Ghosh sets the second volume of his Ibis trilogy in 1838, appropriately enough, because at heart he’s a 19th-century novelist with a sweeping vision of character and culture.
At the center of the novel is Bahram Modi, whose humble origins in India belie his current status as a shipper of opium. But Ghosh threads multiple plots through his narrative, most of them having to do with the consequences of a severe storm in the Indian Ocean. Not only does this storm disrupt Bahram’s shipment of opium on the Anahita, it also threatens the Ibis, a ship whose “cargo” includes indentured servants, criminals, a French orphan (who later helps horticulturist Fitcher Penrose identify exotic plants in China) and a pair of lovers, Deeti and Kalua. When we’re not at sea trying to survive this monstrous storm, Ghosh takes us to Canton, China, the center of commerce, intrigue and corruption. Every character is on a quest for something: a valuable plant, a romance or a fortune. As with Dickens, Ghosh gives us an anatomy of the social world from the highest levels to the lowest, from the emperor of China to the river rats haunting the harbor of Canton, and his amazing ear finds a language—from pidgin English to Cornish dialect—appropriate for each character. Along the way we meet businessmen such as Bahram, whose judgment is perhaps clouded by a surfeit of opium.
A tightly packed saga, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, of drug-ruled lives in the back streets of Mumbai, which longtime resident (and former addict) Thayil insists on calling Bombay.
Do not call him Ishmael, though he is a castoff and exile. Of the narrator of this descent into the subcontinental demimonde, we know little, at least at first: A disembodied voice says, “since I’m the one telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now...these are nighttime tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust.” Very well, then. The vampires in question are the denizens of opium dens and brothels in the megacity’s back alleys, along roads choked with feces and animal corpses, with the “poor and deranged.” The time is the 1970s, drifting into later decades, and the narrative spotlight soon falls on one such resident, Dimple, a girlish eunuch who, having grown up in a brothel, is now both a prostitute and a sort of moral center; more important, Dimple expertly packs the opium pipes that are consumed in Rashid’s den, sucked up by an avid clientele. As time goes on, the cast of characters enlarges: One of particular interest is a Chinese exile, Mr. Lee, who has had a dangerous falling out with a prominent leader back home but wants nothing more than to return there, whether alive or otherwise. As time goes on, too, pipes give way to needles, and the city changes its tenor as the drug diet changes, never for the good. Asks Dimple: “Tell me why Chemical is freely available when there are no tomatoes in the market.” The answer: “Because...the city belongs to the politicians and the crooks and some of the politicians are more crooked than the most crooked of the crooks.” Few come into that dark corner of the world willingly, Thayil lets us know, and few ever leave.
Lyrical, poignant and pensive; challenging for its abundant Indian-isms (“She told only one girak that she was leaving, a pocket maar who always smoked at her station.”) but also for its moral bleakness.
The three protagonists in this trio of novellas struggle with fulfilling their desires while life in modern India speeds past them.
Stuck in a career he would not have chosen for himself, the unnamed young government officer of the first novella, The Museum of Final Journeys, finds himself posted to a mosquito-infested backwater. Starved for adventure and dreaming of being a writer, he is led to an incredible collection of colonial-era artifacts housed in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere. But his initial delight turns to claustrophobic dread as he ponders what, if anything, he can do with such useless treasures. Prema, the prematurely aging teacher at the heart of Translator Translated, also yearns for a meaningful life outside her dull routine. And after a chance meeting with a glamorous former schoolmate who runs a small publishing house, it seems as if there really is an opportunity for a different path. The publisher, Tara, allows her to translate into English the story collection of an obscure but talented female writer from the same town as Prema’s mother. The rewarding work brings Prema back to life, but a second attempt at translating a lesser novel proves problematic when the author’s nephew discovers discrepancies between Prema’s words and the original text. Like Prema, Ravi, the recluse in the final, titular novella, is his own worst enemy. As the adopted son of an upper-class anglophile Indian couple, Ravi grows up privileged (if neglected) in the idyllic mountain town of Mussoorie, in the Himalayas. Unable to connect with people his own age, the young Ravi takes solace in nature, until a family tragedy forces him to live with relatives in Bombay. He eventually returns to the mountains, though, and settles into a meager, solitary existence in what used to be his house. His peace is disturbed only when a well-meaning group of documentary filmmakers comes across Ravi’s life work, a secret hidden project that he would far prefer to keep to himself. Reading Desai’s (Fasting, Feasting, 2000, etc.) poignant and wry new effort offers a modest pleasure that suits its fragile characters.
