Sunday, June 26, 2011

Navigating The Opium Trade

This appeared in today's DNA


Set in 18th century Japan, David Mitchell’s recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet dealt with how officials of the Dutch East India Company tried to re-invent themselves by making their fortunes in a trading outpost off Nagasaki. The same subject matter, that of the fall-out of interactions between an insular civilisation and traders from the West, also animates Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.  

 The second novel in a proposed trilogy that focuses attention on the venal traffic in opium in the 19th century, this re-introduces us to some of the characters from the first, Sea of Poppies, as well as adds new ones. Here, Ghosh turns his ethnographer’s eye to the effects of such trade in Guangzhou, the Chinese city then known as Canton. As with Mitchell’s novel, River of Smoke floods its banks with period detail; this, though often absorbing, comes in the way of narrative flow.

The virtuoso opening set piece fills us in on the life of Deeti, the impoverished widow from Sea of Poppies who, following her husband’s death in an opium factory, had fled her home in Bihar to set sail on the Ibis. That worthy vessel, after weathering a storm, lands in Mauritius with Deeti and other refugees on board. Years later, as the matriarch of her family, the doughty Deeti presides over their frequent visits to a cliff-side shrine, with memories of her flight always prevalent.

Returning to the 1830s, the narrative acquaints us with the person who holds centre-stage for much of what follows: Behram, a canny, middle-aged Parsi trader from Bombay, who’s set sail for Canton on the Anahita with a large cargo of opium. This shipment represents his one chance to decisively break free from the clutches of his wealthy, grasping in-laws back home.

Apparently, the Anahita faces the same storm as the Ibis. Crates of opium burst open in the hold and Behram inadvertently falls into the gluey substance – a rather obvious foreshadowing of events to come. However, it’s when the Anahita reaches its destination that the novel hits its stride. The people, surroundings and ways of life of ‘Fanqui-town’, the foreign traders’ quarter of Canton, are captured with precision and verisimilitude. Be it food, clothes, leisure activities, business pursuits, gossip and more, Ghosh presents scene after vivid scene set in the district’s streets, clubs, markets and factories, where characters swing between the laws of free trade and those of conscience.

Caught in a whirlpool of circumstance, Behram tries his best to profitably dispose of his cargo. Meanwhile, there are other narrative cross-currents, such as those of Neel, the dispossessed potentate first encountered in Sea of Poppies, who now becomes Behram’s munshi. The novel also traces the relationship between Fitcher, English horticulturalist, and Paulette, orphan and budding botanist, another character from the trilogy’s first volume. In addition, the antics of Paulette’s friend Robin, who arrives in Canton on an artistic and botanical pursuit, are recorded in the form of his long, gossipy letters to her about his time there.

The inclusion of these letters is a less-than-successful attempt to vary the novel’s structure as well as sneak in background information on “this crowded, noisy, noisome, voluptuous place we call Canton”. Written in a breathless, exclamatory style, they’re suffused by historical arcana, making the narrative run aground. This is heightened by the inclusion of even more missives towards the end, such as the actual document written by Canton’s zealous, newly-appointed High Commissioner to Queen Victoria.

The patois with which Ghosh packed his earlier novel is in evidence here too; however, it is more controlled and efficient this time around. The characters’ distinctive, disparate speaking styles serve to illustrate both the polyglot nature of the novel’s universe as well as their individual backgrounds. It’s through their dialects that the “sepoys, serangs, lascars, shroffs, mootsuddies, gomustas, munshis” and more are brought to life.

With the avidity of an explorer chancing upon uncharted trails, Ghosh takes the novel off into numerous digressions, some of which are more absorbing than others. These even include a chance meeting between two of the characters with an exiled Napoleon in St Helena: the conversation with the erstwhile emperor serves to bring us up to date with the context of the period, one that was to end, as the novel does, with the imminent outbreak of the so-called First Opium War between Britain and China.

River of Smoke, then, is a novel of some import for its delineation of how the trade in opium served to fuel colonial ambitions – the view from the other side, as it were. Its eddies and swirls are for the most part satisfying to navigate, even though its many tributaries do tend to drain it of energy. As one of Ghosh’s Cantonese characters would have said, this is a book with plenty-big cargo-la.

My earlier review of Sea of Poppies is here. And that of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Decline And Fall Of Handwriting

Languishing in remote corners of publishers' warehouses must be piles of mildewed books that claim to understand human beings through their handwriting. Yellowing pages devoted to the way you dot your 'i's and cross your 't's, with each characteristic loop, slant and curlicue identifying you as introverted, sociable, pathological or a unique combination of the three. ("Lines sloping downward? Looks you need some Prozac at once!") Graphology, it's called, from graphos, writing, and logos, word. If I'm not mistaken, there was even one such volume that claimed to make you change your lifesimply by changing your handwriting.
Whether such analysis is science or mumbo-jumbo, handwriting itself is in irreversible decline. Most prefer nowadays to strike or touch keyboards, with the result that the knowledge of an art we spent years painstakingly perfecting now lies gathering dust in our synapses. Heidi Harralson, a Tucson graphologist, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I'm seeing an increase in inconstancy in the handwriting and poor form level — sloppy, semi-legible script that's inconsistent." I feel your pain, Heidi: I used to be proud of my cursive style, now lying in tatters. Once, doctors were famously derided for illegible handwriting; now all of our scribbled notes look like medical prescriptions. The rest of my Yahoo India column continues here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading Yoga

