Tag Archives: India

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

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Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

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The Lives of Others (2014) – Neel MUKHERJEE

Only three Indian novels have won the Booker, and two of them (which won in the last decade), are small-scale family dramas. While Mukherjee is continuing the trend of Indian family dramas appearing in Booker lists, this is not a small novel. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of big books. I must confess, this is because I tend to find them offputting. Committing yourself to anything over 500 pages requires an act of great faith in an author, and I can’t think of many that I trust that implicitly. However, in an attempt to get over this, I pulled Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others off the shelf.

Although I was aware of the Naxalites before reading this, I certainly wasn’t aware of the horrific acts of violence they undertook the name of progress and ideology. What is perhaps even more galling is the fact that so many of them—Supratik included—are not part of the poor, disenfranchised they are supposed to be lifting out of poverty. They are simply spoiled middle-class boys who think going around to villages causing trouble will be a laugh. Like all bull-headed twenty-somethings obsessed with ideology over the real world, they think what they are doing is right and just, even though they are, in fact, upsetting delicately balanced relationships (that, granted, should be upset), an action that eventually devolves into murder. These are not heroes to be worshipped—they are garden-variety terrorists that should be stopped.

And yet, the punishment that is eventually meted out to Supratik is brutal. The physical and emotional torture he faces at the hands of the police after his arrest is cruelty of the highest order, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s a testament to Mukherjee that he made me sympathise with Supartik near the end.

Parallel to this (so parallel, in fact, it often seems like it is taking place in a parallel universe) is the rather charming story of the Ghoshes—a middle-class family on the verge of falling apart. As their accumulated wealth slowly trickles from their hands, cracks in the already tense familial relationships begin to appear. Some of these scenes are the best in the novel—Mukherjee has a talent for finding the worst in people, and still ensuring that we care about them. Each time we return to family life, we follow a different member of the family, struggling to find their own place in a family creaking with history and expectation. Though their actions may adversely affect others, when we are with them, we are with them all the way.

Despite some structural issues, as well as slightly confusing/slow start, The Lives of Others has a lot to offer. The two competing storylines are both important, and while it might have made more sense to separate them out, allowing them to run simultaneously allows Mukherjee to remind us that, while huge political shifts are happening, human nature tends towards ignoring it unless it has a direct influence on you. Recommended.

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The City of Devi (2013) – Manil SURI

The recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the flashpoints of the future are not in Europe or America—they are in Asia. From North Korean tinpot tyrants to Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it seems likely that the next major international conflict will come from the developing Asian world. So it’s interesting to see a potential future from an Asian writer.

Mumbai. The city of Devi. A city on the brink. As news of an imminent nuclear attack hits the streets, so too does Sarita. Her husband has been missing for a few days, and she has decided to find him. But someone else is trying to find the same man. Jaz is following Sarita in the hope that she will lead him to Karun. As they weave through the battered streets of Mumbai, though, both begin to realise that bigger problems are looming.

Taking this on board, Suri paints a world where this has happened. Just like Tarun J Tejpal in The Valley of Masks, Suri uses a uniquely Indian context to create speculative fiction to revitalise many of the tired clichés dragged out by other writers. One film which takes the Hindu god Devi and turns her into a modern-day superhero, aptly named Superdevi, has taken India—and the rest of the world—by storm. As the local government in Mumbai decides to use Devi as a symbol of the city—despite the secular nature of said government—the local Muslim population find the use of a Hindu symbol to represent them less than ideal. Egged on by extremists in Pakistan and anti-democracy protestors in China, violence rapidly erupts, a road that once taken can’t be unmade.

Mumbai, then, is transformed into a city teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. As the purported deadline for Pakistan’s impending nuclear attack comes closer and closer, people begin to act more irrationally. Bombs and violence become an almost daily certainty, so by the time we as readers arrive on the scene, Sarita finds herself hiding in the bomb shelter of a hospital. People are terrified—though the internet is no longer working, word of mouth has spread rumours that  Pakistan is planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Mumbai in the next three days. Needless to say, people are nervous, and even in the small confined space of a bomb shelter, Muslims are being hunted down by Hindus. And how do you know when you find a Muslim? Same way you can tell someone is Jewish.

Unbeknownst to Sarita, Jaz, our other narrator, is also present. But Sarita has more pressing concerns—she thinks she knows where Karun is, and begins to run through the desolate streets of Mumbai to find him. As she runs, we get flashbacks to the beginning of Sarita and Karun’s relationship. Both in their early thirties, their families willing them on to find someone to settle down with, they find themselves actually falling in love. But Sarita feels that Karun is holding something back, particularly when they try to consummate their relationship. Even after they marry, it takes Sarita a lot of time to get Karun to perform sexually. She feels that something is holding him back, but she can’t work out what it is.

