All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Certified hedonomanic. Author of The Wildings (2012) , The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Next up, essays on reading: The Girl Who Ate Books, from HarperCollins.

Upendranath Ashk: The telescope and the microscope

From Upendranath Ashk’s ‘Falling Walls’, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.


On editors:

“The editors of daily papers toil away like plodding oxen from noon to six in the evening, and then again from nine at night to two in the morning. When they get tired, they make incredibly obscene jokes among themselves. Their faces are sallow and exhausted, their eyes bloodshot: they’re all either extremely fat or completely scrawny and they’re starving in every sense, including sexually. He’d found most of Lahore’s newspaper men to be like this.”

On critics:

(Ashk dismissed “those who are not critics, but novelists, and very successful ones too” for their egotism; “those who are just critics, but became critics after growing frustrated with writing stories and novels of their own”; and “those critics who became critics after being inspired by a famous Russian story…” But he approved of this category.)

4. Critics who are simply critics. They’re not failed poets, or failed storywriters, or failed novelists — they’re just critics! Such critics are serious and hard-working. They read something, assess it and discuss what they believe to be its strengths and weaknesses…. To these critics, I am grateful, both for their praise and for their critiques. …

To those critics who, in Chekhov’s words, wish to sting like horseflies in order to establish their ascendancy, I have nothing to say; but to those friends who have mentioned the novel’s “tiny meaningless details”, its “profoundly ordinary and unsavoury life” and the “spineless, tottering, weak and utterly ordinary” humans that crowd it, and have said that “in the relishing of literature, transcendent magic and emotional satisfaction” are required to “apeal to and touch the soul” through “the vast point of view of life”, “spirituality” and “uplift”, I only wish to say, in the worlds of the famous Russian realist novelist Gogol, that it’s no less arduous to remove from the swamp of life those tiny, meaningless details and those small, insignificant, extremely base characters that are littered about life’s path, that we don’t see, even when we see them, as we gaze at the sky, and fix them up and place them before your apathetic eyes in such a way that you’ll be forced to see them and notice them; that in comparison to gaining full knowledge of the splendour of the sun by gazing through a telescope, the microscope is no less important and useful when it helps us see tiny, invisible microbes; that as much depth of soul is needed to shade an ordinary sketch of life and present it as art as is required to depict the vast sweep of existence.”

(More: Daisy Rockwell in The Hindu on translating Ashk, and her hope that readers might “turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.”

From the archives: Dhan Gopal Mukherji


(From the archives: On Dhan Gopal Mukherji, the only Indian writer to have won the Newberry Medal for children’s writing. Published in the Business Standard, January 6, 2004)

The books are dusty, crumbling, their spines too fragile to touch. My grandmother’s house yields steadily diminishing quantities of books that represented a library: each year, their numbers are eroded by termites, old age, white ants, damp and marauding grand-daughters.
I imagine that this is a situation replicated in most of the dusty, crumbling mansions of Calcutta, as those ‘bhadralok’ libraries are disassembled, sometimes replicated elsewhere, sometimes forgotten.
Dhan Gopal Mukherji disliked Calcutta, and loved it too, though I wonder whether he realised that some of his books would find their way to one of the houses he so despised: “…European houses modelled after the horrible mediocre middle-class homes of the 1870s in Britain and Germany.”
To him, they represented “the ugliness of British India”; to present-day residents of Calcutta, they represent an era of graciousness and expansiveness now facing the bulldozer, old red brick and white plastered houses transmuting into block upon block of lookalike flats.
What he loved about the city was that it returned him to his language, Bengali, the tongue he preferred to speak in, though his books were written in English and his lecture tours in the US were conducted, naturally, in the same language.
It is not easy to read Dhan Gopal Mukherji today; unlike other writers of his time (he was born in 1890 and died in 1936) he has not dated especially well. Books that once moved American critics to rhapsodies, such as Caste and Outcast, are all but forgotten.