A deft exploration of the limits people place on themselves by trying to cling to the past.
Billed as a “teaching novel,” this book uses examples from the lives of mystics of diverse traditions to pose questions about the origins, significance and reach of consciousness.
Chopra is the founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. He has written numerous books (Spiritual Solutions, 2012, etc.) and has had several titles on bestseller lists. Here, Chopra profiles 10 historical figures in an effort to better understand God: Job, Socrates, St. Paul, Shankara, Rumi, Julian of Norwich, Giordano Bruno, Anne Hutchinson, Baal Shem Tov and Rabindranath Tagore. Along the way, Chopra offers his reflections, which occasionally drift into homily. The central question Chopra raises in each “Revealing the Vision” section is: “[W]here did consciousness come from?” Not all of the figures profiled are well-known. Hutchinson, for example, was an early, radical Puritan; Bruno, a heretic, was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. Of particular interest are the humorous, humble Baal Shem, the brilliant, witty Shankara and the visionary Julian of Norwich, a woman Chopra calls “the most touching figure in this book.”
The frightening, illuminating and disturbing memoir by the author of The Satanic Verses, the book that provoked a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
Rushdie (Luka and the Fire of Life, 2008, etc.) chose for his cover name (and for the title) the first names of Conrad and Chekhov—appropriate, for the author seems caught in a tangled novel filled with ominous (and some cowardly) characters driven by an inscrutable fate toward a probable sanguinary climax. The author uses third person throughout, a decision that allows him a novelist’s distance but denies some of the intimacy of the first person. Perhaps he viewed himself during those 13 years (the duration of his protection by British security forces) more as a character than a free agent. He returns continually to an image from Hitchcock’s The Birds: the black birds gradually filling up a jungle gym on a school playground (these represent the threats to personal freedom presented by fundamentalists). Rushdie also includes unmailed letters to actual people (Tony Blair) and to ideas (the millennium). The organization is unremarkable: The author begins with his learning of the fatwa, retreats to tell about his life before 1989, then marches steadily toward the present with only a few returns (a section about his mother’s love life). Bluntly, he tells about his wives, divorces, affairs, successes and failures of pen and heart and character; his various security guards; and, very affectingly, about his two sons. He tells about his travels, many awards and celebrity friends. Emerging as heroic is the United States, where Rushdie realized he could live more freely than anywhere else.
Aspects of a spy novel, a writer’s autobiography and a victim’s affidavit pulsing with resentment and fear combine to reveal a man’s dawning awareness of the primacy of freedom.
Two strong-willed men, a developer and a holdout, propel this gripping second novel about real estate, greed and community in Mumbai (Bombay), India; Adiga won the Man Booker prize for his debut (The White Tiger, 2008).
There’s a building in Mumbai we get to know as well as the two protagonists. Vishram Society Tower A is an unremarkable six-story structure a stone’s throw from the Vakola slums. Water supply is poor. Pests necessitate visits from the “seven-kinds-of-vermin” man. Still, the building has class. The residents of this co-op are middle-class professionals, respectable people typified by Yogesh Murthy, known as Masterji, the 61-year-old retired physics teacher and recent widower. Mr. Shah is the far from respectable but hugely successful builder. His is a rags-to-riches story; starting with smuggling and slum clearance, he’s now at the top of the heap. Vishram’s two towers’ proximity to the financial center attract his attention. They must be demolished to make way for his magnificent new project. Shah’s buyout offer is generous, but it comes with a strict deadline; acceptance must be unanimous. There are four no votes. Masterji votes no as an act of solidarity with his dear friends the Pintos, an old married couple. Then they’re threatened, and suddenly Masterji is the lone holdout. Stubborn and irascible, he is that rare individual who has no price; he wants nothing. Shah could have his enforcer cripple or kill him, but he wants the building’s gossipy denizens, by now frantic for the money, to do the dirty work. With great skill, Adiga spotlights the slippery slope, as the unthinkable becomes the thinkable and finally the doable. Really, what choice do his neighbors have? The author sets us up for the kill while placing it in context: the riotous sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai.
Adiga nails the culture of corruption. How exciting to watch a writer come into his own, surpassing the achievement of his first novel.
The Indian-born poet (The Golden Gate, 1986) and novelist (A Suitable Boy, 1993) extends his already impressive range with this replete family memoir.