When we shift to Jaz’s perspective, everything crystallises. Karun’s secret is hardly surprising—anyone with half a brain can guess he’s having an affair with a man from about 30 pages in. So it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t confirmed by Jaz until almost 100 pages later. It makes Sarita come off as less than the naïvely-in-love woman she is supposed to be, and more of an idiot. Though perhaps this is an Indian thing? I know the Indian take on homosexuality is not the most positive or prominent, so perhaps this more like the case of the 1950s housewife being genuinely surprised that her husband like dudes.

The treatment of sexuality in India—particularly in Muslim communities—adds another dimension to the novel. Suri paints the isolation and persecution faced by gay men in India well, and Jaz’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is made simpler by the fact that he is brought up in Europe, where attitudes are a little more liberal. His transformation from sex-crazed teenager forced to skulk in parks to find partners to a man in love and in a mature relationship is nicely realised, and really makes you feel for Jaz. Having found someone to love in a society that frowns upon it is hard, and the fact that Karun is skittish about the whole thing makes it seem even more unfair.

No doubt Cory Bernardi would be unimpressed by the ending of this novel. As signposted fairly early on, Suri presents us with a future that does not rely on contemporary ideals of family and relationships. Karun becomes the centre of a relationship between three people, with him in the middle—literally and figuratively. Haring back to the alternative Hindu holy trinity presented at the beginning of the novel, Suri suggests that each of us needs not just one other person in our lives, but two, to provide a more balanced approach to life. It’s an interesting idea that actually qorks quite well in this context.

Perhaps the most important job of a speculative fiction writer is to make sure that the world they create never becomes too unbelievable. It’s a fine line, and only occasionally does Suri falter. There are one or two moments where Suri has to write his way out of dead-ends he has written himself into. But for the most part, this is an excellent post-apocalyptic novel with an arguably more realistic take on potential future conflicts.

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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Narcopolis (2012) – Jeet THAYIL

I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.

There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.

Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.

It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.

There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.

In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.

I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.

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Rebirth (2010) – Jahnavi BARUA

This is my last review for the Man Asian Literary Prize Shadow Jury – I know I said I’d review The Colonel, but I gave up halfway through, and have no desire to power my way through the rest of it, particularly since I now don’t have to. But yes, Rebirth. This has been comically difficult to source, since it’s not published outside of India, and Penguin India were less than forthcoming about helping us out. But here it is!

Kaberi is pregnant. Over nine months, she tells us of her life before and during this experience. She tells of her childhood friend Joya, always so headstrong and enthusiastic. She tells of her family, still living in the country, far away from her new life in Bangalore. She tells of her new friends, willing to help her out, but so caught up in their own affairs they often don’t notice when she doesn’t ask. And she tells of her husband, the father of her child, the man she was forced to marry. The man who hits her.

The role of women in the land of fiction has lately become something of a hotly contested debate in Australia, for those playing overseas. And I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this suggestion of “women’s fiction” – that there are some books written for women, as though men have no interest in books about women, and what it means to be a woman.

Which is, you know, complete bullshit. It makes about as much sense as saying women don’t read novels written by men, because they don’t want to read about what men think. But the stigma remains. We celebrate so many male authors for their insight into what it means to be a man, what masculinity means, and how one fits into or is forced outside of these ideals. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – all of these authors have been (rightly) celebrated for their portrayal of masculinity in the twentieth century. But there does seem to be something of a dearth of female writers that are celebrated for their exploration of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be “feminine.” And that is why Rebirth interested me in so many ways, and why I enjoyed reading it.

This is a “woman’s book,” in the sense that it deals with something no man can ever understand, no matter how much we try – being pregnant. Carrying a child within you for nine months, and how that affects your own values, morality and world view – this is something I am never going to experience, even if I really want to. So from that perspective, yes, this is an important and revelatory novel. I’m pleased, too, that there’s a sense of universality here – though there are touches of Indian culture, particularly the arranged marriage situation, having children is not an exclusively Indian past-time. Neither is domestic violence, and bad marriages.

On the downside, I don’t think Barua gives it the kind of punch I personally look for in my reading. Perhaps because I tend to find passive protagonists frustrating in their inability to escape the shackles that bind them, so too I found Kaberi something of a wet blanket. This is (mostly) made up by the end, as she finds a way to live without her husband. I was particularly pleased that Barua didn’t take the easy route, and have disbelieving parents and friends on the domestic violence front. It was a pleasant change to see Kaberi’s friends and family believe her, and take steps to help her.

