Sunday, February 24, 2013

Amitav Ghosh - River of Smoke

In our History textbook in school, we had a chapter titled Greater India.  It was about Indians settled in other countries.   How these people came to move away from their motherland and settle in a foreign places is often an interesting story.  How Indians came to mix and match their language and culture with that of their adopted country to create a hybrid culture that was acceptable to them as well as the natives can make a fascinating narrative.

Sea of Poppies was about how a lot of people from various backgrounds find themselves on the Ibis.   River of Smoke starts with a magnificently evocative description of Deeti's shrine.  The Ibis had landed, after a stormy crossing, at Mauritius.  Deeti finds herself in an alien land, with a child, and has to forage for food in the forest there.  On one such sojourn she finds a cave in the cliff overlooking the sea.  This becomes her shrine, where she draws images from her past life.  This is where she starts her family, and establishes a clan.

But we are running ahead.  The story where Sea of Poppies ended continues with Raja Neel.  Raja Neel finds himself along with Ah Fatt, on way to Canton where Ah Fatt hopes to meet his father the great opium merchant Behram Moddie, owner of the grand ship Anahita.  In Canton, we meet an array of new characters.  Behram, his Man Friday Vico, the British and American opium merchants, Charles King, Mr. Lindsay, Dent, Wetmore, Jardine.

Essentially it is about how the East India Company forces the farmer to grow opium in India and then sells it to China to suck the wealth out of these countries.  Unfortunately for the traders, this is the time when the Emperor of China decides to appoint a tough Commissioner to deal with the issue of widespread Opium addiction that was eating into the social fabric of China.  The Commissioner Lin decides to make the traders of Opium pay for their smuggling, both the Chinese and the British.  The Britishers are not used to being dictated to by the countries they trade with and try to strike back.

Caught in this crossfire is Bahram Moddie who has staked all his wealth in this last huge consignment.  It is a trip that will either make him or break him.

Paulette has been taken on by Fitcher, a botanist who is visiting China to look for a rare plant that he has drawing of.  She cannot go to Canton, and has to stay in Hongkong.  She runs into Robin, an old playmate from Calcutta, the bastard son of the celebrated painter Chinnery.  Robin is in Canton looking to broaden his artistic skills and knowledge.  He pledges to help Fitcher and Paulette to look for the elusive plant by tracking the person who made the drawing.  In the process, he writes very illustrative, incisive and entertaining letters to his old friend Paulette.

River of Smoke paints a beautiful picture of the language, food, the clothes, the culture, the way of life of these merchants in Canton.  It is a brilliant sequel to Sea of Poppies which was more like an introduction to the key characters and their backgrounds.

In one of the blurbs the author was compared to Charles Dickens and Tolstoy.  I shook my head after I was done with the book.  This is Amitav Ghosh, he stands in a class of his own.  It is not fair to compare him with anyone else.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is right up there on the list of my favorite books.  I have owned several copies of it, lost them in transit from one place to the other in my life, and bought again, lost again, till I lose count.  It popped up somewhere in the lists when I was browsing for books on  It arrived with another book that I ordered.  I tore the open the wrapping and started reading it three days ago.  I have barely put it down, in any free moment that I have to call my own.  It helped that my net crashed for a couple of days.

First Edition
I met my favorite characters once again, if you can call that rude bunch a favorite.  Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Nellie Dean, Lockwood, Edgar and Isabella, Frances and Hindley, Linton, Hareton and Catherine junior.  I was transported once again to the moors of Yorkshire and roamed over them with Cathy and Heathcliff.  It is not hard to see why such  a rough and cheerless place excites passion in the hearts of those living there.  Heathcliff is bound to Cathy by a common childhood, and a bond they cannot break.  The word love is useless to describe their feelings for each other.  It is just that they share a spirit.

As long as they are children, things are alright with them.  But creeping adulthood brings changes in them.  Heathcliff is a foundling and a ward of Catherine's father, a fact that her older brother Hindley resents.  As soon as he gains control of the house, he tortures Heathcliff and wedges barrier between him and Cathy.  On her own part, Cathy grows up and discovers the charms of being wooed by a rich, good looking and an accomplished neighbour Edgar Linton, whom she marries by and bye.

Heathcliff is devastated at losing Cathy and vows to wreck revenge, first on Hindley for his mistreatment of him and later on Edgar.  He succeeds, but finds the whole exercise futile in the end.  He does not repent, but dies possessed of the spirit of Cathy.

It is not an easy book to love.  It is full of heady passions and hatred.  Yet it is beautiful.  The passages that describe the love between Cathy and Heathcliff are unparallelled anywhere else in literature that I know of.  "I am Heathcliff" Cathy declares. "He is always, always in my mind", she says.  On his part, Heathcliff never desires to possess Cathy's body.  He is happy to be close to her, and be allowed to see her and walk with her.  'I could never hurt Linton', he says, 'because of her.'  If Cathy wants Linton around him, he would not dream of preventing her.  It is SHE that he adores, above his own feelings.  It is when he is prevented from being with Cathy, that he turns into a vengeful beast.

All the rough characters in the book, Heathcliff, Joseph, Hareton are closer to nature, they live more like farmers than gentlemen and are bestowed with rude health and manly beauty.  Edgar Linton, and Linton are pretty boys, full of bookish learnings, but are weak in health.  Emily probably saw a lot of such examples in her life.

Most readers that are fascinated with the strange novel, are also fascinated with Emily Bronte, its writer. What mind produced such a singular novel.  Hence Emily, along with her talented siblings, Charlotte, Anne and Branwell are subject of many books.  Their cloistered lives, enriched only by their readings, are as curious as the novels they wrote.

Anne Carson writes in her beautiful poem, The Glass Essay:

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.   
This is my favourite author. 
All of us that feel emotions other than we perceive as 'normal' can agree a lot with Emily. This is a bold novel that she wrote. It is full of forbidden feelings, but also very true. Sometimes it seems to be as if Heathcliff and Cathy are the normal people in the narrative, true to their inner selves. This is the way Emily wanted to be, true to her inner self, which is why she could not write in any other way.   
Her superb imagination awes me and makes the stark world of the moors and Wuthering Heights come alive even today.

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