Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Flood of Fire :book review

Flood of Fire 
Amitav Ghosh
2015, pp 624, Rs 799

This novel brings to life an exciting chapter in history, as it traces the events culminating in the Opium Wars of the 19th Century, the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and the rise of British imperialism.  This painstakingly researched finale to the monumental Ibis Trilogy extends far beyond dry scholarship.  Rich descriptions, memorable characters and exciting action; this novel has it all. Rife with minute linguistic, cultural and military details, this is a fascinating read.
 History’s mysterious twists and turns, the ironies, fallacies, tragedies and triumphs, are dramatized through the perspectives of interesting characters. They range from fugitives on the fringes of society, to the super rich movers and shakers of world affairs. Diverse as they are, they are tied by the bond of the Ibis, the slave and opium transporting ship, in which they or their dear ones sailed at some time, and where they shared secrets. Through their stories, we see the interconnectedness of things: of how British enforced cultivation of opium yielding poppy in the plains of Bihar can have profound effects in distant China.
Zachary Reid is a young American sailor from Baltimore. The son on a white man and his African slave, Zachary is assumed to be a white man wherever he travels. Compelled to work as a ‘mystery’ or artisan in order to pay off his debts, he has a torrid liaison with his employer, Mrs Burnham. Their affair flourishes under cover of amusing euphemisms and subterfuges. Mrs Burnham gets after Zachary with crusading zeal to cure him of an ‘ailment’ which is considered a normal sexual activity today.  Such touches lends comic relief, and prevent the narrative from being weighed down by the gravity of unfolding historical events.
Zachary’s ambitions are fuelled by proximity to the Burnhams’ riches and influence. Following Mr Burnham into the lucrative opium trade seems to be the best way for a talented but poor young man like himself to make a mark in life. His initiation into drug dealing happens in the lanes of Calcutta. “Through the odour of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.” By the end of the novel, Zachary evolves from “an ingenuous, good-natured boy,” into a man of the times, who does not know the meaning of ‘enough’…Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.”
Shireen Modi is the sheltered widow of a prominent Bombay based merchant and opium trader. Braving social ostracism, she dons western clothing and journeys alone to China to clear her beloved husband’s lost reputation, and claim compensations due to him. She witnesses the war for supremacy in the opium trade in China, and the birth of Hong Kong. On the personal plane, this model Parsi wife learns to overcome her shock upon learning of her husband’s parallel life. She reaches out to her husband’s son by a Chinese woman, and opens herself to a new life and love.
Havildar Kesri, the son of a farmer from Bihar, runs away from home to join the British army, the rising power in India. As he travels to China to fight for his British employers, he realises that “in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight” in the way Chinese soldiers did. “For something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time. An unnameable grief came upon him then…”
Bankrupted and disgraced by the British whom he once so admired, Raja Neel Rattan Halder resurfaces in China as a fugitive from British injustice. He becomes Ah Neel, the linguist and translator who compiles and assimilates information for the Chinese rulers. His diaries and commentaries add depth and perspective upon the advances of the East India Company into China, and the onset of war. His little son Raju travels all the way from Calcutta to China in search of his father, who is reported to have drowned. Raju’s experiences first as a ‘kid mutt’ or servant to Zachary, and then as a fifer in the British army, lends further depth to the story. 
Ghosh sketches the larger sweep of history, showing the sinister nature of imperialism, and on how commerce and the profit motive can be at the root of shaping international policies and war. Battles shape the course of history.
“I suppose this is much how things were in Bengal and Hindustan at the time of the European conquests and even before”, Neel notes in his journals. “The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.” Baboo Nob Kissin Pander’s observation of the innocent Zachary’s rapid transformation into “a perfect embodiment of the Kali-yuga” is thought-provoking, but lightened by the Baboo’s comic speech and persona. Such passages of reflection and commentary are never too long. They are alternated with battle scenes and action in bedrooms and ballrooms, in military barracks and ships. The rich use of various languages and dialects enlivens the story and prevents it from sinking under the weight of scholarship and political commentary.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

Africa 39: book review

Fables rub shoulders with  realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are  juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones.
Africa 39; new writing from Africa south of the Sahara    Edited by Ellah Watakama Allfrey
Bloomsbury        Rs 450/-                Pp 360

