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Category Archive for 'India'

Believe all the good things you see, hear, and read about this dramatic, totally involving, and thematically insightful novel about three young people and their families living in and around Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. A huge train fire and its resulting spread to a neighborhood of huts, with over a hundred deaths, described in the opening quotation, is the event around which the novel evolves, with three main characters. Jivan, a young woman living in a slum area near the railway station “ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train.” She is accused of being involved in the terrorism. The second main character, Lovely, is a “hijra,” a transgender person who is taking acting lessons and drawing applause for her performances in class. The third character, PT Sir, a teacher of physical-training at a girls’ school, also knows Jivan because she was once a scholarship student whom he helped. With main characters who are female, male, and transgender, author Megha Majumdar is able to provide broad commentary on the city, its values, the difficulties of finding good work, the lives and decisions made by Jivan’s acquaintances, and Jivan’s own “crime.” Majumdar writes so efficiently, descriptively, and intelligently, that I cannot imagine a reader not becoming caught up in every aspect of this astonishing novel.

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It is almost Christmas in 1921, and Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta is running blindly across the rooftops of Chinatown, trying to avoid capture by his own men, who have no idea who they are chasing. An opium addict, as a result of his service in World War I and its aftermath, Sam has spent the evening fighting off his withdrawal symptoms by feeding his habit in an opium den. Then, inexplicably, the police attack. In his desperate efforts to escape, he climbs up through a hatch to a storage attic, where he finds a critically wounded Chinese man with ritualistic injuries – a man in such agony that he musters the last of his strength to try to kill Wyndham with a knife, before expiring. As the police work their way up, Sam escapes across the roof, eventually hiding in a crawlspace, covered with blood and carrying the bent-bladed knife with which the Chinese man tried to kill him.. With all this fast and flamboyant action stuffed into the first ten pages, readers may wonder, as they take a breath, if author Abir Mukherjee is creating a sensational, non-stop narrative to draw the reader into an action-for-its-own-sake story about exotic India and its unusual cultures. Mukherjee, however, has far bigger plans for this novel, both thematically and historically, and as the nonstop action begins, he simultaneously creates a vivid picture of his main character, Sam Wyndham, his problematic personal life, his fears, his role as a police officer trying to maintain control during the British raj in Calcutta, and his questions about why this raid was kept secret from him.

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Set in the Greenwich Village enclave of the Macdougal-Sullivan Historic District, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is pure Rushdie, while also being pure New York. His young narrator, Rene Unterlinden, the son of Belgian academics, has lived in this district all his short life while working to become a filmmaker. The spacious house beside him, owned for over twenty years by a mystery man who has never been seen on the property, has been in the care of professionals – despite its highly desirable address. On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, an “uncrowned seventy-something king from a foreign country and his three sons take over their castle.” Rene confesses that when looking at this man, he “thought of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster,” but before long, Rene begins thinking that this man might, at last, be the unique film subject he has been searching for. Within a few pages. the reader learns that the new residents are from Mumbai and that they have survived a terrorist attack which took place there in November, 2008. About a month after that, the family escaped to their “safe” address in New York City, having planned for this for many years. Rushdie is obviously having the time of his life as he creates and develops these characters, and he certainly enjoys the opportunity to set his story in New York in the heady days immediately after the Obama election. With his immense intelligence, his wild, non-stop imagination, and his ability to see current events as the basis of satiric commentary, he includes music, films, novels, folk tales, and classical references to expand his scope.

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In this stylistically daring look at the environmentally devastating ivory trade in India, author Tania James provides a broad look at all the factors involved in this gory business while keeping her focus on the individual, the small, the personal. To develop her broad message within a manageable focus, she creates three unique stories which evolve simultaneously – the third-person story of the Gravedigger, a lone elephant without a herd and without the grounding in elephant lore which young elephants need to survive; the story of the Poacher, involved in the lucrative ivory trade, told by his younger brother Manu, who is naïve regarding his brother’s motivations; and the story of the Film-maker, in which cinematographer Emma Lewis describes her efforts to document the work of Dr. Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian of the Kavanar Wildlife Park, who works to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves. The three separate points of view provide unusual depth to the examination of poaching without leading to didacticism and preachiness. By rotating the focus among these points of view, the author keeps the suspense high, constantly adding new information to each individual story while leaving other mysteries about the Gravedigger, the Poacher, and the Film-maker undeveloped till the end. This is an imaginative presentation of the issue of poaching and ivory sales and the damage done to the environment and its integrity for all species, both human and animal. Very exciting.

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South African author Damon Galgut’s fictionalized biography of author E. M. Forster (1879 – 1970), known as Morgan, takes a different approach from non-fictional biographies, synthesizing all the author’s research into the character of Forster and then journeying inside his mind, ultimately allowing “Forster” to tell his own story. As the openly gay Galgut asserts throughout this novel, Forster’s most significant difficulty in his personal life and in his writing seems to have been in reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of his life so that he could live and love fully on all levels. During Forster’s most prolific years as a novelist, 1908 – 1924, “minorite” activities were almost universally hidden, not just frowned upon by society, but rejected as aberrant behavior.
Strict codes of behavior governed how people interacted within various social classes, and the need to conform allowed little room for any kind of social experimentation and led to the ostracism of those who were “different.” How “minorites,” in particular, came to terms with their essential natures and were able to live within this restricted society becomes a major theme of this novel.

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