River of Smoke : -“…of Greed,of Corruption,of Broken will and of Tales that would last Centuries”

River of Smoke

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“The flowers of Canton are immortal and will bloom forever”  ~Amitav Ghosh

And so i hope they shall, as long as they are not Opium poppies of course. The second installment in the Ibis Trilogy, had a lot to live up to. Understandably so, as Sea of Poppies had set the bar impossibly high. But to me at least, it delivered almost everything that was expected of it. The Opium Wars both 1 and 2, have had a very profound effect on the world, so much so that its ripples could still be felt even now, not only for China but also for India and for most of south east Asia. They can be felt in the Chinese anti west stance, or in India’s struggle to boost up its economy. But this event so critical to history is often neglected, as to the questions of, why it happened? could it have possibly been avoided? Did diplomacy play no part? this story provides ample answers. Opium harmed both the producer and the consumer, only the seller, as it seems profited from its trade.

And its traders are the people that we follow in this story. In Sea of Poppies, we traveled across Bihar to Bengal, in India, the regions abused by the Honorable (Ahm! Ahm!) East India Company for Opium production (against the wishes of the farmers, against any basic human decency), until finally the Ibis traveled down the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean. Investors and producers of Opium were, primarily, the people we dealt with. In, River of Smoke we travel eastward still, though not on the Ibis, to the Nicobar islands, to Malacca, Singapore, Macau and finally Canton. And who better to travel these waters and ports with, than the traders and traffickers who made this route famous in the first place. And so we reacquaint ourselves with “Paulette” our french orphan on her journey from ‘Mauritius’ to ‘Hong Kong’ in search of a fabled flower, With “Neel” our doomed raja and his life as a freeman. In addition , to a host of new characters, like “Behram Modee”  father of our opium addict “Ah fatt” , “Robin Chinnery” an old artist acquaintance of ‘Paulette’. And see the world of Canton from their eyes, one a Parsi opium trader of renown from Bombay and the other a ‘bastard’ painter from Calcutta. Some of the old characters from the first book are passingly mentioned, or make brief appearances without ever taking the center stage. Their stories I suspect have been saved for book 3 which I think would focus on soldiers and the actual armed Opium conflict. This book however gives you the build up to it. To the events in ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 factories.

13 factories
Canton Harbor and the 13 Factories with their respective flags 

This book too like the previous one, is, exceedingly well researched and written. Without taking too much liberty with history, a lot of historically accurate events and people play a central part in the story. The use of these authentic characters gives the story a life of its own. But unlike the previous one, this tale was a slow burner, you feel no rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. On the contrary, you live through the journey, basking in the author’s very detailed descriptions of the landscape of our various destinations, a glimpse into their societies, even the fl-aura and fauna these places had. More than once, I went online to read about a particular flower or shrub (like the Golden Camellia), or researched about a historical figure mentioned in the book (Lin Zexu obviously, but many others as well like George ChinneryCharles Elliot etc etc). The point is, the book used a LOT of information which seems quite obvious, it being a Historical fiction and whatnot, but it used it in such a way as to make you curious about them. The bulk of the tale takes place in Canton, the single entry point available to foreigners for trading with China. The city fascinated me, more so ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 Factories, these places, the focal point of the story, were amazingly detailed.

The plot as I mentioned, was not as exciting as the first book but the charm of the book lies in its rediscovery of forgotten worlds and lives. And the best part, the book doesn’t leave you hanging, you could gobble it up and rest with contentment before you feel hungry again. I was impressed by Mr. Ghosh’s style of making the abrupt ending of the first book seem a proper ending during the first few chapters of the second one. His style of jumping between timelines before engrossing in the story is intriguing. The book deserves all the praise and nominations it has been awarded.  I recommend this series to any and all history buffs, these were exciting times, these are intriguing stories and to experience them with the pleasure of fiction makes it infinitely more fun.

Sea of Poppies : – “Darkly addictive as Opium itself.”