During the last century, the winds of change loosened the shackles of colonial rule over Africa. Soon enough, as the editor of this eminently readable anthology observes, the thrust towards freedom changed direction and character. A few leaders genuinely believed in adopting foreign ideologies for improving and revitalizing their homelands. For them, writers and intellectuals were allies to usher in positive social change. Other postcolonial African leaders saw such social doctrines as weapons for quashing dissent and pressuring citizens into intellectual submission.  
This collection of fresh and established contemporary African voices celebrates the freedom of thought and imagination. These stories explore the myriad facets of African life, daring to probe “the hidden, censored and denied histories of ourselves.”
In Alu, Recaredo Silebo Boturu portrays how western missionaries “who believed themselves to be greater and more intelligent than others… with neither permission nor compassion… plundered the lands of foreign peoples… plucked out their personalities… indoctrinated them so that they abandoned their traditions and their culture.” In a town where people were ashamed to have African names, little Alu’s rare African name stood out perhaps as an act of courage, or as a matter of principle.
Mama’s Future by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a fable about the fate of African nations. Mama is on her deathbed since nearly a century. A cavalcade of experts have since theorized what exactly was killing her. “Some said poverty. Others, corruption. Another strand blamed her penchant for foreign lovers… She bled what money was left, after her lovers had stolen what they hadn’t been able to dupe her out of.”
Centuries of foreign subjugation followed often by autocratic African rulers, has resulted in ongoing internal strife. The upheavals and uncertainties have taken their toll. Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls explores through intriguing images and metaphors the near-death condition of today’s young African artists, poets and intellectuals, and by extension, of Africa itself. “She is dying and her body is in this experiment of reverse engineering and she is tearing into ribbons of primary colours – wait, wait, are these wings?” After cycles of popular uprisings, wars and social upheavals, “their fathers’ favourite musicians had failed them… Their poetry came down to that important question: would the dead lover ever return?”
Some stories explore the common people’s apathy and lack of understanding about their society and country. In the imaginary world of Shadreck Chikoti’s Azotus, the Kingdom, citizens “had taken their freedom for granted for so long that they no longer felt the need to exercise it or the need to explore why freedom should be exercised… Freedom had become commonplace, and therefore meaningless.”
Linda Musita’s Cinema Demons portrays the fate of young college educated Africans. Derrick is arbitrarily assigned by the Joint Admissions Board to study for a degree in Recreation and Leisure Management, and weighed down by an education loan which he must repay. He becomes the butt of mockery from prospective employers. “What the fuck is that, boy?... What sort of qualifications are these? Such a waste?”… Failing to secure even menial work, Derrick attends a dubious religious meet promising salvation to the faithful. The writer offers a hilarious account of the opium offered to ignorant masses. “Derrick watched the ushers battle the demons all the way to the ‘altar’ and wondered why they were doing it with their eyes open… There were close to fifty evil spirits on the stage. Demons making faces, hugging each other… called on Lucifer to save them. They wrestled the ushers and threw punches at them.” Rejecting such spurious gimmicks, Derrick chooses to take the road and walk ahead.
Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures.  Africans also migrate to distant lands, resulting in unique experiences of isolation or revealing underlying similarities. Shafinaaz Hassim’s The Pink Oysters is about an innocent young Afghan refugee’s initiation into smuggling blood diamonds and weapons. Despite centuries of strife, remote cultures also offer intellectual gems. Edwige-Renee Dro’s The Professor shows how gems of 19th century French literature can continue to move sensitive souls in modern Ivory Coast. In Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s The Old Man and the Pub, the narrator strives to build a business in distant Geneva. He sees the futility of trying to cash in on his unique ethnicity. “Nobody I met on the streets of the city seemed to be aware of Malawi as a country”. Yet he is surprised by a windfall legacy from an unlikely foreign client.