It’s the story of Seth’s London-based great-uncle (his grandfather’s brother) Shanti Behari Seth and Shanti’s German-Jewish wife Hennerle (“Henny”), with whom young “Vicky” lived when he came from Calcutta to attend university in London in 1969. Part One of this most artfully constructed book juxtaposes Seth’s own somewhat discordant educational and career experiences, while affectionately portraying the personality traits (Uncle Shanti’s kindhearted fussiness, Aunt Henny’s slightly nervous dignified reserve) that somehow made them a perfectly matched couple. Then, following her death and his decade of bereavement, Seth explores Shanti’s life (details provided by both “interviews” and correspondence): his studies in 1930s Berlin, patient courtship of Henny Caro (who would not marry him until many years later), departure for England when Third Reich regulations disallowed Shanti from practicing his chosen profession of dentistry and wartime service, during which an exploded shell destroyed his right arm. The absorbing third section is Henny’s story, told mostly through the agonized letters she exchanged with family and friends in wartime Germany, after she had emigrated to England. Marred only by a ten-page digression in which Seth analyzes German culture and history’s “possible influence in the present century,” this is an immensely moving narrative: a splendid small book within a book. Subsequently, Seth details Shanti’s and Henny’s expatriate marriage, then leaps ahead to Shanti’s ailing, deranged last years alone (he died shortly before his 90th birthday), concluding with a summation of their story’s relationship to Seth’s own life—which he has undertaken to explore in “a double biography, an intertwined meditation, where the author is an anomalous third braid.” Seth’s voice is a fluent, graceful and compassionate one, and the story he tells—in a sense, it’s every family’s story—should have irresistible appeal.
Another triumph for one of the most versatile and engaging of all contemporary writers.
In a well-documented indictment, investigative journalist Roy (Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, 2009, etc.) presents the case against the Indian government’s murderous policies toward the country’s tribal population.
These three linked articles/essays, rendered with a disarming blend of passion and precision, tell the story of India’s tribal people and the violence and neglect they have suffered at the hands of the Indian state. Their land is rich in natural resources and has become the target of takeover by the corporate elite, aided and abetted by a corrupt government and, thus, by the military. This takeover is being conducted in conjunction with Operation Green Hunt, a program aimed at eradicating the Maoist insurgency that has been taking place for decades in the tribal lands, and that has the earmarks of the Sri Lanka solution—kill them all and let heaven do the sorting—and George W. Bush’s binary system: for us or against us. Not only does Roy go out and get involved, she examines every shade of gray while spending weeks with the young insurgents to get under their skin. She writes with a ringing clarity that should bring down a measure of opprobrium to shame the Indian political establishment. The concluding piece, bathed in a sense of cynicism that readers will feel Roy is entitled to, details how the Indian constitution has been traduced by everyone from the parliament to the press to the police.
A bell-clear exposé of corporate greed and governmental malfeasance that should—if there is any justice in the world—provoke a furious backlash in the name of human dignity.
Lahiri (The Namesake, 2003, etc.) extends her mastery of the short-story format in a collection that has a novel’s thematic cohesion, narrative momentum and depth of character.
The London-born, American-raised author of Indian descent returns with some of her most compelling fiction to date. Each of these eight stories, most on the longish side, a few previously published in magazines, concerns the assimilation of Bengali characters into American society. The parents feel a tension between the culture they’ve left behind (though to which they frequently return) and the adopted homeland where they always feel at least a little foreign. Their offspring, who are generally the protagonists of these stories, are typically more Americanized, adopting a value system that would scandalize their parents, who are usually oblivious to the college lives their sons and daughters lead. Ambition and accomplishment are givens in these families, where it’s understood that nothing less than attending a top-flight school and entering an honored profession (medicine, law, academics) will satisfy. The stunning title story presents something of a role reversal, as a Bengali daughter and her American husband must come to terms with the secrets harbored by her father. The story expresses as much about love, loss and the family ties that stretch across continents and generations through what it doesn’t say, and through what is left unaddressed by the characters. Even “Only Goodness,” the most heavy-handed piece in the collection, which concerns a character’s guilt over her brother’s alcoholism, sustains the reader’s interest until the last page. The final three stories trace the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik, from their teen years through their 30s, when fate (or chance) reunites them.
An eye for detail, ear for dialogue and command of family dynamics distinguish this uncommonly rich collection.
A slacker seeks career success and sexual fulfillment in Chatterjee’s 1988 first novel, since proclaimed a contemporary Indian classic.
