An oil slick amidst the Hungry Tide

Just a short while ago, I hadn’t the remotest clue of what an Orcaella or the Irrawaddy Dolphin was.But within a span of two months, I encountered it twice. Two days ago, I glanced at the papers and it jumped out at me.A huge oil slick off the coast of Sunderbans had endangered several lives including that of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Somehow,this struck closer home as I had just finished Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Hungry Tide’. Human activities continue to threaten the fragile ecological balances existing worldwide as we doggedly pursue our blinkered journey towards self-annihilation drowning out the few dissenting voices of naturalists and environmentalists. Piyali Roy, the main protagonist of the book is one such lone voice.
Fiction set in rich contexts exploring a historical setting or those examining the uniqueness of a particular locale is always an intriguing read.But it transforms into a magical journey in the hands of adept authors like Amitav Ghosh when the characterization takes on a different dimension altogether.’The Hungry Tide’,set in the Sunderbans, brings to life all the magic, mystique, intrigue and perils of the place that one could possibly associate it with. The lives of people for whom change is enduring, living is indeterminate, survival – a daily odds; those who are aware that the very ground they stand on, could be swallowed up the very next minute. It portrays the psyche of such people who encounter death on a daily basis but nevertheless, life elsewhere is unthinkable. They are the inhabitants of the tide country. And with such a narrative, not only are you riveted by an engaging plot but also absorb the essence of a place and time painstakingly sketched by an author’s extensive research.

The protagonists of ‘The Hungry Tide’ are as unlikely a bunch one could envisage. A young cetologist, Piyali Roy, whose life’s ambition is to study the habits of the little known Irrawaddy dolphin.An illiterate rustic fisherman, Fokir.And Kanai, a suave city-bred translator, who is summoned to Lucibari – a remote,unreachable and hostile island in the Sunderbans, for a very curious reason.In typical Ghosh’s style, each of them is very expansively portrayed.Piyali comes across as a resilient woman; passionate about her scientific work and single minded in her pursuit,enabling her to overcome the harsh extremes that her work imposes.She also happens to be a woman, who’s still searching for her identity and discovers her answers in the remote Sunderbans amidst the congregations of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Fokir, though an illiterate fisherman and a man seemingly so far removed from the scientific and highly educated Piyali, still remarkably congruent in his passion for the flora and fauna of the mangroves.And hence, it comes as no surprise that when fate throws Piyali and Fokir together, they connect. A primal bond that renders language superfluous, barely acknowledged yet resilient enough to withstand a storm. And finally there was Kanai.Out of all of them, it is his mutable character with the shades of grey which would have been the trickiest to portray.At one instant, his character smacks of superficiality and conceit but at the very next, it also manages to elicit sympathy for the struggles of a reasonable mind against the prejudices that form the bedrock of his upbringing.Confident to the point of arrogance,but also possessing a remarkable sense of intuition, Kanai rises above himself when he’s put to the ultimate test.He arrives in Lucibari on a strange mission – that of reading his dead uncle’s diary which chronicles his last days before the massacre of Morichjhanpi,when the government of West Bengal forcibly evicted thousands of refugees.And in that dairy,he again encounters his childhood friend,Kusum, who is an ephemeral presence throughout the novel, entwining the past with the present.

It’s a novel which explores many facets – about human bonds that transcends barriers, about rising above oneself, about life in the Sunderbans but above all, I felt it was a novel about exploring one’s identity and the human spirit. Finding that elusive purpose divergent from materialistic pursuits. It also poses several thought-provoking questions when environmentalism comes into conflict with humanism. Does the plight of the Sunderban tigers far outweigh the plight of human refugees ? Though the novel is a good 400 pages, my interest hardly flagged even through the arcane descriptions the author provides on the habitat and the etymology of the Irrawaddy dolphins.

And thus it was, that I came to know of the existence of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and of the wonder that is the Sunderbans and of the remarkable people of the tide country. In light of my almost personal acquaintance with the animal through the eyes of the cetologist, it was even more distressing to read of the oil slick off the Sunderbans that threatens to disastrously tilt the scales.The need of the hour is to join forces to save the last of the wonderful creatures that depend on these fragile eco-systems. The hungry tide has risen and it shall not be stopped by the narrow confines of national boundaries.

File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin
File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin

Sea of Poppies

There is no greater leveler than misfortune.And in all probability, the British rule united us is more ways than one.A Rajput rural woman, a princely Zamindar, a priest, a French woman, a half-black American all come together in life changing journeys in the “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh.The book is the first of his Ibis Trilogy,which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008.

Set during the time when the East India company was just spreading its tentacles and imposing opium cultivation on the farmers, the story charts its course through its various characters who hail from different strata of a checkered society.

