Karo’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.

As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:

“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”

You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.

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ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #8: Basti by Intizar Husain

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Translated from Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett, with introduction by Asif Farrukhi.

Basti is a novel set amidst upheaval in Pakistan, particularly the partition and emigration of 1947 and war in 1971. This classic of Urdu language is not so much a political novel as an existential one. When Basti was published in 1979, Husain, one of the most respected and celebrated authors writing in Urdu, received some criticism for not taking a side or offering any answers. But Husain has written a novel not about war and politics but about man and what happens to communities (basti) in times of upheaval. He examines what is happening to man in the modern world.

The overriding theme can be summed up in a line from the Quran which is repeated throughout the story: “I swear by Time, man is surely in loss.” As the main character Zakir, his family and friends endure political upheaval and war, they both witness and demonstrate how man changes and becomes less generous, less connected to those around him. Husain’s work is filled with references to Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist literary and religious works that touch on these points. While it would help the reader to be familiar with the history of India and Pakistan as well as these works, the translator provides useful detailed notes and a glossary to help those of us who are not. And not knowing will not prevent the reader from understanding Husain’s larger point or enjoying his beautiful writing.

Basti is told from the point of view of Zakir, a middle aged history professor in the fictional city of Vyaspur (which stands in for Lahore). It is late 1971, the time of the Indo-Pakistani war (there have been several; the 1971 conflict led to the independence of East Pakistan/Bangladesh). As Vyaspur suffers the effects of war, Zakir reflects more and more on his past in the small village of Rupnagar, where he grew up and his family home is located. Husain assumes readers would know about the emigration of 1947, when the British partitioned India into India and Pakistan, the new Muslim state. This resulted in massive emigration for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Zakir’s family, like many other families, was divided due to partition. Eventually, those family members in East Pakistan were cut off from those in West Pakistan. Husain’s main characters, however, seem not to feel directly involved in the politics of their time. They don’t overtly take a side in politics or war. They seem more like spectators than actors. When Zakir takes tea with his friends, they discuss what is happening without shedding much light on it, as they themselves seem to feel in the dark and unable to have any impact on the situation. At one point, Zakir tries to convince his father that conditions are improving in Vyaspur and beyond, and his father responds, “Son, if conditions improve, it means nothing. People’s deeds have to improve.” It’s not until the very end of the story that Zakir feels that he ought to have done something, that he is somehow responsible. One action that he takes is to keep a diary because, “I ought to preserve the record of my lies and cowardice.”

Husain’s writing has passages involving stream of consciousness, as Zakir takes trips down memory lane and reveals bits about his past and about religious and philosophical thought. This is where some familiarity with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism would serve the reader well. This is also where some of the loveliest writing is to be found.

The rain poured down all night inside him. The dense clouds of memory seemed to come from every direction. Now the sky was washed and soft. Here and there a cloud swam contentedly in it, like a bright face, a soft smile.

Kudos to the translator for weaving these various threads together into a lovely whole tapestry. Ideally, novels are read in their original language, but few of us will ever know Urdu and it would be a shame to be deprived of Basti and its timely message about man’s disintegrating relationships within his community.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #7: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

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This is a sweeping historical drama/romance reminiscent of Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago. It follows a couple of generations of families in the Coorg region of India from the mid-19th century until the movement for independence and features a strong, beautiful heroine, the men who love her and the land itself. Mandanna’s writing is full of lush prose, matching the environment she covers, and her characters are well developed and complex, as are their relationships over time.

The two main characters are a village beauty named Devi and her adoptive brother Devanna. Devi is confident and pursues her desires with singleminded purpose. She can be selfish but she is loyal and devoted to her family, her work, and her true love Machu, the tiger killer. Machu, the scion of a wealthy Coorg family, killed a tiger when he was young and has acquired respect and status locally for this. Devanna comes from the same extended family as Machu, but the circumstances of his being adopted by Devi’s family are somewhat shameful. Devanna lacks Machu’s physical prowess, but he is an adept at the mission school. Taken under the wing of the reverend who runs the school, Devanna is on his way to becoming a respected doctor when tragedy strikes, affecting Devi, Machu and Devanna, as well as future generations.

The themes throughout the novel focus on fighting for what one loves, coping with loss, and forgiveness. This sounds as if it might be rather tired and hackneyed soap opera, but Mandanna has written a very engaging story that shies away from melodrama. She also places her story in its historical context and provides insights on British colonial rule, World War I and British involvement in Afghanistan, as well as the place of natives and of women in an evolving society. One of the passages I found relevant to today involved Machu’s fighting for the British against the Pashtuns and the common (incorrect) view that the natives were too divided against one another to unite and put up an effective defense from superior outside forces. “It was all so ridiculous. Honor, glory — all trampled underfoot in some misbegotten pass. The battle would end soon, he knew, and eventually the war. The world would turn. Men would forget. And then, as sure as the sun was rising even now in the east, the very same battles would be waged again, for reasons that would not matter.”

Every character in this story must deal with not getting what they wanted, with pain that they will carry throughout life. And with that pain and loss comes a resentment of the person who seems to be the obstacle to their happiness. This is especially true for Devi, who is at the center of the story. Her pain and losses are tragic, and she carries her anger and bitterness for practically her entire life. It’s not until very late that the words of her grandmother make sense to her: “… the true beauty of a flower lies not in the size or the color of its petals, but in its fragrance…. Be like the jungle flower that despite blooming unseen, untouched… still gifts its sweetness to the breeze.” The novel ends on a satisfying note. Whether it is a happy ending is up to the reader to decide.