The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

I was sorely tempted to review this in conjunction with Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which if I had to put it in a genre, I would call historical fiction. Yet the two books could scarcely be more different. Ishiguro gives you an idea of a period, it’s hazy, impressionistic. Ghosh is very precise about historical themes. The book is sweeping – panoramic – but his focus is not on detail. If one might call World War one, for instance, a ‘detail’, it is noted in passing, perhaps in no more than a sentence, whilst the process of logging teak in Burma (as it was for most of the story) is told in depth over various settings and periods.

In principle I disapprove of historical fiction. Read a history book if you want history. Go the hard yards, fiction author. Don’t rely on historical filler to make up for your lack of story. But the fact is that I swallowed up all 500 pages of this in a couple of days and (obviously) was pleased to do so. I felt like I was there for every moment of the book. I was in the Glass Palace, I was in the jungle, I was on a rubber plantation in Singapore and various settings in India. Presumably that’s about as high praise as this sort of book can get.

It’s my first book by Ghosh, but I can see I’m going to have to try another.



Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

I don’t have the issue that bother some with this book, the way characters disappear. But I’ve been to see Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines and it turned out I could pack up and go home about 20 minutes in. One of those life experiences that hardens you.

A young policeman, whose preference is painting birds, and who is in the police because it was the first civil service position for which he qualified, keeps changing the lives of odd but good people without having any interest in doing so. I want to call him corrupt in that he has a job he doesn’t care about and he treats it in a way  you can’t treat that sort of job. He should care. But in fact he does what he is told, toes the line, hopes to get up the ranks, hopes mainly that he can spend as much time as possible with birds. And so. First he is responsible for the incineration of a group of crazy good people. One escapes and in chasing him down, he is responsible for a brutal police attack on another equally odd group which is doing nothing more than going shopping.

So far I think all this is great. Wonderful story telling in the Indian tradition. It has the quirkiness of, say, a Narayan story, but with that added stark realism that marks modern Indian literature as I’ve experienced it. However, I was lost in the third part where his target is still on the run and they find each other again. It seemed sort of slapsticky and without the same intensity of the first parts. I didn’t understand it and I certainly didn’t believe it. If I’ve missed the point, please tell me what it is as I’d like not to be disappointed by it.

Absolutely worth a read, I was engrossed for much of it. It has much to show the reader about Indian history and politics, the way certain types of societies and situations function. And there are some deeply moving parts, particularly in building up to the first catastrophe. The first parts of the book are utterly gripping. But despite that I’ve put it on my pile of books to give to my local secondhand bookseller here. It’s a pity that when you finish a book, it’s the ending that leaves the taste in your mouth.

Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.

An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

If one can imagine the difficulties Naipaul suffers now in a period in which the principle of ‘free speech’ is being eroded by nice white people to ‘you can say what you like as long as we agree with it’, it speaks buckets for this book that he experienced the ‘censorship of the offended’ the very moment it appeared. Banned in India and still banned over fifty years later.

This sits badly with me, not only because of the issue of free speech, but also because he didn’t look at all at the side of India which is truly dark. He could so easily have talked of the violence and exploitation, but he left it unsaid. He spoke only of what he saw and how he felt. A travelogue filled with angst, not only towards the India which so upset him, but also towards himself. No doubt one learns a lot about one’s own inadequacies in such a situation and Naipaul doesn’t shrink from them one bit. I don’t really understand why people who see this as only a personal critique of India, don’t understand this. Neither writer nor subject come off well in this encounter. There are only losers, but why should it be any other way?

Amit Chaudhuri sets Naipaul’s marginalisation in an academic context:

The other reason for Naipaul’s marginalisation has been the rise, in the academy, of “cultural studies” and “postcolonial literary theory”. The marginalisation of Naipaul is co-terminous with the marginalisation of the text, of literariness, and imagination. For the brief period I taught “Commonwealth literature” at Cambridge, I found that Naipaul – like R K Narayan and Nirad C Chaudhuri – was hardly read by students, or taught by teachers. Postcolonial literature had become less a critical or imaginative exploration than a political programme, with novelists “writing back” to the Empire that had supposedly formed their recent histories. Writers who didn’t fit into this programme were ignored; their works were like a code that students lacked the tools to break.  Nobel Thoughts

But is that the Indian perspective too or just the university program’s imposition?