It’s set in 1983, when educated underachiever Agastya Sen (nicknamed “August,” and also English—for his avid Anglophilia) forsakes New Delhi to train as a District Collector (roughly, what a County Manager might be in America) in the overpopulated, underprivileged village of Madna. Everyone important to him is elsewhere: his girlfriend of sorts off to study in America, his mother deceased, his father absorbed in a high administrative post in Bengal, his pot-smoking best pal Dhrubo reachable only through letters in which Agastya itemizes his many frustrations. Madna, reputedly the hottest place in India, is a sinkhole of maladministration, adorned by the garish statue of Mahatma Gandhi that presides over its indigence, “run” by such non-notables as a police chief distracted by, and addicted, to pornography, and populated in part by coworkers for whom Agastya contrives a fictitious personal history complete with adoring wife and distinguished family. The duties of a District Collector are multitudinous and degrading, as evidenced by a painfully hilarious sequence in which Agastya is unwisely entrusted with devising a working water supply to replace a dried-up well. It’s an image of his own loneliness, depression, sexual tensions (relieved by compulsive masturbation) and avid consumption of pot (he gets through most days contentedly stoned). There’s a brief escape back to New Delhi, but the pursuit of a career in publishing is derailed by the manic incompetence of Agastya’s flamboyant second cousin Tonic. This beautifully written book strikes a nifty balance among satiric comedy, pointed social commentary and penetrating characterization. Widely considered India’s Catcher in the Rye, it also echoes both R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi novels and J.P. Donleavy’s classic portrayal of rampant, unrepentant maleness, The Ginger Man.
Excellent stuff. Let’s have Chatterjee’s other novels, please.
A journalist ingratiates himself with a band of day laborers on the mean streets of Delhi, India.
In 2005, Sethi, a young reporter eager to undertake an investigative study of Delhi’s working poor, befriended vagabond Mohammed Ashraf and his crew. Six years later, he found himself still involved in Ashraf’s life, providing him with both emotional and financial support. Although Sethi initially expressed frustration with Ashraf’s reluctance to provide a linear timeline of his life story, he soon fell under the spell cast by this streetwise raconteur. Like many others in his circle, Ashraf had run away to Delhi to escape a tempestuous home life. During times when he could find work, he painted houses and did other manual odd jobs; during times when there was either no work to be had or no work that he wanted, he drank heavily, spun tall tales and fantasized about opening his own business. Sethi excels at empathetically depicting what could come across as a miserable existence: he allows Ashraf and the other mazdoors (laborers) to share their stories without either judging them or pretending to be one of them. For all the injustices that these men face every day, the book offers ample humor. In the most poignant chapters, Sethi accompanies Ashraf’s friend to a tuberculosis hospital. The bureaucracy and despair of such an institution becomes painfully clear when Sethi portrays the panel of admitting doctors, all wearing masks and looking away from their patients.
Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.
Grim text and photographs depict an India very different from the booming economic superpower-in-training of contemporary myth.
Instead, this collection of 16 narratives focuses on the nation’s many pockets of desperate poverty and joblessness where families reap a few rupees from selling their daughters while police and petty bureaucrats take a cut (and free sex) from sex workers on their beat. The concentration of HIV in particular risk groups rather than across the population as a whole echoes Elizabeth Pisani’s findings from her work in Southeast Asia (The Wisdom of Whores, 2008). Various writers of Indian ethnicity, birth or residency—including Salmon Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Vikram Seth—depict the daily grind of sex workers, drug addicts and long-distance truck drivers, each providing a take-home message. Even in the occasional tales featuring such atypical AIDS sufferers as a servant, a physician or a noted filmmaker, the same issues persist: difficulties in implementing condom or clean needle use; overwhelming ignorance about the disease’s cause and transmission. Stigma leads to secrecy, shame and avoidance of treatment, which in India is largely free. A family pleased to live off the earnings of their daughter when she was healthy dumped her in a corner of their house and let her starve to death after she developed AIDS. William Dalrymple poignantly portrays a lovely young devadasi sold by her parents into prostitution at age 14 in a corrupt modern version of the ancient Hindu cult dedicated to the goddess Yellamma. A foreword by Nobelist Amartya Sen and an introduction by Bill and Melinda Gates both argue that we must cease stigmatizing and blaming hapless victims if we are to find real solutions. Among the few bright spots here is the fact that some of the infected protagonists have gone to work for NGOs and now counsel their peers.
A cautionary volume that stresses the need to educate, treat and create jobs.
