I am sorry for disturbing you at Lunch Break with a seemingly profound question. But if I were to tell you that I recently came to possess an electronic device that has changed my life, would you believe me?
Perhaps not. It is the trap of using the words ‘life’ and ‘change’ in the same sentence, and that comes with its own baggage.
But how about this? How about if I told you that the electronic device has turned my life topsy turvy, if only in the most blissful of ways? May be that would be a more digestible sentence. The device in question is the Kindle eBook reader, and I’d require an entire blog to recount in great detail the many ways I’m completely obsessed with it. It has fragmented my life into three parts, and I find myself either reading, writing or doing stand up comedy. So lost am I in this Bermuda Triangle of sinful pleasure, that I have been able to finish a book every two days.
I am aware of the desensitisation of reading too much, too soon. That if you switch from one book to the other, you’re robbing yourself of the true experience of reading a book. You aren’t giving yourself time to savour and relish the essence of the book. You’re robbing yourself of the experience of sitting back and contemplating and concreting your thoughts on the book. That it gets reduced to a mechanical process.
These are all wonderfully valid points. But I’d have to disagree with them. I hope I’m able to make my point clear at the end of this post, but without much ado, let us dive in to the review for the book. I have never reviewed a book, except to recommend them to friends, when I adorn the avatar of an Amway salesman.
If you’re the literary sort, this review might not be what you’re expecting. I’m unaware of the literary nuances of a book review, but like Himesh Reshammiya might say, ‘Chuck it, Jai Mata Di, Let’s Rock!’.
My first exposure to an Amitav Ghosh book was a rather strange occurrence.
We had congregated at Bakul Children’s Library – a voluntary organisation that also happens to be the noisiest, and my most favourite library in the entire world. There was a talk by an inspirational and spiritual talker.
I am not a fan of the tribe, but I’d tagged along anyway. The speaker, a pretty young woman, was speaking in the language that motivational speakers do – Vaguelish – a bunch of vague quotations and philosophical musings strung together for a bunch of impressionable minds.
One particular exercise in the entire routine was to ‘find answers’ for our ‘deepest questions’. For this, we were to pick up a random book, close our eyes, and think of a number, and the question that was most disturbing us. We were then to open to the page number that the universe had conspired to whisper in our ears, and lo and behold! – we would find the answer to the questions that were gnawing at our less-evolved minds.
I walked up to the rack of books and scanned through them. Suddenly, it was an audition. These great writers across lands and ages, vying for my attention for a few moments. I wasn’t going to spend time with them, read and ruminate over their thoughts – No. I was merely going to use them for a few moments for an utterly selfish motive. I remember smiling throughout, at how beautifully absurd the entire exercise was.
I had read merely two authors in the entire rack – RK Narayan and JK Rowling – but I chose to ignore them. I didn’t want my greatest question in life to be answered thus –
‘When will become of me in a few years?’
‘Adava Kedavra!’ he shrieked, and all that remained of the body was smoke and dust.
So I took my time running through the books till I chose Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, probably due to its intriguingly beautiful cover. Dressed in a pretentious white kurta, blue jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, I chose to find my answers by judging a book by its cover.
I don’t remember what my question was, or what reply the universe chose to bestow upon me that hot afternoon. But I never touched an Amitav Ghosh book again.
Cut to 2015, and as part of my MPhil in Diaspora Studies, a professor mentions Amitav Ghosh and his work. Much of our course deals with the times of indentured labour, when the British steered the first intercontinental exoduses to feed their farms and plantations across the world.
Perhaps there is a time for everything. Just as I was flirting with the idea of a historical novel, I chanced upon Sea of Poppies. One glance at the number of pages (the other way that I often judge a book), and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book in two days. It would take longer than that, and might require a little more investment than the ones I’d read so far on my newly purchased, life-changing, electronic device.
I clicked on the cover, and set sail on the journey.
The year is 1938, and many parts of the Ganga basin have been consumed by poppy cultivation. Funded and regulated by the East India Company, Opium has become the magic potion that keeps the East India Company robust.
