Thursday, November 3, 2011

River of Smoke (2011)

The time is well past twelve as I sit at my PC now with a throbbing head and a testosterone infused heart; two emotions which I haven’t felt to a large extent in some time now (mainly on account of the seclusion that I have inflicted upon myself for the greater part of this year).

I sit here with my blogger dashboard open at one end; deserted as it is, rightfully, of even a single page view. And the first answer that comes to my mind when I ask myself ‘why is it that you intend to blog now?’ is this-
I know that my hand will not stop itching unless I do.
For I have just finished reading the ‘best’ book that I have ever read until this day.

I tip my hat to you Mr. Amitav Ghosh. You are, in all senses of the legend, a master of the English prose.

You have managed to create within the realms of my imagination, which I think now after having read this book of yours as nothing but unreservedly paltry, a world that existed almost two hundred years ago. And to what extent have you succeeded, before someone will dare to ask, let me elucidate the matter to its more understandable depths. Furthermore, for the sake of not scaring away my blog followers, which is currently a single digit faction, from the boredom of reading a detailed and critical evaluation of your masterpiece which would definitely have to span over pages inorder to do you any kind of justice, I would like to put my sentiments in the form of bullet points:

  1. I can clearly see the places that you have used as a back drop for your epic tale. Not only do I feel now as if I have visited, in person, both Canton and Hong Kong of the many places that you’ve so vividly described in your narrative, they are now, as close to me as a place of ancestry or a place of natives would be to a person who holds his family and his bloodline as his sole possessions.
  1. I can still feel the sea breeze on my neck, gentle yet violent on occasions, and I cant still sense the floor beneath me swaying from the waves lashing against the sides of this make-believe ship that I’m seated in at this very moment; as if I were one of the passengers traveling on the upper decks of the ships that you’re story involves; or, more truthfully put, as if I were part of the crew of lascars manning the ‘Ibis’ or the ‘Redruth’ or the ‘Anahita’.
  1. I feel like I knew every character you’ve written about since the day they were born. The opium trading businessman, his friends, his reliables, the British traders, the Chinese locals, the plant collector, the painter, the Bengali prince disguised as the munshi, his companion; so many that I cannot even recollect exhaustively every leading character of your story in one moment and yet, I kid you not, it takes me less than a minute to envision even such minute details as the colour of their skin and the twang in their voice when a name is singled out to me as I embark upon the unavoidable task of recollecting what I’ve read over the past month.
  1. I can smell the deliciousness of every dish and every drink that was offered by the hosts and devoured by the participants during the many celebrations and merry gatherings manufactured by your pen throughout the length of this book. I never knew that reading something could make me experience a bursting stomach as if I had been gobbling the delicacies and sipping from the goblets along with the rest of the joyous invitees occupying the breadth of the lacquered tabletops.
  1. I sensed the prosperity, the affluence, the merriment, the disdain, the pain and a thousand other sensations that you have so proficiently woven into your wordage. I understood them and for the time that I held your book open in my hands, I experienced them as if for real.
What constitutes an ideal book? Most of us might question those who declare a chronicle in specific as the greatest; a ‘magnum opus’ of literature.

My answer is simple: To me, the best book is that which I would never wish to reach the end of. I would want it to span over my age, its voyage overlapping mine. I would want it to prolong as long as I yearn to learn more both about the protagonists and the antagonists. And when I do reach the end, the last page should do nothing but merely amplify my cravings for the details that I could’ve possibly gained knowledge of had the writer not limited his tale to the five hundred odd pages.

‘River of Smoke’ fits this description to the fullest and as a consequence it has become the best book in my eyes.

What a journey it has been! Why, I can barely remember when I had begun reading ‘Sea of Poppies’, which is the first of the ‘Ibis’ trilogy and now I realize suddenly that the second installment in the ambitious three part series is past me. It is finished. And it has left me hungrier than ever for the third and the final volume which, to my annoyance, is yet to be written. What a vibrant and vivacious portrayal the author has drawn of the times that subsisted just before the opium wars of the 18th century erupted. You would think of the man who wrote it as someone who has lived through all those years. If not then how is it that he is able to describe even infinitesimal elements of each scene with such expert elaboration?

Even if I keep aside the fact that the novel is an outright fiesta of language (not just English, mind you) I am still left marveling at the amount of effort that has been put in by the esteemed writer to ensure that historical facts and references are complied to every limit feasible.

And the style of narration! Every story has a back story and the back story has a flashback, each with its own set of characters and own set of incidents, all of which are singular in their manner of occurrence and interpretation so much so that by the time a chapter had come to a close, I would be simply enthralled as to how exactly the author had achieved the gigantic task of weaving together three different accounts without allowing, even a second of an opportunity for the interest of the reader to drift off.

The only negative point that I could attach to this book is that it robbed me of the pleasure of enjoying ‘Last Man in Tower’ written by Man Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga. But I must bear in mind that the fault thereto was mine, as I was stupid enough to think that I could manage to read concurrently, such a diverse pair of tales, the former essentially being larger-than-life and the latter a simplistic modern day drama. So now I find myself in no position at all to decide whether Adiga’s book, filled with witty sarcasm as it is, is actually a good book or not. (Will have to reread before reviewing it)

As a reader I have never enjoyed going through critiques that give away plot points or even attempt to put forth a précis of the novel on which such reviews are based. So I will stray away from doing such a thing myself.

But I can tell you this, with the assurance that only a hardcore bookworm can give-

If you are someone who enjoys the idea of getting to know complex and beautiful words which you never knew to exist as compared to the mundane terms and terminologies which are passed off today as good English, you will love this book.

On the other hand, if you are someone who finds it an annoying practice to refer a dictionary while reading or if you are someone who merely seeks a satisfying ending while choosing a book, you are bound hate it.

[There . . . . . the itch has subsided! : ) ]

PS: I am well aware of this post being my only one in nearly ten months time. My apologies to the few who read my blog. As a consolation I may share with you that I have been working on something bigger, if not better, than short stories and hence the regrettably prolonged dearth of tales to tell in an otherwise intermittently active blog-page.

Another reason for me falling short of the tall claims which I had made last August (Come December and you shall feel the full blast . . . . something like that if I am recollecting correctly) is that most of my spare time nowadays is spent reading. [Although I leave no opportunity to declare so pompously that I’m going through RESEARCH MATERIAL for my book, I must admit that in actuality it comprises of the kind of books which I would’ve read irrespective of whether I was trying to pen down a novel or not : ) ]

Life hasn’t been any different for me on the other side of Chartered Accountancy than the way it was while I was pursuing it, or even before that. I was reading book after book like a psycho back then . . . . . . . . . I’m still reading book after book like a psycho right now. Great fun!