If you are looking for a standard nationalistic anti-Naipaul piece, A brown sahib’s gaze will suffice. Evidently India, like its elephant, has a long memory. I was curious to search around more for Indian reactions to this book and found a couple of thoughtful blog reviews, by Vikram here and Sujit’s piece here.  They both discuss the uncomfortable truth of how India is – not much different now from in the early 1960s. I note also Bishan Samaddar’s review and Sunil’s who closes with the comment:

I am sure the book is hated in India and by Indian journalists/reviewers ; surely nothing could speak better for the book.

People keep talking about how much things have improved in India. It isn’t something I see, though maybe I look in the wrong places. I’ve never thought that Westerners watching Bollywood movies is a sign that things are better in India. On the subject of Outdoor Defecation, of which there are many words written in this book, the situation in India is little changed. Approximately 600 million people in India do not use toilets. It is a little complicated to say this is just due to lack of access as it is also, as Naipaul notes, a cultural issue. There is a commonly held belief that it is a more sanitary process to defecate in the open. Further complicating matters is the caste system, which still holds its regulatory power in society. Every aspect of this is horrifying.

To read about the PM’s plan to introduce 100M toilets to India before 2019, read here and Open defecation in cities: A faltering India story. To read more about the situation of the Dalits and the enforced role of the excrement cleaning sub-caste, go to Cleaning Human Waste “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India and also India: Caste Forced to Clean Human Waste ‘Manual Scavenging’ Persists With Local Officials’ Support.

If you are interested in literature, it will have been hard to have missed the public fisty-cuffs Naipaul’s had over the decades, most famously with Paul Theroux, but another that stands out was the reaction of female writers to his panning of their gender. He is breathtakingly arrogant. I’m just amazed at the tone of this book from that point of view. He was only thirty when he made this trip! Most people of that age these days are still playing. When they do the obligatory travel, it’s to post pictures to facebook and let everybody know where you can get awesome something-a-rather somewhere.

Naipaul on the other hand was a mature, polished writer who thought deeply about his subject. One doesn’t have to agree with every thing he says to accept that. The very fact that he makes so many observations of India, of himself, of his background and its relationship to both India and England, of history and literature will make that obvious. But it is beautifully written, captures details of people and places and senses exquisitely, and, most amazingly, considering the darkness of his perspective and the difficulty of the subject matter, there is a remarkable amount of humour here. He makes the reader laugh in unexpected places, which is surely a real talent.

I’d make it compulsory reading, if I could, for people interested in India. And yet, it is banned in India, and if not banned, then per force of disapprobation unread outside its subject country.

For more on books banned in India see You Can’t Read This Book .  For an exploration of the ways in which free speech is being attacked in India, PEN has produced the following report.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The long is: I suspect most people come to this as an EM Forster fan, whereas I’m the contrary case. This was the only Galgut I hadn’t read when I picked it up in London a year or more ago. On the other hand, I’ve never read a thing by EM Forster other than his brilliant short story ‘The Machine Stops’.

So enamoured am I of Galgut that when I bought this, I didn’t even look at the back cover, only to discover when I sat down to begin it at home that it is a bio-novel. I was crestfallen. I have a historian’s distaste for bio-pics, biography, autobiography. Why would a bio-novel be any different? What is it? Some excuse to write a biography without doing the hard work? Without having to bother with the facts? Back on the shelf it sat, and sat. And sat. Until the other day when I came upon it soon after an experience which had given me a different perspective on this sort of book. I read Infinity: The Story of a Moment by Gabriel Josipovici, read it, loved it, and only subsequently discovered it was a bio-novel. Fantastic, opened up a new world to me, one where it is possible to be sympathetic to reality while fleshing it out in some way a fiction writer may have at his fingertips, but not a historian.