Sea_of_Poppies_Ghosh_amitav

4/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System

Amitav Ghosh, to my shame was a name that I knew only as the receiver of the ‘Padma Shri’ the 4th highest civilian Honor in India. Despite the shower of awards and recognition bestowed upon his famous works, specially in my beloved genre of Historical Fiction, I had not read any of his books before this. THAT, I assure you is surely gonna change because I have never seen Justice done to history as intricately as in “Sea of Poppies”.

This saga, being the first of three, initially tests your patience, you have to give it time which is not the easiest thing to do in a book spanning close to 500 pages. It introduces you to a host of characters in 1838 India, when the British gluttony for the opium profits knew no bounds, and in Bihar and Bengal where once the farms were green with rice or gold with wheat, there now resided a Sea of poppies. And thus our band of misfits consist of a village woman victim to such harvest in every sense possible, a mulatto American freedman who by a chance of fate finds himself among Gentleman of the empire, A raja reduced to nothing, a french orphan with an Indian heart, a Young boatman with dreams of the sea, an eccentric ‘munshi’, a half Chinese half Parsi opium addict and others as diverse and interesting as the era itself. The character building in this novel is phenomenal, Mr. Ghosh takes his time with each and every single one, shaping it page by page, this sometimes feel a bit cumbersome as you restlessly wait for the journey to begin aboard the ship, as you know it will. But no, he makes you pay attention, to invest in the characters before they do anything of note. This book sets the board for the coming story and thus as I have said earlier demands a bit of patience. But the wait is ultimately rewarding. Mr.Ghosh’s attention to detail is commendable,  his research I believe would have been quite extensive and it shows in the book. The language used by many of the characters is a mix of Hindustani and English, With each character having their own style and way with words, from the Irish laced sailor slang of the first mate to the Bhojpuri of ‘Deeti’, the village woman, though being an Indian I had considerably less trouble following what was being said but to a foreign audience that style of writing might take some getting used to,  though the author has I believe tried to ease this issue by cleverly including “THE IBIS CHRESTOMATHY” at the end of the book , providing a glossary of words used in the tale, their meaning and origins. But even so, it could sometimes hamper the reading experience, but the thing to appreciate even in this, is the writer’s total dedication to the authenticity of the era , and the characters. This I believe adds an extra quirk to the story and takes nothing away.

The only issue that bothered me was the abrupt end of the book, after my initial “What the..” reaction, some restless moments were spent feverishly searching my kindle and laptop making sure that I have the next installment ready for consumption, much like an “afeemkhor” (opium addict) I imagine, confirming I have the means for the next fix. As I have read this in 2017 and all the three books are out, this again was not much trouble, but to a reader in 2008, the exasperation level would have been quite high. So, yes, that cliffhanger ending was a bit uncalled for, nothing was resolved, nothing was even close to closure. But it is what it is.

The book overall is splendidly written, the hypocrisy of the raj has been portrayed as is. No watering down, the narrative from a third man’s perspective as we experience through ‘Zachariah’, our mulatto freedman, adds substantial clarity and effect to the story. It is a great historical fiction in all aspects, checking every box essential for an epic tale and series. I will be moving on to the next one immediately, out of compulsion, curiosity or admiration I cannot say, maybe all three and why not, as William Styron aptly said  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”. This book fits that description to a T.
 

 

 

Half a Rupee Stories : – “By the Great Wordsmith ‘Gulzar’ “

Half A Rupee Stories

3/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“When you face your fear, you become familiar with it and familiarity makes it lose its meaning, loosen its grip—fear ceases to be fear.” ~ Gulzar

I so wanted to love this, so very very much, because i LOVE ‘Gulzar’ Sahab‘s words, oh just read his poems, his songs, his ‘Shers‘, ‘Ghazals‘, ‘Nazms‘ and you will know what i am talking about. You will know love, happiness, heartache, sadness, melancholy. You will know the sheer scale of power two written lines could posses. He is one of the greatest wordsmith I have ever read and we are fortunate to be able to experience his work be it song lyrics, be it poems, be it his directed films or be it his stories.

