The Epic City-book review

Up until the 1970s, Calcutta used to be India’s wealthiest and largest city. Since then, Calcutta (now Kolkatta) has experienced a steady decline as it has relinquished its economic crown to the likes of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. But despite this, Calcutta is still a proud city that has a legacy of producing literary and political greats. Whether it has more than just its legacy in the 21st century is a question Indian-American Kushanava Choudhury tries to answer with his book The Epic City – The World on the Streets of Calcutta.

Choudhury was born in the US to Bengali parents who later returned to Calcutta to work, then came back to the US after they realized things were not as idyllic as they had thought. By the time Choudhury graduated from university, he decided to do the same and went to his ancestral city to work for the Statesman, the city’s oldest English-language newspaper. After two years passed, Choudhury had had enough and went back to the US to pursue graduate studies, before deciding to return to Calcutta to write a book. The Epic City is the result.

Calcutta is a fascinating city, having been the home of the great Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore as well as countless famous Indian writers, poets, and politicians. Calcutta is the heartland of the Bengali people and culture, and was also India’s capital when the British ruled India. However, growing unrest made the British shift the capital to Delhi. After independence and partition, when Pakistan was created, Calcutta lost its Bengali hinterland which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.

While The Epic City starts off slowly as it introduces the city and the author’s family background, the book becomes more compelling as Choudhury tackles historical and political issues. Truth be told, it can be depressing at times as readers learn about past famines and massacres, and the city’s widespread poverty. Ironically, Calcutta has been relatively free of political turmoil in the last few decades as it underwent economic decline. This is cited by someone Choudhury talks to as the reason Calcutta lacks modern greats, with all its heroes dead, as nothing happens in the city anymore. Choudhury points out the further irony that these greats all lived during British colonialism.

There is also colour and excitement, in the form of the Durga Pujo festival when the city’s neighborhoods are filled with large pandals, bamboo lattices built to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. We are also introduced to para and adda, which mean the neighborhood and long discussions with friends respectively, that are a big part of Calcutta life. The city’s literary culture still exists, from its myriad secondhand bookstores to the “little magazines” of poetry, stories and politics.

Choudhary does not romanticize Calcutta though, he freely admits it is a tough place to live with little to do or see, which sounds a bit harsh. His wife Durba, a Delhi native who he met in graduate school in the US, detests Calcutta, which is the source of fights between them. Choudhary is hard on his beloved city as well, pointing out how thousands of years ago, the first ancient Indian cities had covered sewers but yet, in modern Calcutta, the smell of human piss is everywhere, which Choudhary hilariously points out.

The book was written in 2009-2010, so perhaps by now, even more of the old neighborhoods and way of life described by Choudhary have already gone. The Epic City is a heartfelt tribute and record of a proud city that, though a shadow of its old self, can always count on its writers to maintain its proud legacy.

In memory of VS Naipaul, one of the world’s and Trinidad’s greatest writers

The world lost one of the greatest contemporary English-language writers last Saturday (11th) when VS Naipaul passed away at 85 in his home in London. The Nobel Literature laureate and Booker Prize-winner was a formidable and fearless writer who pulled no punches in his writing, which included both novels and non-fiction that mostly focused on the developing world. Africa, India, and the Caribbean, including his native Trinidad, were all harshly criticized by him in various books, which struck some people as racist and an apologist for colonialism. Naipaul was also open about the racism he experienced in England, where he went to university at 18 after graduating from high school in Trinidad on a scholarship and lived from then on. As great a writer as he was, as a person, he had some serious flaws such as a strong sense of arrogance, and cruelty towards his first wife and his mistress.