Why not Galgut, then? Indeed, why not. He did a great job of the various settings, culturally, geographically and temporally. The elegant prose is precisely fit for the period and the man which are the subject of it. It’s quite unlike anything else Galgut has written and he does a more than satisfactory job of stepping outside what I think of as his comfort zone. It’s a gentle, melancholic story of a man to whom nothing happens, but oh, aren’t we batting for him all the way?

The short is: I couldn’t put it down, read it in a couple of days. Another triumph for Galgut.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

I know quite a bit about India in the period in which this is set – but only at a very micro, rural level. This is an urban middle-class story set against the backdrop of the period of war with Pakistan, a world I really only started discovering through Mistry’s books. For the colour of life in the city, the stench of it, its cheapness, its noise, its horrifying poverty-strickenness, its cruelty, this book can be thoroughly recommended. To watch the small attempts to rise above these circumstances, to escape to something better is distressing…but buy a cup of fairtrade tea or a fairtrade string bag and you’ll get over it.

Having just finished it, I’m still uncertain as to whether this is the first or second time I’ve read it. I have it listed elsewhere as read, but I never felt like I was reading old words despite my realising from the moment it was mentioned, that the wall would be painted. Is there another Indian novel with that same idea? Has my memory changed so much that it is capable of not retaining a story that is really quite memorable?

There is much in this story about that nature of recollection. I wonder how many more times these ruminations will come fresh upon me?


Update April 2016: I noticed, in connection with the banning of Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness in India, that the University of Mumbai banned this book with alacrity upon the threat of violence from a rightwing political group looking for attention. All over the world free speech is being eroded in universities, ironically from both the left side of the divide and the right. It is something both sides apparently agree upon, that people should only be allowed to say what their side wants to hear. So in the end, what is the difference between a criminal group of thugs in India arguing for the banning of a book and those of quite a different political stance who recently fought to stop Germaine Greer, a noted public speaker and thinker for 50 years, from appearing on university soil?

You can find Mistry’s own reaction to this here.

I quote from it:

“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena’s well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.

“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.

“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake’.”

Real Time by Amit Chaudhuri

I do wish some of my online Indian acquaintances had opinions about this book; in some respects it is difficult to know what to make of it.

For a start one sympathises with the readers and reviewers online who complain about the structure of these stories. I would describe many of them as episodes rather than stories and for those who like an end to a story, this is a collection that will largely disappoint, most of them stopping rather than ending.

For another thing, I imagine non-Indian readers would find it a hard collection to comprehend. In the realm of fiction, of the various works I’ve read, this is particularly Indian, culturally and even linguistically. As well as the economic and social stratifications evident in Indian society, there is much about Britishness as it pertains to some, and geographical cultural distinctions. Not many outside India are going to have understanding of the situation of a Bengali in Bombay. Still, one wonders at this, for example, from The Kirkus Review:

Little happens in Chaudhuri’s otherwise exquisitely fashioned fiction: witness “The Great Game,” a vignette that employs the phenomenon of soccer combat to underscore tensions between India and Pakistan;

If it were not clear to the anonymous reviewer from the story that this is about cricket – yeah, not the world famous soccer player Tendulkar – there is even a note about the story at the end which discusses it being about cricket. Nor, may I add, is the story about tensions between India and Pakistan; I hesitate to see how anybody could say this if they had read the story. Given this, I can’t resist quoting Kirkus’s self-publicity:

because of the scope of our coverage, our authoritative voice and the timeliness of our reviews, Kirkus Reviews is revered by many as the first indicator of a book’s potential


Maybe having read a fair amount of Indian literature and studied Indian political economy makes this more accessible for me than the average non-Indian. To read what a caring eye observes has added to my understanding of Indian society – or bits of it, since to talk of such a thing as if it were a monolithic affair, society there, is obviously as far from the truth as one could get. It tells you how people live and relate to each other; the watchman with his employer, the wealthy housewife with her singing teacher, old friends who remeet. Actually, an ongoing theme is what happens as some succeed whilst others fail, how that scenario of aging peers plays out in a society where status is so important.

