolutely Normal Chaos said...

Good stuff. Except that I would rather not have these books turn into movies. Guess I'm too apprehensive about the results and too scared that they won't do justice to their sources.

svety said...

am gonna give him another try now that u've motivated me to make the time

itinerant said...

Selling Amitav Ghosh to you, as you mentioned, reminded me of The Shadowlines (I read it last year again)and those Amitav Ghosh filled college years. The first Ghosh, that I read was his first book too, The Circle of Reason, which is interesting but suffers from a huge Rushdie hangover in language and imagination.

It is still advised strongly that you read, In an Antique Land. I think it is one of the few interesting non-fiction/autobiographical accounts from an Indian. His thesis topic and the engagement with the Indian society, the host Egyptian one and the manner in which two ancient worlds (non-Western) interact with each other has rarely been broached.

There is a section in the book which I often like to mention when I discuss Amitav Ghosh. The village where he lived during his field work had the Mullah as the most important and learned person, till the coming of Ghosh. Now all villagers know Ghosh is going to become a doctor, there is confusion too about what kind of doctor, but he becomes a figure of authority for the villagers. The undermined Mullah feels threatened and has a verbal exchange with Ghosh in which he threatens that Egypt can easily defeat India in a war as they have better weapons (American; Egypt was an American ally after 1973). Ghosh replies that India even has the nuclear bomb, the mother of all bombs. And after the exchange, on reflection, he writes that, it is indeed ironic that two ancient civilisations were using the words of the West to interact with each other, weapons, war, annihilation!

Getting back, I was disappointed with both The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide. The disappointment was perhaps to his privileging the framework (hidden histories?) over characterisation. In The Hungry Tide, I thought it was down right clich├ęd. But I am thinking about my reaction to these books after reading the Sea of Poppies. My original for the past few years has been that Ghosh's characters are very weak, to the point of caricaturing. And I am even willing to risk saying the same about Tridipda and the narrator from The Shadowlines. There is a certain essentialism about his characterisation and how useful they are to his narrative but beyond that he does not flesh them out beyond.

On the movie front, I would be on the side of averring that such things are better kept away from Bollywood. And it has nothing to do with the commerce, it has more to do with Bollywood's specialisations. They do not have the skills to do a novel movie, definitely not of this sort. I would rather want non-Bollywood film world to have a go at it.

And I have my serious doubts if Bachchan Junior and that over rated big mouthed Rahul Bose will help the movie or its story beyond maybe getting it space in the media world. I think new actors, even real people might do a better job. Imagine the physical attributes of the boatman as described in the Hungry Tide, no actor has that wiry, tanned frame and to me it is very important that they keep it sincere.

Citizen Shaker said...

Sorry for the belated reply!!

I agree his characters can be rather cliched. In Hungry Tides, for instance, Fokir getting a forewarning from Kusum is totally filmi. What I love about Ghosh is the background he creates, which in Hungry Tides is brilliant. You feel like you are there in the Sunderbans. Marrying research with fiction is stunning.

I somehow just could not enjoy in an antique too much (maybe it was too real rather than filmy). and in shadow lines, the narrator's fixation with his cousin was so real.

as for converting in to cinema - forget the artists - just imagine what can vishal bharadwaj do with this material!!