This little collection was a mixed basket, I picked it up because of, you guessed it, ‘Gulzar‘. But if i say that i was totally satisfied with it, then that would be a lie. Out of the 25 short stories in this book some were amazing, invoking deep pangs of emotion that we have come to expect from a Gulzar’s poem or song, but some just lacked that kind of punch and all of the 25 had an undertone of loss, death and that classic tinge of sensitivity that He possess, which made it all an albeit melancholy experience. Every story had a message, this is just what He does, Gulzar Sahab will always make you think about life, in every and any way possible using any and every ruse possible. The book is divided into 8 parts with 3 stories each (Part II has 4), with each part focusing on a different theme. The themes as best as i could decipher them were Partition and Reminiscing; The downtrodden and their ways; War and Peace; Survival and Insurgency; Loss and coping. This book could be included both as fiction and non fiction because many of the stories are true life events or experiences morphed in the form of a story, Reading about legends of Indian literature like Sahir Ludhianvi and Javed Akhtar was specially interesting. Out of all of the 25 some notable stories that i liked were : –

  1. Kuldip Nayyar and Pir Sahib (P1)
  2. Sahir and Jaadu (P1)
  3. The Charioteer (P2)
  4. Hilsa (P4)
  5. The Search (P4)
  6. Swayamvar (P5)
  7. Ghugu and Jamuni (P6)

These 7 stories particularly spoke to me, The reminiscing of Kuldip nayyar, The lovely bond between Sahir and Jaadu, The sweet musings of the ‘Mehant’ in the Charioteer, the horrible revelation in Hilsa, Kashmir in the Search, The instinctive resolve in Swayamvar, And of course the beautiful take on love in Ghugu and Jamuni( i mean a crow and a kite, that was just too good, one emotional expressive lover and the other cold, unfeeling & unresponsive)  were all impact full stories indeed.

The book leaves an overall mixed vibe, Gulzar sir are a master of prose, his writings will leave you poignant and thoughtful, so if melancholy and deep reflection is your thing pick this one up, bear with a few stories if need be, because all in all it would not disappoint.

 

 

Jinnah Often Came to our House : – ‘And look how that turned out!’

jinnah-often-came-to-our-house

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” ~Ancient Proverb

The irony is, that this proverb is used by Jinnah’s character in the book. ‘Muhammad Ali Jinnah‘ to my mind, is undoubtedly, the most controversial figure in the Indian freedom struggle. An unorthodox well educated Muslim barrister from London, who driven by ambition single-handedly changed the fate of the Indian subcontinent, by doing the very thing that he had opposed for most of his political career, until the fated 1937 Indian provincial elections .i.e inciting communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and thus, becoming the poster boy for the British policy of ‘Divide & Rule’.

Kiran Doshi has earned my respect, by seamlessly joining History and Fiction in his second published novel ‘Jinnah Often Came to our House’. One of the most difficult task for any Historical fiction writer would be to create anticipation in the story, people already know what happened, so to make them curious and WANT to know and feel surprised would be quite a feat. He has achieved this by keeping the story centralized to Bombay and to the leaders directly involved with it, Jinnah (Obviously) and Gandhi (to some extent, because the story of Jinnah would never be complete without The Mahatma). Also from his own admission by not thinking ahead and letting the story develop. The result is a 663 page(Kindle edition) long magnum opus. Though one thing is to be noted, that this is in no way a comprehensive work on Jinnah’s life, rather this story provides a common man’s perspective of the man and the time. This is something which, admittedly, bothered me in the beginning, but, then i realized was actually worthwhile, these people (Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, etc.) are now Legends, they have gained (or if not will gain in a few decades) the status of TITANS among men, where every word that they have ever said would be treated as Gold and their criticism by anyone as outright blasphemy. So, now, almost 70 years since independence seeing them as human, capable of everything that ails a normal person, struggling and faltering , indecisive and proud is almost a reminder that  “If there is a single quality that is shared by all great men, it is vanity” (~Yousuf Karsh). And how true!, if only the Congress had realized that sooner, if only Jinnah was given his desired pound of flesh, if only his ego was soothed and massaged, if only Nehru or Gandhi would not have sidelined him and implored him to stay as the bridge between Congress and the league, if only Jinnah himself could have realized that what he was starting would lead to the creation of such unprecedented hate that it could last centuries, if only,if only, if only, ahhhh…We would be living in a completely different world.

