Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Liked This Review

I guess it was Tarun Tejpal who said--scratch an Indian and you will find a novelist.

And who said, scratch a Russian and you will find a farmer? Was it in the movie Dr. Zhivago?

Read on...

The Magic of Facts

Amitav Ghosh's latest novel proves once again the delight of discovering esoteric information

Sometimes you have to wonder if everyone in India is writing a novel. In New Delhi, for instance, the roster of published novelists includes newspaper editors, gossip columnists, ex-bureaucrats, housewives, college teachers, advertising executives, a former Prime Minister and the present spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs. A trip to the fiction section of any Indian bookstore will show that Indians are churning out novels like chapatis these days; shelf after shelf bursts with paperbacks telling of the alienation and loneliness of Indians who've moved to America, the depression and misery of Indians who haven't, the stupendously complicated family lives of Indians everywhere, not to mention big feasts, tearful weddings, romping elephants—the works.

But walk over to the nonfiction shelf of the bookstore, and you have gone from feast to famine. When it comes to writing about the history, anthropology or art history of their civilization, Indians are, by and large, appallingly unproductive. The best book on the history of Delhi was written by a foreigner, William Dalrymple. The best biography of the Indian director Satyajit Ray was written by another foreigner, Andrew Robinson. At a time when more and more Indians are writing fiction that gets read in America and England, a disproportionate amount of the informative and scholarly work on India still gets outsourced to Americans and Britons. The sovereign obsession of middle-class India, it would seem, is to be entertained, not to be informed. And that is why Amitav Ghosh might well be the most important Indian novelist writing in English today.

Many of Ghosh's fans regard his best book as In an Antique Land, a work of nonfiction that explored the relationship between a medieval Indian slave and his Egyptian master. Since its publication in 1992, the Oxford-educated student of anthropology has mostly stuck to fiction, but each of his past few novels has been a Trojan horse of nonfiction—full of interesting facts about an academic discipline (science, anthropology, history, semiotics) that most of his countrymen would have been loath to learn about if it were not sugar-coated in fiction. The Calcutta Chromosome was brimming with details about genetics and malaria; The Glass Palace explored the colonial history of Burma and India; and The Hungry Tide, Ghosh's latest novel, contains long digressions into cetology—the study of marine mammals.

The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, a swampy archipelago in the Indian state of West Bengal, which has by way of tourist attraction the dual charms of man-eating tigers and cyclonic storms. Wading into the marshlands are Piya, an Indian-American marine biologist looking for a rare dolphin that might inhabit its waters, and Kanai, a bored rake from Delhi on the lookout for a more common sort of catch—a lonely American. Things go topsy-turvy for Kanai when Piya decides her search for the dolphin will need the expert guidance of Fokir, a silent, brooding local fisherman who exudes immense sexual charisma. This irritates Kanai, who tries to prove to Piya that talkative, urbane men aren't short on sexual charisma, either. The three of them head off on a boat to find a few dolphins. Sexual tension piles up, and myriad facts about the wondrous history of the Indian swampland are learned by all. Just when you think Piya and Kanai and the silent, brooding, vaguely Conradian Fokir will wander up and down the swamp forever, tigers begin to appear along the swamp, warning you that a climax is coming; it arrives in the form of a cyclone that sweeps the archipelago and kills one of the main characters.

Ghosh is not yet a great writer. He lacks the intoxicating, Dionysian power of Salman Rushdie at his best, and the craftsmanship of Rohinton Mistry—his only real co-passengers in the first-class cabin of Indian novelists—but he can do what they can't: leave you feeling two or three IQ points smarter by the end of one of his novels. And with his passion for subjects like marine biology, Ghosh remains his nation's best hope when it comes to getting tens of thousands of fiction-glutted Indians to read something mind broadening. The next announcement by Amitav Ghosh that he has a new novel to present to his countrymen—with multitudes of unexpected data tucked inside, ready to overwhelm even the most information-resistant reader with a sense of the magic of facts—will rank as the most important event in India's literary calendar that year.

Source: Time Asia, Sept. 13, 2004

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