His language is by turns stiff and florid, his views so old-fashioned that they reek of camphor: but every now and then he will produce an astonishing phrase, such as his description of America — “a continent fierce with homelessness.”
But the reason I’m reading him has to do with a comment made by Amitava Kumar in ‘Longing and Belonging’, his introduction to ‘Away’, an anthology of expatriate literature.
“The writers in the diaspora are a product of movement. They embody travel. If I can be allowed to be prescriptive, I would even say that if writers of the Indian diaspora are to return home in their work they should write travel-narratives. These writers would produce more honest work if they wrote only travelogues. The writers would learn about India, and so would we as readers. It would also rescue us from the stereotypical fare, the mistress of spices, the heat and dust, arranged marriages, yes, the whole hullabaloo in the guava orchard.”
Kumar was probably wise to omit Mukherji from his list of anthologised expat writers, but when you speak of writers who ’embody travel’, it’s impossible not to think of Mukherji.
He wrote unapologetically in his Foreword to My Brother’s Face: “This book deals with the India of to-day from an Indian’s standpoint… I have written what my brother Indians had to say, hoping that the views of Englishmen in India would be set down by English writers.”
[He does precisely that, setting down a reverse travelogue that turns into a spiritual exploration of the land he had departed from, with a running internal battle between stories from the West and from the East.
Mukherji was not an especially original thinker. His suspicion of Muslims (and Marwaris) was drawn from Bankimchandra; his views were borrowed from all over the place; his spiritual narrative reads like a thousand other tales of worship and mysticism.
If he is remembered at all today, it’s for his children’s stories, and for an outraged response to Katherine Mayo.
In the annals of the Newberry Medal, one of the most prestigious awards for children’s writing, the only Indian name on the rolls is that of Dhan Gopal Mukherji.
He wrote several books — Kari the Elephant, Hari the Jungle Lad — but the one that is still read today, thanks to the Newberry, is Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon.
Like many books of the time, it is far less sanitised and far more curious than Disneylit: its feathered protagonist is shot, badly injured, and near death, but recovers and goes on several adventures.
Gay-Neck, a trained carrier-pigeon, wanders the Himalayas before being employed by a Bengal Regiment to carry messages back and forth during the First World War in France. Through his narrative, we get an idea of Mukherji’s sense of his country and of foreign lands.
When Katherine Mayo’s “drain-inspector’s report”, Mother India, came out and horrified any self-respecting Indian with its farrago of half-digested nonsense, Mukherji was first off the mark.
He wrote a spirited riposte, titled A Son of Mother India Answers, which anticipated the criticism that Mother India would continue to gather over the years.
Like many expatriates, Mukherji’s relationship with the language he wrote in was deeply troubled. He used English well enough, but it was donned like a suit of Western clothes and thrown off gladly for Bengali, which he felt was more picturesque, more lyrical.
His sister felt similarly: she read a story about a dead man’s ghost, a young prince and an old fool. “Is it right to tell a mother that she is unchaste, and all because of the idle talkativeness of a good-for-nothing spirit?” she asks her brother.
“That tale destroyed all my ambition to know English.” And thus, comments Mukherji drily, did they dispose of Hamlet.
And one of his anecdotes should be required reading for all expatriate writers struggling to ‘translate’ their country for the benefit of foreign readers. He and an old lady of seventy are recalling the songs of the palanquin bearers.
She recites in Bengali: “Heavy, heavy “” / Heavy, heavy, heavy;/ He ate “” too much./ My shoulder, my shoulder “” / It aches, it aches.” Mukherji expostulates that the English rendering is more beautiful.
“Listen,” he says, and recites Sarojini Naidu’s famous lines: “Lightly, oh lightly/ We bear her along/ She hangs like a pearl/ On the thread of our song.”
Mukherji’s story didn’t end well. Despite his celebrity in the West — there were very few Indian authors at the time, unlike the present, when you can’t move in literary circles without falling over yet another exported desi — his spiritual quest appeared to have failed.
His books — he wrote 26 all told —  weren’t selling as well in the 1930s as they had in earlier decades. He had become a recluse in his forties, and was given to fits of intense depression.
In 1931, Dhan Gopal Mukherji committed suicide; but he has left at least one indelible claim on literary historians. Indian authors have won the Booker, the Nobel, the Pulitzer.
Seventy- six years have elapsed since a Bengali immigrant to the US won the Newberry Medal, but no other Indian has claimed Dhan Gopal Mukherji’s trophy again.

Journal: Reading with intent


There was a time in my twenties and thirties when I read (or speed-read) about 30-40 books a month, as part of my job as a book reviewer and columnist. In some weeks, the number of books I read ran higher than 10, though 15 was the maximum I could safely attempt. People almost always express surprise at these numbers, but they’re not that astonishing.

Aside from editors, agents and publishers, lawyers, academics, businessmen and even scientists who stay in touch with technical journals would read roughly similar quantities of reports, cases, papers etcetera every week. And one of the joys of the book reviewing life is that you don’t have to waste time attending meetings, which gives you more time to read. I learned also how to slow down and savour the few books that were genuinely rewarding.

The real risk of that kind of reading isn’t in the quantity of what you’re reading, but the quality. The danger of the newspaper reviewer’s life is that you read too much in the present, and too much of what you read is, inevitably, mediocre. For years, I ignored those minor hazards because the job was irresistible — I have never lost that first sense of wonder, at the idea that someone might actually pay you to read books for a living. But then I started secretly writing stories, and the tyranny of reading chiefly books written not even in this century or this decade but this year began to chafe.

I still love writing about books, but I have never gone back to that kind of frenetic reading schedule again. As the years go by, your reading time becomes increasingly precious. There are only so many books you will finish in a lifetime. Most people are necessarily haphazard readers, their reading life shaped by professional necessity. The media pays attention chiefly to what is written in this moment, of this age, and yet the strongest connection we have between us and the centuries past is the books written by humans who lived long before our own times.

