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Posts tagged ‘Bengal’

Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

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Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

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Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!

 

10 Books from Childhood

I was planning to write a post on Indian authors writing in English; something to the effect of sticking to things people understand rather than venturing into uncharted territories and making a hash of thing and yada yada yada! But then I saw Cleo and Helen doing a very interesting post on their favorite childhood books and I realized, something I shared with Cleo, that children in Europe and Asia seemed to have read very different literature from their counterparts in Americas. And as I thought more about it, my own childhood reading was very different from standard English language centric affair because it was rooted in a lot of stories and books from my native language, Bengali, the lingua franca of the eastern state of Bengal in India and the national language of Bangladesh. I read and was read a lot of English books as well, but in those formative years, Bengali literature left an indelible mark on me. Therefore, it made sense to recount some of best books from my childhood days including local literature, rather than dwell on Indians writing in what is essentially not their native language! Without further ado then, I present to you the 10 of my most memorable books from my childhood –

Thakumar Jhuli by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder – This collection of folk tales, which have thrilled generations after generations of Bengali children. Princes, Queens, Witches, Priests and Merchants all came together in these stories illustrating stories of courage, patience and faith. These stories as an adult I realize also depicted a colourful vibrant society of 17th-19th century Bengal, shedding interesting light on some of the more non tangible aspects of life like loyalty, spiritualism and the philosophy of kindness! Fun fact – I used to love this collection so much, that besides have two copies of the book, my dad had brought me an audio cassette version as well; well before the era of “audio books”. The dramatized audio versions were in a form of a musical and the songs are still some of my favorites!

Abol Tabol by Sukumar Roy – Abol Tabol literary means nonsense, and this set of nonsensical rhymes have brought joy not only to many children, but also several adults, including my own father. Pun ridden and satirical, they provided huge entertainment to me while growing up, only once again realizing as an adult, that among the nonsense and word play, there were subtle hidden commentary on the bigotry of early 20th century Bengal society. Continues to endure as an all-time favorite.

Feluda Series by Satyajit Ray – The son of Sukumar Roy and India’s premier film maker, was naturally also an accomplished story teller. The fact that he could write absolutely thrilling detective stories for children and young adults, however took his genius to a whole new level. The world had Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys and so did I; but I also had Feldua – the Bengali detective who along with his nephew Topshe and friend Jatyu, traversed the length and breath of India, cracking some of the most difficult cases using subtle mental analysis and knowledge from a wide range of reading! I cannot even begin to explain the hours of summer school break that were devoted to reading this series again and again!

Chader Pahar by Bhibuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay – Literally meaning the Mountain on the Moon, this timeless adventure remains a classic since it was originally published in 1937. This story of a young Bengali man’s tryst with Africa is an thriller, travelogue and deeply profound narrative on pushing the boundaries of nature, is a tale which I would think everyone must read once, including and especially all adults.

Enid Blyton Books – I know this is the broadest possible category ever, but then I cannot recollect not ever loving any book she wrote. She was the standard fare of in all schools in India, atleast in 1980s and since my parents also loved her writings, our house was filled with her works. I loved her Noddy series, I loved her Secret Seven/Famous Five, I loved her; I know there is a lot of controversy around her and her writings, but all I remember as a child was she gave me companions and think of adventures which no else seem to be able to and she made boiled eggs taste like a delicacy!

Children Reading

The Fairytale by Walter Firle (1859-1929)

Ann of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery – I love Anna. I was Anna; albeit with parents, but always bursting with energy, emotions and expressions. When I read Anna at the very impressionable age of 13, besides loving this moving story of Ann and her adoptive parents, I realized that it was ok to be the way I was, that it was even funny and someone somewhere nearly 100 years ago could and did believe in girls like me!

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne – What is not there to like about this story of eternal friendship, romping adventures and some very basic truth about humanity and joy. Even as an adult, I continue to love this book and cannot wait to share my dog eared, battered copy with my god daughters!

Russian Fairy Tales – My father grew up in the swinging 60s and believed that a country like ours had much to learn from Socialist principles of equitable distribution of wealth. He himself read a lot of Russian authors, all of which would eventually he would bequeath to me, including Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov etc. Naturally flowing from this, he brought me this big book of Russian Fairy Tales, which remain incomparable in my imagination, opening up the country and her people and inspiring a deep-rooted love for the country. The Firebird from this selection, remains one of my most favorites reads till date!

The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall – Again a book that came to via my father; for many years he worked and collaborated on several Indo-Australian projects related to immigration laws before it became the “it’ thing. One of his oldest friends, and one of the most erudite men I have had the pleasure of knowing gifted me this book, I believe when I was 6. The adventures of the Koala, Blinky introduced me to Australia, like no one. This book is quintessentially Australian and quintessentially one of the best books ever to be read to a child!

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham – What is there for me to say that is not already been said about this classic? The adventures of Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger as they navigate Toad Hall in an effort to reclaim what is rightfully Toads is a moving story of friendship and kindness!

There are so many that are missing the list, but these are the 10 that come to my mind!

P.S. This is a an incredibly late Top Ten from dated July 02 2019, as part of the Top Ten Tuesday  series, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl,

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