But no, we can learn but never alter History. The story follows the ‘Kowaishi’ family in Bombay from 1903 till 1948, it Starts with the eldest son of the family ‘Sultan’ returning from London after completing his law studies, marrying ‘Rehana’ his beautiful and well educated impressionable wife and joining the Bombay high court as a barrister, much like Jinnah and then finally meeting the man in flesh. And from there it adapts to all that has to come, adding a whole lot of drama in between taking input from the social norms, beliefs and stereotypes of that time period. Bombay in the 1900’s would have been quite a place, i was transported to it, actively imagining it through the author’s writing and experience. The effect of the freedom struggle from ‘Gokhale‘ to ‘Tilak‘ to ‘Jinnah‘ to ‘Gandhi‘ on the common masses was an interesting touch. How the people perceived the struggle, their doubts, hopes from these leaders were something to wonder about. The story gives you everything it promises in its description, at time i felt that the story dragged a bit, that maybe near the end it focused more on the family drama than on the effect of Jinnah or the freedom struggle on the tale. But the characters never became redundant, in its style and length it reminded me of ‘Karambhoomi‘ though the two books are completely different in essence, the tale of sacrifice and transformation was the common denominator. Mr. Doshi has in my opinion done a great job on the book, the story though sometimes becoming dull was never truly boring, though a lengthy tale, the time period i suppose, demanded it’s share of words, the story had to react to so much.

The only complaint i have are the last chapters, they seemed rushed, and if the intention was to induce a sense of urgency in the reader well then it felt more irritating than exciting. And the complete biasness against the newly formed state’s administration, though in most of the novel Mr.Doshi had used fiction to blunt the wounds of history, but in the last few chapters the directness was like an open handed slap to the face. Which was surprising for me as i expected him to keep the whole story blunt till the end, him being a diplomat and all. This novel, told a story of a people divided and how that division came to be, what started it, The partition of Bengal?,  The separate electorates policy?, The Muslim Royals like Aga khan ?, The indifference and self surety of IN Congress?, Jinnah?. Lessons each and lessons all, i see the current political state of India and am horrified to see that we have yet to learn a lot of them still. Perhaps this fictional tale would help. Perhaps we should be mindful of the lessons, because as George Santayana famously wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And Its about time!.

The THC:-live love lose learn

the-thc

My first ever ‘giveaways’ book, Received a signed copy from the author on 18th Jan.

I have always had a skeptical view when it comes to love. It always seemed somewhat fantastical, and alas that view hasn’t changed much despite my close brushes with it.That is what seemed to be the theme of this novel, ‘love in the elite world’. And when the author says ‘Uncomfortable topics that are swept under the rug’ he isn’t kidding, the novel gives you things to mull over like,impotence (uh huh, you read that right), addiction (‘Cigarettes’ and that too not focused upon much , i thought there will be junkies shooting up crack all over the place for a moment after that description,but we seemed to have been pardoned that unpleasantness.),  but most importantly relationships and the toll they can take on someone. And oh, lot of sex, i mean Mr Jain could have given Chetan Bhagat a run for his money in some of them i bet.

I was in a dilemma as to what to make of the book, it is essentially a collection of stories narrated by the three main characters in the twilight of their lives, Samar (The man with performance issues), Sanjanaketan (The woman cursed by fate) and Varun (The dude with old man issues and unresolved dude-dude issues) all trying to regain their peace and conquer their demons through a ‘Getaway therapy’ kind of a institute The Total Holistic Center (because the rich can always throw money to cure their heart burns) . Now to be honest, i felt a certain obligation to like this book because i got it for nothing,with an autograph no less. img_20170126_182048