Deeti is married to an opium-addicted former sepoy who isn’t going to last too long. His brother has his eyes on Deeti, and she has to choose between agreeing to his conditions, or setting herself alight in the funeral pyre of her husband.
Raja Neel Ruttan is a zamindar who owns lands, people, and runs their lives, blissfully cocooned from the rest of the world. He spends his time collecting books, discussing the affairs of the world, making love to his concubine, and flying kites with his little son. But the picture is too perfect in a world that is beginning to witness tectonic shifts, and he is stripped of everything he prided himself upon.
Zachary is a sailor from America who set sail with a ship – Ibis, and plans to spend the rest of his life on it. He is young, indispensable, and seems to be liked by each and every person he meets. Is he just a large-hearted American sailor? Or is he the avatar of Lord Krishna?
But Amitav Ghosh uses the characters as mere garnishing – to sprinkle over the already simmering pot of conflict. There is the British Empire that is working on attacking China in what would be known as the Opium Wars. There is the sea itself, calm and serene like a mother’s lap one moment, and vicious and unforgiving the next. There is the ship Ibis – the mothership that carries in its womb these fragmented lives that have come together under bizarre circumstances. Travelling to an unknown land where it is rumoured that they will be friend and eaten. Or made to work like slaves without care or comfort.
Then there is the language that Ghosh chooses to stir everything together with. Using folk songs from Bhojpuri, swearwords in Hindusthani, afflictions from Britain, and the sycophantic ‘Indian-English’, the author concocts a wonderful language that could only be spoken by men who live on waters all their lives. The language is representative of the people on the ship – strung together from all parts, forced to live together.
Sea of Poppies is the first real epic Indian English novel that I’ve read. It was a question that would trouble me often in the last few years, when I decided to read books with more seriousness. I would wonder why no Indian author chose to write a sweeping epic based on people from our wonderfully diverse country, surely it must be a goldmine for a writer!
This book turned out to be the answer to my questions. The book made me experience the thrill of going back to it book after a short break, like being reunited with your partner after a few days. I spent the last four days lying on my back, chewing on tasteless vadas, and sipping on phony pineapple juice, all the while traveling with the characters on a journey that was going to alter their lives forever. I finished the book a few hours ago, and all I wanted to do was write about it.
Not a flashy, snarky blog where I make snide remarks at people. But a piece where I could revel in converting my thoughts into words, just watching the black letters form words and ideas on the white paper.
Going back to the question I had raised at the beginning of the post, on why I am reading with a mad frenzy, without break or pause.
All through my life, I have gravitated towards people who possessed two defining qualities. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but they were all women who loved animals; and were able to express their thoughts in the most beautiful manner. None of them want to be writers today (which is rather unfortunate), but if I try to put my head around what attracted me to them, it is perhaps this very quality. The ability to string together words in a manner that they could light up the insides of the other person’s head. It is a superpower that even superheroes do not possess.
I would often wonder how they did it. How were they able to convey their deepest thoughts in such a flowing, lucid style? Why did I have to struggle to mask my thoughts with humour, or lace them with abuse and sarcasm?
As I finished Sea of Poppies, it struck me why they were all better at expressing their thoughts. It was because they had grown up reading beautiful books. Those books had influenced the manner in which they thought, spoke, and reacted.
And as I think back to myself at that age, I was a coward. I did not have the courage to even consider studying Literature, choosing instead to spend five years pursuing the one course chosen by people who have no clue what they want to become – B.Com.
Now, I feel like I am permanently playing catch-up. For some reason, people assume I’ve read a lot of books, and everytime the conversation steers towards books and authors, I end up making long mental notes of books and authors. Sometimes, I didn’t have the time. Other times, I didn’t have the resources.
But now that I have the greatest electronic device invented by man in my hands, I do not want to stop. I can probably live without the introspection and the savouring. May be it is a luxury I robbed myself of. But that’s alright.
There’s a lot of catching up to do, and my Kindle tells me there are 3 hours 22 minutes left in the next book I’m reading!