Ironically, perhaps, considering her violent marriage, there is a sense of calmness and serenity in Kaberi’s world view. Her language is never strong, never sharp, rarely angry. It would be easy to say this is a feminine way of writing, but I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Rebirth is a deeply introspective novel – it is a perfect example of how to best use the first person voice. Just as Kaberi herself is cool, calm and collected, so too are her thoughts, and therefore, language. There is, of course, another layer to this interior monologue in the truest sense of the word – she is narrating not to us, but to the unborn child within her. Perhaps this, too, connects to the language choice – one is not likely to yell or scream at a newborn.

Rebirth is not perfect by any means. The supporting cast is almost uniformly more interesting than the narrator, and it feels too short and slight to have any kind of major impact. But it’s a solid debut, and marks Barua out as an author who is willing to tackle issues that are not fully explored in what might be described as mainstream literature.

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The Sly Company of People Who Care (2011) – Rahul BHATTACHARYA

Woo! The penultimate book on the Man Asian Prize shortlist. I don’t know when my copy of Rebirth will arrive, so normal programming will resume soon. Though I should still really get around to writing about The Colonel, because if I don’t, my OCD won’t approve of my not having done the entire longlist. Sly Company interests me for a number of reasons – the main one being the fact that this is the only book on the shortlist (and longlist) not set within Asia. It’s nice to see Asian literature looking outside its own borders.

A young Indian man packs up his life as a cricket journalist in India, and moves to Guyana, hoping to find something more in his life. As he slowly acclimatises to the both the weather and the markedly different Caribbean way of life, he discovers that this equatorial paradise is more dangerous and disturbing than he originally envisioned.

So, the first 50 pages of this did nothing for me. I was sitting there thinking it was going to be a long slog. And I couldn’t tell you what it was about this section that put me off so. Perhaps it was simply that the language and style employed by Bhattacharya is a unique reading experience, and takes some getting used to. Suffice it to say, he does things to the English language I didn’t think possible, and he manages to catch the patois of Guyana in a surprisingly non-patronising way. It takes skill to do something like that.

One learns an awful lot about Guyana in this novel, and a lot of it is presented as slabs of history. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the second section, where Bhattacharya launches into his own history of the place, which is fine, and informative, but maybe could have been more evenly spaced throughout the rest of the piece, instead of ending up as some kind of infodump. But these asides are fascinating, and it is clear he has done his homework on this place. Of particular interest to me was the slow realisation of the difference between the two groups of ethnic Indians – those born and raised in India, like our narrator, and the diaspora in Guyana, who have moulded Indian culture to their own experience. If anything, I had hoped he would push this angle a little further.

There is a sense of unease throughout the novel, and as the narrator moves from place to place, dealing with circumstances he no doubt never imagined finding himself involved in, one cannot help but feel the rawness and – I hesitate to say “danger” – of living in a developing country. There is a particularly brutal sequence in which the narrator joins a local man looking for gold in the rainforest for several days, and when a deal goes horribly wrong, we are witness to a shocking scene of revenge. This is pretty much par for the course here – to say this novel is plot heavy would be a vast overstatement. We are instead treated to glimpses of people’s lives, apparently based on the author’s own experiences living in Guyana, similar to our unnamed narrator.

I have only a few bones to pick. The first is that the narrator is a bit of a nothing character in and of himself – he remains something of a passive observer, an outsider in this society, and I never really warmed to him as a person. Written in the first person, this is both problematic, and understandable. He is free to simply recount his observations to us, the reader, in order for us to make up our own minds about the events that take place. And have no fear, almost all of them are morally ambiguous enough to leave you wondering if anyone is doing the right thing, or if everyone is simply going along with the flow, happy to not upset the careful equilibrium of a country brimming with racial tension.

The ending degenerates somewhat, and I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” near the closing pages. The last section is a definite move from the previous, but in some ways, this is the strength of the novel. Rather than telling one tale, Bhattacharya gives us something of a survey of Guyana, giving us a taste of many of the different ways of life that are contained within, and sometimes without, the borders of this tiny nation.

This is assuredly a strong, assured debut novel. I am particularly keen on the idea of an author from a culture with which we usually associate postcolonial literature in which it is the oppressed dealing with the diaspora of said culture, and dealing with an even less developed country. And while this does feature, it is the evocation of a place, and of the sense of immediacy, that Bhattacharya creates in this novel that makes me understand why The Sly Company of People Who Care is on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 shortlist. Check it out.