The Denver Post quotes Chaudhuri as saying:

“As much as I admire the contemporary Indian writers, I know the place where my mind lives as a writer is not only composed of my contemporaries. A lot of this place is composed of my relationships to European writers and Indian writers from the past.”

You can really see this in the present volume. It is simply quite different from modern writers like Mistry and Roy. A review by Geeta Doctor in India Today complained that

The only problem with this current collection of short stories is that we’ve been here before. It’s altogether a good thing for the Chaudhuri addict. For others, there will be a sense of been there, heard that.

Well, I haven’t been there before and I’m jolly glad I made the trip.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

What is reality? I collect statistics for my Masters. Cases of economic violence in Indian agriculture. Break them up, analyse them, caste, crop, nature of economic relationship to the landlord, nature of employment relationship. Season, where, how, type, killed, tortured, influence of communists in the area, influence of media in the area. Turn it all into numbers and percentages. That’s what academics do. It is about being neutral. ‘Objective.’ What I was doing mattered. It would make a difference.

Then you read this.

Throughout the day, at intervals, they were flogged as they hang naked by their ankles from the branches of a banyan tree. Drifting in and out of consciousness, their screams grew faint….men urinated on the three inverted faces. Semiconscious, the parched mouths were grateful for the moisture, licking the trickle with feeble urgency….

In the evening, after the ballot boxes were taken away, burning coals were held to the three men’s genitals, then stuffed into their mouths. Their screams were heard through the village until their lips and tongues melted away. The still, silent bodies were taken down from the tree. When they began to stir, the ropes were transferred from their ankles to their necks, and the three were hanged. The bodies were displayed in the village square.

Thakur Dharamsi’s goondas, freed now from their election duties were turned loose upon the lower castes. ‘I want those achhoot jatis to learn a lesson,’ he said, distributing liquor to his men before their next assignment. ‘I want it to be like the old days, when there was respect and discipline and order in our sociey. And keep an eye on that Chamaar-tailor’s house, make sure no one gets away.’

The goondas began working their way towards the untouchable quarter. They beat up individuals at random in the streets, stripped some women, raped others, burned a few huts. News of the rampage soon spread. People hid, waiting for the storm to blow over.

‘Good’ said Thakur Dharamsi, as night fell and reports reached him of his men’s success. ‘I think they will remember this for a long time.’….

That was the end of the punishment, but not for Narayan’s family….’Catch them all – the parents, wife, children,’ he told his men. ‘See that no one escapes.’

As the goondas broke into Narayan’s house, Amba, Pyari, Savitri, andPadma screams from the porch to leave their friens alone. ‘Why are you harassing them? They have done nothing wrong!’

The women’s families pulled them back, terrified for them. Their neighbours did not dare to even look outside, cowering in their huts in shame and fear, praying that the night would pass quickly, without the violence swallowing any more innocents. When Chhotu and Dayaram tried to sneak away for help to the district thanadar, they were chased down and knifed.

Dukhi, Roopa, Radha, and the daughters were bound and dragged into the main room. ‘Two are missing,’ said Thakur Dharamsi. ‘Son and grandson.’ Someone checked around, and informed him that they were living in town. ‘Well, never mind, these five will do.’

The mutilated body was brought in and set before the captives. The room was dark. Thakur Dharamsi sent for a lamp so the family could see.

The light tore away the benevolent cloak of darkness. The naked corpse’s face was a burnt and broken blur. Only by the red birthmark on his chest could they recognise Narayan.

A long howl broke from Radha. But the sound of grief soon mingled with the family’s death agony; the house was set alight. The first flames licked at the bound flesh. The dry winds, furiously fanning the fire, showed the only spark of mercy during this night. The blaze swiftly enfolded all six of them.