Deeti,the Rajput wife of an ‘afeemkhor'(an opium addict), who resolves to perform Sati in an age-old tradition in her husband’s pyre – more to evade the clutches of her lecherous brother-in-law than any allegiance to devout faith, is snatched from the jaws of death by none other than the village cart driver who incidentally is also a ‘Chamaar’ – Kalua. They are then on the run from a caste strangled village, men for whom caste and honor were not boundaries to be broken.

The author sensitively portrays the life of a lower caste person through the life of Kalua, who despite being of an impressive physical strength, silently bears autrocities meted out to him. At one instance,Deeti unwittingly becomes an audience to the humiliation of Kalua – “So it could happen to a man too ? Even a powerful giant of a man could be humiliated and destroyed in a way that far exceeded his body’s capacity for pain”

Neel Rattan Haldar, a zamindar, has everything he could ask for albeit for one small problem. He is debt-ridden to a ruthless British Planter. Overnight his fortunes turn and he’s at the mercy to a fate more pathetic than a ‘Chamaar’. He’s incarcerated on false charges and sentenced to deportation. “So it was that for Neel, no aspect of his captivity held greater terror than the thought of sharing a shit-hole with dozens of common prisoners”
Till the end the thing that troubles him the most is the loss of his caste more than his riches.

A french girl,Paulette, is raised in a surprisingly liberal manner by a doting father, but loses her independence with her father’s death and is thrust into a British planter’s household. In a life stifled by orthodoxy,coming face-to-face with the perverted nature of her benefactor, proves to be her undoing.

A man who is a ‘white’ for all practical purposes but with one minor difference, he is ‘half-black’- a mulatto American – a fact that made all the difference, that makes him appreciate the feelings of suppression which transcends language.Zachary Reid is portrayed as an interesting mix of youth and maturity, of innocence and experience.

We make the acquaintance of a strange character – the character of Gomushta Baboo Nobokrishna Panda. Despite all his religious idiosyncrasies, we would have relegated him to a character of not much consequence, if it were not for his rather pivotal role in the lives of the key protagonists. He embodies a sort of religious fanaticism who’s searching for his elusive god mother Taramony and in the process, is convinced of the rebirth of Krishna as Zachary Reid.

The myriad characters all come together in ‘The Ibis’, a ship – a white winged bird in flight, denoting escape from some, torment for others .The ship invokes both fear and fascination for its taking them to a destination and fates unknown.

Irrespective of their background caste,race or religion, in the ship, they are only fellow ‘jahazis’ and in its hold, isolated by the past and the future, there is only one defining language that unites – that of a basic humanness and the insurmountable divide of the good versus evil.

Amitav Ghosh weaves magic with his vivid portrayal of characters and the depth he creates in each one of them.The characters too, are carefully chosen from different classes of people to create the rich tapestry that is the ‘Sea of Poppies’. He uses a lot of Hindi-anglicized words to depict the language of the British in India at the time and though authentic that helps portraying the culture and language necessary for creating an alluring background, the unaccustomed words did create a hurdle in the otherwise smooth flow of reading.Since I failed to locate a glossary for such words in the book, it might pose a hurdle for the non-Hindi speaking readers, though in some cases, obvious assumptions can presumably be made.I relished reading it and though the story shifts across various characters and places as it spans Ghazipur to Calcutta to the rolling high seas, there was no disconnect as they seamlessly join to create a vibrant story.

This is not a new book and I am sure many of you might have already read this.But as they say, a good book never gets old and every book will be read at its own time. So, if you have already read it, do put in your comment to share how you felt about it.

Is fiction an escapism ?

While glancing through the newspaper’s editorial, I chanced upon this rather interesting piece by Jug Suraiya.The fiction readers are alleged to be escapists from reality and the author defends this on how ‘escaping’ can be considered more in terms of escaping from one’s own consciousness to the consciousness of others.

Being an avid reader of fiction for a long time, it came as something akin to a surprise and I did ponder on whether it was escapist. Fiction in the form of storytelling and folk lore has existed since time immemorial. Who hasn’t listened to grandma’s stories with its abundance of moral lessons?

Fiction could be of the speculative fiction variety like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter where the reader is transported to the narrative’s imaginative world. As many ardent readers would vouch for, is that it requires a childlike ability to be able to live in the unreal, to be able to cast aside the shackles bound by reality and for those brief moments of time to be able to don the garb of a child again. The ability to create a pseudo-world where the rules are only limited to what you perceive them to be is imaginative thinking at its best. As the dialogue from Matrix goes “A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible”.

Comic novels written by humorists like P. G Wodehouse can have anybody, with matching sensibilities, in splits. Author E.B. White said “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”As humor writing relies a lot on hyperbole, achieving the same through a realistic reconstruction of events might not always lend itself to iconic characters like Jeeves or Bertie Wooster.

