Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

I am a fan of Indian writing in English and have read most of the commercially successful work publsihed in the last ten/fifteen years. There are some very good writers in this trade namely Rushdie, Vikram Seth, etc. but in my view Amitav Ghosh is the master of this fast growing community. Those who have meandered with him on the Irawaddy in the Hungry Tide or traveled from the forests of Burma to the western ghats of India in the Glass Palace will often share the view that his writings have a certain unputdownable quality in them. But the manner in which a he has told the story in his latest historical and literary fictional work the “Sea of Poppies” has taken his craft to a new level altogether. Very rarely does it happen to me that I do not want a novel to end due to the void that finishing it will cause. All through the reading I was mildly concerned that once I finish the book I will miss the characters and the story. That was the extent to which the writing made me engage with the story, the characters and the settings. Almost as if it was part of me. The statement “Getting lost in the story” characterized what I went through, I think.
However, Sea of Poppies is not just about the story, the age in which the book has been set and the granularity with which the historical aspects of that time have been crafted have an equal if not greater role in making it a compelling read.

Set in the early nineteenth century Bihar and Bengal, Ghosh brings alive the implications of the forced cultivation of Opium as a cash crop in the region and its implications on the lives of every one around it. The other important part of history that the book reflects on is the movement of Bihari indentured workers (girmitiyas) to work in British islands like Mauritius and the West Indies. The latter subject has been a great source of curiosity for me and names like Ramnares Sarwan, Chandrapaul and Ramagoolam have fed that curiosity over the years. The treatment of this era, the lingo that was used, the culture, the rites, rituals, fears, hopes, events and happenings have been expressed in a manner that you get the feeling that Ghosh has actually traveled in a time machine and been able to observe the people from a vantage position. This treatment of the time and age coupled with fascinating events that unfold create a truly magnificent read.

I am glad that this is the first of a triology and am very eagerly waiting for the next one to come out. Just to make sure that I do not feel the void for too long, I have immediately started reading one of Ghosh’s much earlier novels, “The Shadow Lines”. Reading this one is making it clear to me how much Amitav Ghosh has evolved as a writer in the last ten years or so. If I project the same slope of progress in the future and assume that the trend will continue for another ten, then there is a very good chance that we may look back at him as the best ever.
I am now very curious about the “White Tiger” by Arvind Adiga which won this years booker ahead of the “Sea of Poppies”, if that was seen as better, then it better be mind-blowing. I hope the expectation of greatness does not come in the way of judging a very good piece of work. More on that later.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rub of the Green

The pleasure of getting to do something that you are really passionate about is absolutely uplifting. These days I am experiencing that pleasure.

About five months back, fate and my boss took me to the driving range of the Noida Golf Club for a lesson and introduction into golf. Well, I used to tell all the usual golf jokes and up until then regarded it like an old man’s game and something that people do so that they can be networked and make contacts etc, so I had to be cajoled and pushed a bit to go and try out the game. I did not know then, that this day would have such a massive impact on me.

All through my teenage years and early adult life, I was a sportsman. I used to play Badminton very well till a combination of injury; studies, commonsense and the need to become “something in life” took over completely. The results was that the last fifteen years or so were more or less devoted to work and family only, regrettably in that order. I realize only now that a huge hole existed in me for all these years because I was totally detached from sports. Because I have always strived very hard to improve and equip myself to do my work better and better and also found the journey challenging and enjoyable (I love my job you see), I could never understand or articulate this hole. I kept dismissing this as something “that must be happening to every one else” and kept pushing it away but it just kept getting bigger and bigger.

I now realize what that hole was, I am able to articulate it to myself and I am able to fill it…with Golf!

I am not a morning person and I find it very difficult to wake up early in the morning. Anything earlier than 7 am for me has been impossible. However, since starting golf I get up every day at 5 am and by 6 I am on the range or the course and action has already started. If I find myself alone and not engaged in work or fun, I quite often find myself visualizing my swing. The temptation is too strong sometimes to shadow practice the swing and I can be quite a sight in queue or while waiting for an elevator. I am trying very hard to improve my game and practicing by taking out time from sleep and a few other things to get better and better at the game.

I realize that I need to do this. I need to play a sport. I need to engage my mind and my body (the system) in and against an environment where I can plot play and win. I need the intoxication of victory and pain of defeat. I need that to keep myself going and I need that to fill my hole. Golf, helps firstly because you play the game more with yourself and the conditions more than anything else and secondly because it has a strange magnetism that is difficult to explain.

One of the things that I took time out from in order to play Golf is writing and the other is reading. This partially explains why I have not posted anything in a while. But I do not regret it at all, I know that something has to give way…after all it was the rub of the green that got me here, now I need to make every shot count.