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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The Valley of Masks (2011) – Tarun J TEJPAL

After a brief break, I’m back on track with the Shadow Man Asian Prize project. After some initial trouble in sourcing this novel, I ended up with two copies on my doorstep last week. More than any other novel on the longlist, The Valley of Masks has fascinated me – a high-concept dystopian novel not especially concerning itself with Indian identity. Truly, this is the black sheep of the list.

Our narrator – a man with many names – is living in hiding in an unnamed Indian city. He fears for his life – the terrifying Wafaders are coming for him. His previous life – born into a cult hiding in a valley in the Himalayan mountains – is catching up with him, and his last act is to tell his tale. This is the story of a child born into love, a boy educated with religious fervour, a young man taught to kill, and an old man who must make a terrible choice.

This is the third book on the longlist to deal with cults, but while Murakami and Yoshimoto did so indirectly, Tejpal gives us the whole kit and kaboodle. In sheer terms of world-building, he has given us an entirely alien society – in an attempt to ensure a lack of selfish, personal attachment, children are raised by a group of women – they never know who their true parents are. They are given one of six names as a child, but in order to become an adult, they must give it up and receive a collection of letters and numbers. In the ultimate sacrifice of personhood and individuality, each member of the society wears the same mask, perfectly moulded to one’s face.

Just as the framing device is our narrator explaining to us his way of life, we get snippets and suggestions about the history of the cult. At the core of every religion, of every system of belief, are myths and legends from history that shape values and world views, and there is no difference here. Its figurehead – Aum, or the first sound in the universe – is he chosen one, and his uprising against the heathens, and his ability to bring clarity and salvation to people is exulted in these tales. His two sidekicks, Ali and Alaiya, also feature heavily. Stories and rumours, too, of people who did not do the right thing, people who broke the rules, are taught to our narrator, who laps them up in his fervour. Attempting to unravel these stories is half the fun – Karna himself admits that his own story has holes in it, because it’s easier for him to tell it this way.

The path of our main character, however, is that of the Wafader – a group of elite warriors, trained to protect the valley from outsiders, from non-believers, and ultimately, from the menace within. These cult symbols are taught to be living killing machines, and their education in the ways of death are exquisitely detailed by Tejpal. Their use of wooden needles to make their victims bleed slowly, but not to death, is covered extensively. There is a definite physicality and masculinity that pervades this novel, and there is only one scene in which this is more apparent than in these training sequences.

As with all good religious orders, the Aum supporting nutjobs here are not what we would describe as enlightened when it comes to the rights of women. They tend to fall into two main categories: the ever present Madonna/whore dichotomy. Madonna in the sense that many of them are given over to raising children in a commune environment, no one ever knowing who is biologically whose; and whore, in the sense that many nubile young girls are sent off to what are essentially brothels (the Serai of Fleeting Happiness, and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, for those playing at home) to service the young, and old, men of the community. Rather than reject sexuality as base and degrading, Aum recognises that this is necessary, and so allows men to simply have their way with women in these rooms. Charming.

There is a definite gear shift in the last third of the novel, as things in paradise begin to take a turn for the worse. It’s not until it’s too late that you realise just how truly brainwashed everyone here is. It’s perhaps a long bow to pull, but there are echoes of North Korea here – a personality cult taken to extreme levels, with people willing to do anything for their Gentle Father. I hesitate to use the word brainwashed, but in both situations, the ability of those in charge to manipulate their followers into thinking they are doing the right thing is terrifying.

I’m not going to spoil it for you – it would rather ruin the entire thing – but Tejpal pushes his already disturbing tale into almost horrific territory. Actually – and I’m worried this is going to make me sound like a monster – I thought he was going to push the envolope even further, and was slightly disappointed he didn’t. After a litany of events and decisions that would leave any sane and rational person quivering at the knees, Karna is sent . And at the final hurdle, he fails. Of course he fails – and perhaps this is Tejpal’s point. There is a line in all of us where some kind of inherent morality or sensibility takes over from any kind of religious indoctrination, even if said indoctrination has the weight of 45 years behind it.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I’m going to leave it there, because I rather think I’m beginning to ramble. I loved The Valley of Masks. Purely as a world-building exercise, Tejpal proves himself a master – his cult is perfectly formed, and while perhaps pushes the boundaries of believability, it does it in a recognisable setting, making you forget your questions. But his insights into belief, into faith, and the boundaries of those things that make us who we are, probe deep into an uncomfortable question we must constantly ask ourselves.

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