Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Amitav Ghosh”

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #15: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

When you fall in love with an author, it’s a great feeling knowing that there is a whole back catalogue waiting for you. The Hungry Tide was to be My Big Summer Read, but it’s a lot shorter than the Ibis books, and I got a lot more reading done than just this one…

The setting of the novel alone is a thing of beauty. The story is told against the backdrop of the Sundarbans (Google it! With pictures!), an archipelago of islands half submerged by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Ghosh’s descriptions of the nature of those islands are beautiful, and even when you realise that the action takes place in the present, it still feels mysterious and as far removed from modern life as possible. Here, two strangers meet. Kanai Dutt is travelling to Lusibari from Delhi in order to help his aunt sort out some paperwork of his long-deceased uncle. He has been to the Sundarbans before and knows what to expect, but still struggles with the contrast of his middle-class existence in the capital and the hardships his aunt and her village suffer. He is immediately atteacted to his fellow traveller Piya Roy, who is of Indian descent, but grew up in the U.S. She has come to study the local variety of river dolphin, and although she does not speak Bengali, she is determined to get her observations under way. She promises an eager Kanai to visit him in Lusibari, and finds a local fisherman, Fokir, to take her. Although they can barely communicate, Piya is drawn to Fokir, who seems the impersonation of the uneducated, hard-working, yet happy villager. But things are not as simple as Piya or Kanai expect, and the Sundarbans are a place where nature takes terrifying forms…

While I enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s writing and loved the setting of the novel, the story left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a pretty straightforward almost-love story that ends in a predictable tragedy, and I would have expected more of Ghosh. On the other hand he again crammed a ton of information in a relatively short book. Each subject is fascinating in itself, be it the story of the Gangetic river dolphin, local folklore or recent history of the Sundarbans. But taken together, the book seemed too short for such a wealth of information. I had the feeling that in order to make space for facts, Ghosh neglected his characters a bit. Both Kanai and Piya in parts are mere stock characters – the scientist with very little experience in matters of the heart, the mundane heartbreaker who is a bit too full of himself. Fokir was the most interesting character of the lot but remained, literally, silent for the most part.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. But it felt a bit like Ghosh was aiming higher and ran out of energy, or time. His more recent novels achieve their goals. This one seems to me like an exercise, the preparation for bigger things to come.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #12: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

This was meant to be a well thought-out, clever review that was going to earn me several publications and eternal fame, but instead can I just say that I am officially in love with Amitav Ghosh, who is now my hero, ideal dinner guest and travel companion of my wildest dreams. I love him. In a good way though, the one which makes me want to be more like him. I’m rambling, aren’t I?

Amitav Ghosh has taken his time to write the second part of the Ibis trilogy, but although I had long forgotten what the first part was all about, it was worth the long wait. Picking up the many strings of the narration that led a colourful cast of characters to weather a storm on the Ibis on her way across the Indian Ocean, Ghosh quickly sends them off into different directions again. While some stay behind in their new home on Mauritius, Neel and Ah Fatt make their way to Canton, in search of Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader. His story is told against the backdrop of the unfolding Opium Wars between China and Britain, although by the end of the novel, war has not yet broken out. Instead, the reader gets a taste of what life was like in Canton, the only Chinese place that allowed foreign traders to live and work in the 1830s. As in Sea of Poppies before, Ghosh is a master of evocation. He manages to include even the tiniest detail in his descriptions of the time and place of the story.

And what a story it is – dealing with botany, opium, Chinese politics, painting and family histories, all across pretty much every culture that played a part in the history of 19th century Asia. What amazed me was that although I was constantly bombarded with facts I never once got bored of them. Ghosh makes the place come to life, every detail adds another layer to the story, and yet you can never get enough of it.

For me, being the nerd I am, those parts that dealt with language stood out. Again, as in Sea of Poppies, the entire text is one big example for the multi-cultured setting of the story. Like the boatmen on the Ibis, the traders and locals in Canton use a certain form of pidgin to communicate and not get lost in the multitude of languages spoken. This is a joy to read, although it can border on hard work, given that Amitav Ghosh takes his pidgin seriously. Sometimes you have to skim and try to get the gist, which is probably as close to the real situation as you can get. In this novel, Neel acts as the character who tries to get on top of the language confusion and plans to tame it by planning a dictionary. On his webpage, Ghosh goes as far as to publish the framework of this dictionary. What a man. (Really. Hmmm.)
River of Smoke is one of the rare books that promise a lot and deliver even more. It’s a wonderful, exciting story full of amazing characters and heaps of information. It will be a few more years until we can finish the trilogy, and until then, I would very much like to sit in Amitav Ghosh’s study and see that nothing happens to the man while he writes. Or is that too creepy?

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