For me, it was his non-fiction books on India (India: A Million Mutinies Now) and the Islamic world that were the most memorable. Besides the scope of his books, it was the bluntness and validity of Naipaul’s critiques of those countries that struck me. Maybe partly because of the fact he was not white and was from a developing country himself, but Naipaul wrote things about the developing world that hardly any other Western writer would dare to. That he wrote a trilogy of non-fiction books about India, where his ancestors came from, that were unsympathetic and unsparing in their criticism of poverty, squalor, and disorder, was a testament to his fearlessness and lack of fear in expressing his thoughts and opinions.  Besides the Caribbean, Africa, and India, Naipaul also wrote about the Islamic world in his non-fiction book Beyond Belief, visiting countries like Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, which he was, not surprisingly, critical of. While some people saw this as mocking and contemptuous of the third world, I feel that Naipaul’s blunt opinions were driven not by arrogance or a superiority complex, but a sense of disappointment and a desire for the developing world to improve.

As someone who is also from Trinidad, I know that Naipaul was not very well liked by many locals because they felt that he was out of hand in his criticisms. But I think he was right in a lot of his criticisms, such as how as a society Trinidad has failed to progress, and I think deep down, many of his critics probably agree with Naipaul.

Naipaul was involved in a few public feuds, including one with the poet Derek Walcott, another Caribbean literary giant and Nobel Literary Prize laureate that saw the latter write a very malicious poem about Naipaul. Another was with American writer Paul Theroux, who was wounded enough when Naipaul suddenly ended their decades-long friendship to write an entire book about his friendship and falling out with Naipaul called Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

A lot of testimonies have been written about Naipaul and none fail to mention both his greatness and his conflicting legacy. Whatever one thinks of his personality or work, it can’t be denied that there might never be another like Va Naipaul.

 

The India Ride- book review

Two Canadian brothers set off on an 18,000-km motorcycle ride around China in 2010 and succeeded. A couple of years later, they decided to do another epic motorcycle ride around India. The India Ride – 2 brothers, 2 motorcycles, an incredible adventure is the story of this feat of stamina, courage, and most of all, patience. Written by the brothers, Colin and Ryan Pyle, The India Ride details the entire journey which started from Delhi, went northwest along treacherous mountainous roads and to the border with Pakistan, then southwest to Mumbai and the Arabian Sea coast before going back up along the southeast coast up to Bengal and finishing in Delhi again.

The arduous journey was not just a daredevil joyride but a carefully planned expedition that was intended to be fully recorded for a TV show based on the trip. In fact, the brothers were still completing book and television deals for the China trip while preparing for the India trip. The book details the arduous preparations as even before the trip actually began, the brothers had to plan the journey day by day, hire a driver and videographer (the same from their China journey) who followed and filmed them during the whole trip, apply for permits to shoot video at places they planned to visit, and get sponsors.

Not surprisingly, the trip was full of hazardous traffic and road experiences, including a few close calls, mixed emotions, and frustration. India is no cup of tea for visitors, especially ones riding motorcycles around the country. While I’ve never been to India (yet), I’ve heard a lot about the country, which just from afar can seem like an assault on the senses and mind. The brothers’ experiences and insights of India showed the country to be as fascinating, chaotic and frustrating as I’d expected. The brothers don’t hold back in expressing their thoughts on the country, during and at the completion of their journey. Their encounters with locals are mostly positive, such as when a stranger driving by who leads the brothers to a nearby mechanic after one of their motorcycles breaks down on a hilly, rural area.

The book could have been shorter on the planning details at the beginning, and longer on the actual events and sights of the trip. As the main point of the trip was the motorcycle journey and not sightseeing, it is understandable. They do visit some major sights such as the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, the ghats alongside the Ganges River in Varanasi, and major temples. The chapter on the Rat Temple (Karni Matar) in Rajasthan state is a particularly interesting and honest read, though it might put readers off of visiting it. It’s also exactly why I think there should have been more writing about the sights.

The brothers’ India ride was a remarkable journey in a remarkable country, which very few people would ever dare to complete. It is good to see that the journey did not put off Ryan Pyle, the older brother and whose idea it originally was to ride around China, as he would go on to complete another incredible motorcycle ride in Brazil and is still going strong.

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.