Historical novels and movies have enabled people to relate to a face, making it much more personal and involved. They have also been credited with encouraging nationalist sentiments.  Novels based on First World War or the Third Reich still abound and bring the historical/political sentiments prevalent at that time into sharp relief. Political fiction like 1984 by George Orwell brought out the extremes of a dystopian society. Along the same lines are books around social issues or ’realistic fiction’ as they are called, acted as the literary means of protest and spread awareness of abuses far beyond political boundaries.

Suspense fiction, romance and thrillers are definitely the one’s which are closest to escapism via the adrenalin way. They have purportedly acted as sustenance for the strenuous intellectuals by giving an emotional release. A lot of people would have been unaware of the thrills of life on the fast lane or gained the rich knowledge of guns and the life of spies, of glances and veiled meanings, of the underworld and mafia, of crime and detective reasonings, if it were not for the Jason  Bournes and Hercule Poirots.

Just like a bird escaping from a cage, fiction can be viewed as escapism or freedom.But most definitely, our lives would have been a tad bit dull if it were not for these characters residing in the pages of fiction books.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

‘Room’ By Emma Donoghue

Not a book I would have picked up and getting through the first couple of pages did make me question whether this was something I wanted to finish.But as I persevered, it just drew me in.

The story unravels through the eyes of a 5 year old child, Jack. Its about a woman who’s kidnapped by a pervert and kept in a locked shed for 7 long years. She conceives a child and the child’s whole world is the
room. The ‘Room’ and its constituents like the ‘Bed’, ‘Rug’ become a central part in the child’s life. Each thing in the room assumes a unique individuality.

Though the backdrop is sickening, interestingly its not a depressing story. Their life inside the room is the story of survival and the determination of a mother to protect her child against all odds.
They both plan and manage to escape from their incarceration and the reader would be led to assume a happy ending, were it not for the fact that there was still half the book remaining.

So,as it was, I was curious to see what else the author had in store.

After the escape, they both are suddenly thrown into the outside world where things are not within their control , a world where everything familiar disappears within a void. The mother ; a college going youngster before the episode happens, is trying to absorb the essence of freedom in every way but cant come to terms with the changes which have happened to the world she knew 7 years before. The child, who has never witnessed anything outside the room and his Ma, is struggling to comprehend the vastness of the existence beyond his room and coping with losing his grip on everything familiar. The child, for whom even the falling of a leaf holds wonder, begins the arduous task of unlearning and learning things anew.

To think that freedom could be more chaotic than incarceration wouldn’t have crossed my mind. ‘Normal’ and ‘Abnormal’ just become complimentary sides depending on the boundaries defined by our perception.

The innocence of the narrator seeps through in every line you read in the book.

Having a child nearly the same age, did make me relate much better to the workings and the thoughts of a 5 year old.
Not a book probably everyone would like to read, but for those who can, it definitely, is an enriching experience.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

A brilliant, bold and yet sensitive depiction about life in the ‘darkness’. I found this book very thought provoking but strangely disturbing.The ever present rift between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ manifests in the pressing need of the central character Balram Halwai to ‘break out of the coop’.

The story of Balram Halwai is portrayed in his own words very interestingly, as a letter to the Chinese Premier. Born in a small village on the banks of  the Ganga, Balram describes feudal, hinterland India at its best.Determined to change his lot, he awaits opportunities as they present themselves and finally secures a foothold.As he struggles not to drown in the same rut which ate up his ancestors, all sense of right or wrong withers before his strong instinct to survive. Strangely innocent yet corrupt, the character of Balram Halwai is a study in gray.The author’s stark portrayal, bereft of any pretensions, of the complexities of the character is impressive.

As the story of his life unfolds, the reader who fully empathizes with the character within the context of feudal India with its unforgiving ways suddenly gets sucked into a disturbing whirlpool of Balram’s thoughts. It is an almost maniacal urge to ‘break out of the coop’ as he likens millions living in the same conditions as chickens for slaughter. The lengths to which a man can go, to avoid getting sucked into the rut. Its existentialism at its best as Balram murders for gain, sacrifices his own family all of which he defends in his bid to move to the ‘light’.The character is not depicted as an individual with an inherently criminal bent of mind albeit when the time comes, he displays no compunction or remorse. A chore to be dispensed with. A hurdle to be traversed.Call it Jungle law or Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest ; shocked or disgusted you can be, but you definitely cant ignore.

Do you dismiss him as an opportunist & a criminal or do you admire his tenaciousness to survive ?
Do we take the high moral ground and cast him as a villain or do we castigate the system which made him ?
Does a ‘white tiger’ lurk in each one of us ?

Recommended reading !