This is a book that I probably would not have picked up for myself and will not have known if not for the #1001BookSwap that I joined in Litsy. I received this book several months back for our #SEAReaders book club – two people based in Singapore, and two people based in Kuala Lumpur.
Technically, this novel is not what can be classified as crime/ thriller – although, there is a murder here – part of the ravages of war – no less acceptable, but more like inevitable.
It is really literary fiction more than anything, but it also fits our Literary Voyage Reading Challenge quite beautifully, as it brought me finally to Calcutta in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Written by: Amitav Ghosh
Published by: John Murray Publishers (2011, first published 1988)
ISBN: 1848544170 (ISBN13: 9781848544178). Literary Award: Sahitya Akademi Award for English (1989). Book was part of the #1001BookSwap #SEAReaders book club. Book quotes designed via Typorama.
THIS BOOK is difficult to describe, it is one that needs to be experienced. I had issues in the beginning with the narrative structure. The book had no chapter breaks, the tone meandering and adopting a story within a story within a story vibe that has strong undercurrents of the stream-of-consciousness technique. For a busy reader who is reading multiple novels at the same time, not knowing exactly where I should pause in my reading before continuing on with it the following night proved to be somewhat problematic at first. However, Ghosh had a lilting, compulsively-readable tone that sucked you into his world – presented with alternating timelines – and alternating cities as well: Calcutta, London, Dhaka.
Family is central in the narrative – as well as self-definition apart from one’s country of birth, and a part of a much larger collective involving kin, countrymen, and the cumulative memories of what constitutes identity. There is the grandmother who lives in Calcutta but whose heart resides in Dhaka – who regards relatives with a measure of suspicion and distaste – as well as a yardstick of how much one has achieved or lost.
There is also the narrator, largely unnamed, a young man wrestling with his own ghosts, with his wide-eyed awareness of the world around him, and his incisive observations of people, and the love that he yearned for since childhood – rendering him painfully aware of how affection is weighted and the imbalance brought about by unreciprocated need and longing.
Yet the book is not just a coming-of-age story of a young man grappling with the wounds of unrequited love – the larger frame expands one’s reading of the narrative. There is always the backdrop of the partitioning between India and Bangladesh – while not explicitly articulated – is core to the memories and loss and yearning and the ruminations on war, what constitutes borders, what separates one from another. Add to that the distinct experience of the Indian expatriate living in foreign lands, brown faces in a sea of White in London, while the war with Germany is going on, and another war continues to rage back “home” wherever that is.
While Ghosh’s language seems circuitous and never-ending, leading the reader to one thread of story and yet another, and another one besides – there are gaps in between, allowing the reader to breathe in a measure of silence. There are slivers of memories that are not spoken, because words have not yet been formed to name them, or to identify that shade of grief, that texture of pain that is best dealt with by cleaning the table, wiping the plates dry, and cleaning the kitchen relentlessly, as if there is no tomorrow.
The more that I read Ghosh, the deeper I get into his mind, and his unique way of storytelling – I wonder about the fact that I only knew him now. It may be my own ignorance – but I truly am convinced that he needs to be read by more people, his distinct voice so raw and fearless yet filled with beauty, magic, and wonder. This is a veritable classic, yet I am dismayed by the packaging of the novel – I looked at the other versions on Goodreads – not one of those covers would compel me to pick up this book. Yet while we admit it or not, most readers are drawn by attractive covers that invite one to dig into the story. I do wish that the book gets a different designer in the coming years, or that it gets picked up by NYRB or Europa Editions.
I end with this particular quote, because I feel that the strength of the story lies in this capacity for reinvention, such that a whole new country, a whole city can be reconfigured based on one’s understandings and imaginings, pouring one’s self into the solid streets juxtaposed with the shadowy reflection of what exists in one’s mind. As I said, I can not possibly describe this novel. I hope the quotes are enough to urge you to find it and experience it for yourself.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 43 (of target 40) Dhaka (Bangladesh)