But in good faith i just couldn’t love it all too much,that’s not to say it’s not good, for a second book by any author Mr Jain has done a splendid job, but maybe not my cup of tea.To read about someone else’s life story ,their problems, circumstances gives the reader a reference point, with which consciously or subconsciously he/she will relate and try to draw parallels.Such markers are aplenty in the novel.It makes you sympathize with the characters and hope that they might get closure. Mr Jain has used this aspect well, although the novel do lack a lot of finesse. It shows troubles which might get enacted in a serious version of ‘Sarabhai vs sarabhai’ or maybe an Indian ‘Sex and the city’,couples bored and cheating on each other, bachelorette party with stripers, Gay guy looking for his ‘Beard’  and so on which really doesn’t appeal to me all that much. ‘Varun’ was the only character i might have befriended if he was real among all three to be honest,The father son dynamic narrated in the book is the only thing that i could genuinely appreciate (that too from the son’s perspective). There was just too much that this book could have done without and less of what could have gone right for it. To show the whole curve of loving someone ,then losing that love then learning from that through much sadness and finally finding a way to put the hurt in its place and looking forward to life takes a special kind of tale, and even though i highly appreciate the attempt, it could have been better.

I rate it 2.5 out of 5 stars as per the goodreads rating system.

Time to Murder and Create : -A filler turned Savory mystery

time-to-murder-and-create

I can literally burn through a Block novel within hours, this is one of the best redeeming quality about them that i like. After some serious novels like “Karmbhoomi” which make you contemplate some pretty heavy shit you want a refresh,a reboot ,something to pick you up and remind you that you started reading because you enjoy it, so what do you do,you pick up Block again, i thought it would serve as a good Filler, it turned out to be a very enjoyable and engrossing read indeed.

Scudder is a badass, he has grit, he has moves and he has a drinking habit.A murkily stained past and a weird sense of morals.What more can anyone possibly want in an anti hero. He can forgive almost any crime but not murder, and he has no problem helping a lowlife ‘Spinner’ even after the guy bites it because He just does.

In the second installment of Matthew Scudder series, we witness ‘Matt’ helping avenge a guy who by all standards of morality and justice belongs in the grave.But that doesn’t mean the guy who helped him get there deserves freedom ,no sir, enter Scudder, a man true to his word to keep secrets sealed until its time to rip them open and dive into something he otherwise could have lived without, a word is a word after all. And so spans the novel with its twists and turns, i didn’t even try to figure it out this time, what was the point i told myself,there is no definite bad guy here,no definite good guy either.Its a block novel for god’s sake everyone is a piece of shit. And voila so it was, Scudder has a conscience ,well, enough of one that he quits his job after a mishap but apparently not enough to not meddle with shit that can cause more collateral damage.As long as it was not intentional and there’s bourbon in his coffee ,he is cool with it, and you know what so am I.

The whole story seemed like a good written episode of a crime & mystery TV show, which is really not as bad as it sounds. “Shit happens” is the only lesson that i have taken home with me after reading 3 of Block’s countless novels. And so what, my dear friends , isn’t that the only useful lesson we need.I rate this novel 3 out of 5 stars. And i hope to curb my urge to pick the next in line immediately, delayed gratification is much more potent or so people tell me.

कर्मभूमि (Karmabhoomi) :-‘cuz classics never go out of Style

Okay,before even attempting to write about Munshi Premchand who is quite rightly dubbed as “The Shakespeare of Indian Literature” , let me just put it out there that i sometimes,during this gem of a novel, struggled  with my mother tongue . There!, I said it, there were oh so many words which gave me pause, which i looked up as I rekindled my relationship with Hindi in these past 2 weeks.Or wait, i should say ‘Hindustani’ rather than ‘Hindi’ because Premchand wrote ‘Karmabhoomi’ in 1930, What’s Hindustani ? You wonder, well i did too, It is ‘Hindi’ & ‘Urdu’, this novel used so many Urdu words so flawlessly with Hindi that it was an absolutely amazing albeit mind boggling experience.

premchand

One of the main reasons for my pathetic command of my own language aside from my blatant disregard for even attempting to read its literature in my foolhardy childhood days , is ironically enough, the very education system which the novel critics in its beginning. Premchand would have been absolutely horrified if they could see the state of the Indian readers today,specially people like me, and i consider myself well versed in Hindi as compared to my friends ,Go Figure!, ‘Angreezi’ ki gulami , i tell you..Uff..!