Practitioners of yoga have been much in the news these days — sadly, not because of the practice of yoga. Such a practice, as we should all know by now, has been firmly established as a discipline that's Good For You.  Another such activity, clearly, is reading. (Remember reading? Making sense of a page filled with letters organized into words and sentences?)
Given our frantic urban lifestyle — with little room for life, leave alone style — finding the time to pursue both disciplines for a sustained period has always been difficult.  No longer. It's time to take heart: in a dazzling breakthrough, this column presents a series of poses that combines yoga with reading. The rest of my Yahoo India column continues here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Broken Wishbone Of Bangladesh

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian


Independence and its discontents are at the heart of Tahmima Anam’s new novel, The Good Muslim, the follow-up to her A Golden Age. That earlier novel dealt with the tempestuous period of Bangladesh’s formation; this one deals with the aftermath. That one revolved around a mother’s efforts to make sure her daughter and son came to no harm; this one is more concerned with the relationship between brother and sister.

Set primarily in Dhaka, The Good Muslim is a look at how revolutionary ideals give way to pragmatic adjustments, and the circumstances that make people switch from one path to another. It’s as true of countries as it is of individuals.

The time is the mid-Eighties, and Maya, a doctor who’s spent the last seven years at a village clinic, returns home to her brother Sohail and mother Rehana in Dhaka. She finds that Rehana is “no longer the panicky, protective mother she had once been”, and as for Sohail, he’s now a devout man of the faith, preferring to sequester himself with those who share his beliefs. As a secular, independent woman, Maya is dismayed at this and further disheartened when she finds that Zaid, Sohail’s young son with whom she tries to strike a bond, is to be sent to a madrasa for religious instruction.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth also featured ideologically divided siblings – the irony there was that the one who’s sent to Bangladesh becomes an atheist, while the one who stays behind in the UK embraces Islam. In contrast, there is little irony in The Good Muslim, if at all; the author chooses instead to delineate incidents and feelings with sincerity and fluid grace. (Book-burning features in both books, too, being more incendiary and politically-motivated in Smith’s novel.)

Much of The Good Muslim is given over to the playing out of present-day consequences born out of past events . Anam  tries to strike a balance between action and reaction by inserting episodes set in the early Seventies, soon after the country’s birth, but the need to maintain tension and then defuse it means that the book’s later sections suffer from an over-abundance of explanation and incident.

The balance between the personal and the political, too, is skewed towards the former, more so than in A Golden Age. However, Anam captures with skill and insight the changes in Bangladesh in the decades after its formation. Some are physical, such as when Maya returns to Dhaka and finds that “everything was loud and crude, as though someone had reached over and raised the volume. It smelled of people and garbage and soot.” Buildings are taller, traffic more dense, and there are “signs of the Dictator everywhere, graffiti on the walls declaring him the ‘General of our Hearts’ and the ‘Saviour of Bangladesh’, posters of him ten, twenty feet tall, with his high forehead, his thin, satisfied moustache”.

The more important change, though, would be the slow seeping of religion into the public sphere, captured here not just by Sohail and those in his ken, but also by depicting the man on the street’s acceptance of an almost fatalistic belief.  The state of the nation could be said to be symbolized by the family’s house, with its grey streaks, sinking foundations and “a collection of shacks” that makes up the first floor, inhabited by Sohail and his religious cohorts.

Overall, in one memorable passage that sums up the “broken wishbone” of a country, Anam writes that it “had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees...A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.”

In such a place, Maya finds herself out of place. There is little comfort to be found in the way Zaid is being brought up and in the attitudes of former comrades who now prefer to chase riches and ostentation. She starts to writes incendiary newspaper columns (with ramifications that become apparent at the book’s close), attends meetings of those who seek restitution after the war, and spends time with Joy, an old associate who has started to harbour feelings for her. Most of all, though, she seeks to understand and live with Sohail’s disconcerting conversion.

When he first turns to “the Book” to find comfort from the memory of his actions during the war, Maya, despite reservations, sees that he is sincere in his feeling. It “suddenly become clear to her that religion, its open fragrance and cloudless stretches of infinity, may in fact be what he is claiming it is, an essential human need, hers as much as his, and because she feels the twinge of his yearning, turning like a leaf in her heart, she decides, at that moment, that it cannot be. She will not become one of those people who buckle under the force of a great event and allow it to change the metre of who they are”.

As for Sohail, “he longs for her to know, to know something of what it was like, longs for her to have a heart as heavy as his, a heart that needs to wrap itself around a certainty, a path”. This is one of the occasions in the book where we see him from within. Too often, he is a cipher-like presence –all too apparent, for example, when Maya confronts him with suspicions of dark deeds in the madrasa where Zaid has been cocooned. Though Sohail’s back story contains reason enough for him to turn to religion, the workings of his mind once he’s done so aren’t exactly dwelt upon.

For all that, The Good Muslim is a deeply-felt and fleshed-out account of committed individuals dealing with unfulfilled hopes in a country they have made many sacrifices for.  In late 18th century France, those watching the accused being led to the gallows used to mutter that  revolutions devour their young; in Anam’s depiction of Bangladesh, the revolution swallows idealism, leaving behind disillusionment and the seeking of ways to fit into a changed landscape.