While the individual pieces are well crafted, their numbers and variety can confuse. Fables rub shoulders with realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones. Chika Unigwe’s novel Soham’s Mulatto, is about a mixed race girl born in 19th Century England. The brief excerpt fails to do justice to the complexity of the subject. These stories offer tantalizing glimpses of the complex and sometimes conflicting realities of Africa and her peoples. It’s a must-read for its insights, and its rich bouquet of literary voices.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

The Last Illusion: book review

The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour, Bloomsbury 2014, pp 319, Rs 450The Last Illusion    
Porochista Khakpour
2014, pp 319, Rs 450

This is a rich amalgam of myths, legends, and human emotions of love, alienation and courage. These elements are interwoven with premonitions of New York, 9/11 into a fascinating fable of modern times.
Author Porochista Khakpour creates a unique and memorable protagonist. Zal is an Iranian boy who has spent his childhood among captive birds. Shocked by the unusual pale skin and white hair of her newborn son, Zal’s demented mother hides her ‘White Demon’ in inhuman conditions as a detested oddity among her beloved pet birds. Bereft of human affection and society, Zal identifies with the birds around him; cheeping, shrieking, flapping his arms like wings. A decade after his birth, his sister ‘rescues’ him and draws the attention of the media to his plight. He is named Zal after the hero of Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, the white skinned prince who was abandoned by his family and raised by a giant bird.
Fascinated by Zal’s story, Hendricks, a behavioural scientist, takes him to America and adopts him as his son. Hendricks showers Zal with love and understanding, and hope for a normal life and future awaits Zal in New York. Zal continues to surprise scientists by his adaptability. Beating all odds, he learns to walk, talk and behave, for the most part, like other people. Yet he cannot completely overcome his bird identity. As Zal grows up, he continues to dream in bird, and secretly enjoys snacking on candied insects. Zal is drawn to the magician Silber, who creates the illusion of humans flying like birds.
Defying scientists’ predictions, Zal begins to assert his independent adult human identity, and even gets romantically involved with Asiya, a disturbed and clairvoyant artist. Yet Zal is forever treated very, very carefully by others, and finds himself in “special consideration relationships, where his story would eclipse him… and once again leave Zal the loneliest man on earth.”
The strongest and most enduring aspect of this novel is Zal’s evolution as a human being. Overcoming his miserable bird past, Zal learns to appreciate the feelings of others and reciprocate love. He wants Asiya to “know that he supported what she did – after all she had taken his story without a qualm, a judgement, without horror, disbelief. She had taken him in just as he was – he owed her the same.” Zal’s intimacy with fellow outcast Asiya, motivates him to overcome his fear of dead birds, reach out to fellow human beings, and become whole and ‘normal’. In the course of the story, Zal also learns to value and love his father Hendricks. “I’ve come to you over and over in pieces and you’ve put me back together, I owe you my life.” Towards the end of the novel, Zal realizes that he has “grown up a lot since you’ve last seen me. It’s not my story that defines me any more.” This freak oddity, this human-bird, sometimes manages to see the truth better than the ‘normal’ people around him. And this quality endears Zal all the more to the reader.

The supporting characters are interesting and convincing, multifaceted as they are with their strengths, flaws and unique experiences. Silber the gimmickry loving, glib talking magician; the generous and affectionate Hendricks; Asiya who grapples with her own troubled psyche to reach out to Zal; Willa who tries to bury childhood trauma by eating her way into magnificent obesity; these characters are unique.
The grotesque, dark and deeply sorrowful elements of this story are deftly counterbalanced with dashes of humour. Zal’s efforts to get a job are hilarious, as he breaks free from the past and feels he has nothing but a future. He looks up resumes on line, and cuts and pastes what he thinks might impress prospective employers into hiring someone who had absolutely nothing in the way of life experience. He successfully presents himself as a pilot with a culinary background who went to Yale. This killer resume gets Zal a job as a pet shop attender, where he regresses to fall in love with a canary.
Meanwhile, as the world struggles to regain balance after doomsday forecasts of Y2K, Asiya’s premonitions and Silber’s plans for his last illusion remind us that 9/11 is imminent. The re-invention of those terrible events is a rather contrived climactic point. Silber’s much publicized illusion to make the Twin Towers disappear and reappear with the help of mirrors, goes impossibly off. “The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong either. It had gone real.” As everyone runs for their lives, Zal is “mesmerized by their faces, the brief moment of joy in all that world-ending clamour.” It is then that he masters that human trick, “a beautiful small and yet essential trick of the spirit, a simple contortion of the will.” This life-changing finale, this symbolism, seems a bit too clever and laboured.  The symbolism at this point overshadows Zal. The profusion of odd, dysfunctional and damaged characters, their freakiness and strange experiences, can also weigh down the narrative.
Overall, this is a beautifully written and engrossing read.

This review is published in Sunday Herald