And now on with the show.

karmbhoomi

Every Indian in one way or the other has read at least one of Munshi Premchand’s stories, for me it was in School, his stories were part of the curriculum, just like Shakespeare is for the Europeans i imagine. My favorite among them were “Heera and Moti” the story of two Bulls and “Panch Parmeshwar” ,both of these short stories were absolutely marvelous.My first serious Premchand novel was “Godaan” (NO, not Goddamn, its GODAAN), which to this day remains my favorite Hindi novel.

And though “Karmabhoomi” can’t replace ‘Godaan’ from it’s place which it doesn’t need to, it stands apart in a class of its own. The novel has very complicated characters, and though the ‘Realistic’,’Day to day social life and norms’ and ‘Authentic’ feel which is Premchand’s signature aspects in writing are present, the ‘simplicity’ is absent.This is truly a magna carta of Indian literature, not because of its size but due to the wide range of issues social ,Religious and the Human psyche conundrums covered in the book. Again , this was written in 1930’s,to write about these topics (like Untouchability, Hypocritical religious practices, Inter faith love interests,Women empowerment,corruption among the ruling classes)  then would have been like living in a kerosene soaked house and attempting to cook.That too under British Raj, oh so many times i wondered why has the author not named names when it came down to assign responsibility for the pain caused to the people, specially the farmers, but of course he didn’t name names, they would never have allowed it to be published.So, Premchand had cleverly used other tools at his disposal, linking greed, hypocritical laws and lawmakers and pointed in the general direction.

The story had a lot to it,’Amarkant’ our main character is a son of a well to do Brahman father, married to a beautiful wife and has a loving sister.But not everything is working in this garden of Eden, Amarkant has different views on how a man should go about his life than his father, these philosophical differences between the two are source of great tension, this was the time of ‘Revolution’ in the Indian subcontinent ,Amarkant,wanted to live a selfless life serving the greater good , where as his father and his wife want him to take more interest in the family business,earning and behaving as per his station in life.

Premchand , has highlighted the  age old dilemma ‘Self preservation’ vs ‘The right thing to do’,every character in the novel be it ‘Salim’ Amarkant’s fun loving best friend who just wants to have a good life or his teacher ‘Shashikant’ who has dedicated his life to the service of the underprivileged or ‘Smarkant’ Amarkant’s father representing the status quo and justifying every hypocritical decision a man has to take as a householder,goes through life altering experiences which transforms them from something to something absolutely different. Unlike, every other novel that has a ‘Hero’s Arc’ for the main character, in this book every character has a ‘Hero’s Arc’.

Premchand’s stories are always a window into the life of the common man, in 1930’s the life of the farmers was specially dreadful but all of them had a heart of gold, the people who have absolutely nothing were the most generous in this story, they followed the real ‘Dharma’ and not those pretentious asswipes who had taken it upon themselves to subjugate and belittle others in the name of Religion.Love has been defined and portrayed in such a ‘Sufi’ way, unadulterated and clear hearted approach that i wondered if this line of thinking is ever possible now or even if it was possible then, whether all of this isn’t just an optimistic take on human psyche by Munshi ji. Women, were the recurring theme in this novel, Sukhda, Naina, Munni,Sakina, all represent different aspects of being a woman in the pre independence era at the start of the novel, with different stations in life,different situations,perspectives and options,and everyone of them comes out of the whole deal as a true ‘Goddess’ , which is how Premchand revers them as well. This novel was a great tribute to the sacrifices women make in the service of others.

All in all, this novel was the amalgamation of every aspect of the Gandhian ways, a family’s struggle to finally finding in each other the very comfort that they had craved all their lives, a true companionship and sense of peace brought by the services of others.As always it was a pleasure reading one of the most celebrated authors in all his glory. A must read for any Indian lit enthusiast.