In this minor but engaging work, the Nobel Prize winner (Magic Seeds, 2004, etc.) examines the supernatural and religious beliefs he discovered in six African nations.
Beginning in 2008 in Uganda (where he was a visiting professor in 1966), the author was stunned by the burgeoning population. Throughout his African journeys, he observed the lingering effects of foreign religions—Christianity, Islam and others—and the almost universal adherence of most people, even the highly educated, to beliefs and traditions that thrum with the energy of the forest, magic, mischief and witchcraft. He repeatedly comments sorrowfully about the abuse of animals he saw everywhere—from traditional domestic pets to larger animals used in ritual sacrifices to big-game creatures that have no chance in the brave new world of GPS and high-powered rifles. In Uganda, he wondered if the lack of written history has given strength to the oral tradition, to legend and myth, and he visited a witchdoctor, which was surprisingly expensive. In Nigeria, he reflects on the writings of Scottish explorer Mungo Park, on the origins of “mumbo jumbo” and on the enduring cultural significance of soothsayers. He received permission to visit a breathtaking sacred grove. In Ghana, he learned about polytheism and heard how people dine on dogs and cats. In Ivory Coast, he saw a castle whose fetid moat was home to (imported) crocodiles and a surprisingly impressive cathedral. In Gabon he witnessed initiation rites, though he saw only what the participants permitted. He heard about wizards, witches and astral journeys, and he made a stop at the former home of Albert Schweitzer, now not so impressive. He ends in South Africa, where “race ran as deep as religion elsewhere.”
A work more narrative than reflective, but Naipaul’s prose remains smooth, subtle, often silvery.
Ramachandran (Psychology and Neurosciences/Univ. of California, San Diego; A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, 2005, etc.) sets his sights on explaining the neuroscience that underlies characteristics he considers unique to humans beings.
The author suggests that some 150,000 years ago, hominid brains underwent a “phase transition” (like water becoming ice), so that some brain centers expanded and developed new functions, leading to language, aesthetics, consciousness and self-awareness. Like Oliver Sacks, Ramachandran finds illumination in the analysis of patients with anomalous syndromes. Thus he begins with studies of phantom limbs and synesthesia, most commonly manifest as the condition in which individuals see specific colors associated with numbers or musical notes. The roster of syndromes grows to include language and memory disorders, cases in which a stroke patient denies the existence of a paralyzed limb, a patient recognizes his mother’s face but says she is an impostor, or a patient who believes himself dead. Ramachandran’s argues that the lesions in such patients disrupt specific sites in multi-branching pathways that create mismatches between sensory and motor areas, or between emotional and perceptual areas. In turn, the brain adapts, often making matters worse. Early on, the author introduces mirror neurons, which are abundant in human brains. These are cells that mimic the actions of another person as you watch, but are inhibited from executing the action. They are considered the source of empathy or “theory of mind” by which humans can read other’s intentions. Ramachandran invokes mirror neurons as essential for social learning, language and cultural transmission. For the most part, the author argues convincingly, except where he defines aesthetic principles, which seem no more than a rehash of old Gestalt ideas. Nor is it certain that all the traits he discusses are unique to humans.
Despite some minor flaws, Ramachandran produces an exhilarating and at times funny text that invites discussion and experimentation.
Highly decorated economists Banerjee and Duflo (Economics/Massachusetts Institute of Technology) relay 15 years of research into a smart, engaging investigation of global poverty—and why we're failing to eliminate it.
Aiming to change the stigma that revolves around poverty, the authors explore not just how many find themselves in economic quicksand, but why. They suggest that policymakers, economists and philanthropists alike fail to understand the unique problems that lead to poverty; as such, attempts to eradicate it are often misguided. The poor need more than food, the authors write; they need programs that empower them with a real, fighting chance. Through a blend of on-the-ground observations, social experiments and psychological analysis, Banerjee and Duflo showcase an expansive understanding of poverty's traps and its potential solutions. They extol the virtues of such practices as microsaving and microfinance, which cut out debilitating interest rates and predatory moneylenders. But even these solutions aren't without their issues, including lack of trust in the lender and an unwillingness to take risk. The authors advocate for increased access to family planning, as family size is often a leading cause for why many are saddled with financial burden. They also investigate why many forego free or low-cost medical care or education.
A refreshingly clear, well-structured argument against the standard approach to poverty, this book, while intended for academics and those working on the ground, should provide an essential wake-up call for any reader.