Narayan is of the caste who deals with dead meat; an untouchable. His father in an act of defiance sends him to a Muslim friend in a town near their village to become a tailor, a very brave socially upward move. Narayan comes back to his village principled. He attempted to exercise his right to vote. This was the consequence. This is India.

And just as we watched the killing in Rwanda while eating our dinner, listening to the numbers mount: hundreds of thousands, no millions – shovel in some more food – essentially numbed by the largeness of the numbers, the meaninglessness of them; just as Hotel Rwanda, referring to a few people, a family, a piece of fiction, meant so much more than the statistics, so too this story, a piece of fiction, means more than all the figures I could collect and transform into graphs. What I was doing, in retrospect, was crap. I turned the vilest suffering into neutral numbers and I was proud to have done so. That’s academia for you. A Fine Balance is the reality, the numbers are nothing.

The title might refer to all sorts of things, but for me most importantly the fine balance in relations between people, the ways in which exploitation take place, the ways in which sentiment might overcome that. This book is about a woman who is early deprived of proper education which would give her independence. She marries the love of her life, he dies not long after and although following a proper period she becomes involved with another man – a nice man who will make life comfortable for her – she finds it impossible to betray the memory of her husband. She chooses aloneness and independence, but at best her life is on the boundary of genteel poverty. Any time it could catapult down from where it teeters on that edge.

So when she decides to employ two tailors to help her struggling business making clothes, we see what her situation as she perceives it does to the nature of her feelings for them. She is constantly concerned that they will attempt to take advantage of her and her consequent hardness makes us feel not only sorry for the tailors, the victims of her toughness, but also sorry for her as it isn’t really her nature. Still, there we have it, as we were talking about elsewhere on goodreads recently. How does ‘feminism’ fit in with what I want to call ‘peopleism’? This woman’s anxiety to protect herself makes her perpetuate the dreadful, dreadful way society at large treats the tailors. When her boarder, an upperclass Indian boy, sees these tailors as his friends, over and over she berates him for it. Eventually she is broken down and her shame at how she is treating people overcomes her anxiety to be ‘feminist’.

Two men have a discussion on the etiquette of dousing a wife in kerosene and setting her alight vs. throwing acid in her face: which does one do when? Just a casual conversation between a chap in a cab and his driver. Every hour or two a woman in India is burned alive by her husband and his family. Which of these two statements, the fictional discussion or the stat offends you more?

A reference to children being remodelled. You pass over it, yet suddenly you realise what it means. Young fit children who are destitute have no use as beggars, so the chap in charge of them remodels the children to make them income-bearing. Perhaps their noses or ears or limbs will be cut off. Sometimes it is done with a view to the choreography of a tableaux. ‘Hmm. If I put a child with no nose with a man who has…’

The women-folk of the Harijan tailor Narayan chase away their social inferiors who come to him looking for clothes. Who is lower than the untouchable? Within that concept the dalits have their own stratification so that even within the lowest of the low, some are lower. Narayan’s relatives are all traditionally untouchable because they deal with dead animals. They may feel quite superior to those whose lot in life is tied to sewerage. Narayan chastises the women. Above them, upper caste women despise Narayan’s female relatives just as they despise the few people caste below them. It is all very well to say all these women deserve a special place in hell, as some would have it, women not helping each other, but these women all have shit lives and they are trying to survive. There is the ‘feminism’ of wealthy first-world white women trying to get an extra week’s paid maternity leave or some other nicety in life and there is the brutality of life for most women in the world.

The hero of this story maintains a constant struggle to keep her precarious independence. She’d rather be horrifically poor by our standards than live with or be supported by her brother who is wealthy. And yet, by the standards of the tailors in her employ she is very wealthy and exploiting them. Both these things are true. She is poor and wealthy, nasty, cold and kind.

This book should make you ashamed to be a wealthy first-world person who thinks voting is a right not a duty. Fortunately it did not win the Booker Prize.