When I read Ceridwen Dovey’s Can Reading Make You Happier, I understood immediately, and intimately, why she set so much store in bibliotherapy, or the “restorative power of reading fiction”, preferably assisted by a trained Book Doctor.

In 2009, I quit my job as a publisher and spent several months sorting out my life. It was a rich year: I finally began writing instead of just thinking about books I wanted to write, and it was also the year when I sought out specialists and therapists to try and change the fallout from the past in my personal life. Like many people in the literary world, I had never really read self-help books, beyond the ones that we gleefully parodied.

Since I was taking time off to do relatively unusual things, I drew up a list of 100 self-help bestsellers and classics, approaching them with an open mind. It was a curious experiment, and it had unexpected results. I did not enjoy reading self-help as much as I had hoped to — the language of the genre is distinct, and has its own conventions, just as much as crime noir or speculative fiction. Many acknowledged self-help classics relied on the patient repetition of points already made, which grated on my fiction-and-poetry-tuned nerves.


But the rewards were subtle, and took time to manifest. Years of reading fiction had heightened my sense of wonder, and lent me an unshakeable sense of companionship (even kinship), sometimes with authors long dead or places now unreachable. The self-help shelf let me discover interests and enthusiasms that I would previously not have turned towards, or been too diffident to acknowledge.

I read books on yoga from Patanjali’s Sutras onwards, works on meditation and at a much more basic level, Buddhism, starting with Thích Nhất Hạnh, Pema Chodron and some core texts, the whole vast library of modern popular neuroscience classics from Vilyanur Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks to Daniel Kahnemann and company, drifted through Marcus Aurelius and the Bhakti saints, liking the texture of their disparate voices.

I had already begun, tentatively, to read about animal intelligence and the rights of non-human species: this seems to be slowly broadening into a wider interest in nature writing, accompanied by the painful realisation of my own illiteracy in naming trees, leaves, species, the things of this earth.

My Kindle, which keeps a more honest record of a reader’s real tastes than their own memories might, records a growing fascination with books on creativity, on the art of writing, on food and gluttony in general, and on the history of science. I cannot explain exactly how reading self-help classics made it easier for me to claim my own interests, however shallow and basic these can be. Perhaps it was simply the focus on books that were written with the understanding that everyone wants to improve their lives, to understand their world a little better.

This week, in the wake of Dovey’s piece, many of my friends were discussing bibliotherapy and the seductive possibilities of a career as a bibliotherapist. It sounds like such a great job: you meet someone for an hour, ask questions about their reading habits and give them a reading list that they would not have had the time or resources to come up with on their own.

Trained bibliotherapists go a lot deeper, often holding multiple sessions with clients over a period of years. They understand that when those who grew up with books talk about what they read and what they loved reading, they are sharing so much about their lives, relationships, memories, families, perhaps even their truest, deepest selves. What they do is the exact opposite of being asked at a party which of the latest bestsellers you would recommend. There is no intimacy in that kind of recommendation. The closer a friend is, the more time and thought it takes to unearth books that you know they will not just love, but that they needed and will cherish.

I spent an hour or so indulging pleasant fantasies of being a bibliotherapist — that’s what you do anyway as a reviewer, write about books in the hopes that they will find the readers they deserve — before reality descended. Because what I’d really love to do for friends (or strangers) would be to create perfect, collaborative lifetime reading plans, as crucial and as carefully planned as people plan their homes, and as often restored and redecorated. And this, sadly, is a non-starter; most people can just about make the room in their lives and budgets for a Book Doctor, but where is the demand for Book Architects?

Instead, I went back to my small library and my computer, and drew up another Nilroy Reading Plan for the next decade. It was as self-indulgent, and as satisfying, as throwing out your old wardrobe and shopping for a brand-new set of clothes, and I recommend it to everybody.

Pushkin Press and The Wildings:


Very happy to share this, among the small drifts of good news this week: the cats of Nizamuddin will soon be in London, and in Canada/ the US, thanks to my agent David Godwin’s magic. Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies, will be publishing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness in the UK in 2016, and Penguin Random House Canada will be doing the honours in North America.


Speaking Volumes: Bibhuti’s Sansar

Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay was only 32 years old when he became assistant manager of the reserve forest in Khelat Chandra Ghose’s estate, in Bhagalpur. It was here, in the stillness of the house set deep among the mahua and sal trees, that he wrote Pather Panchali and Aparajito.

He packed a great deal into those three decades and into the rest of his life. As a child, he accompanied his father Mahananda around Muraripur and surrounding villages. Mahananda was a pujari and a kathakar by profession. Bibhuti grew up shaped by stories, attuned to the Bengal countryside, and on intimate terms with poverty. He was an excellent student, but the need to support his family after his father’s death pushed him into various jobs, as Sunilkumar Chattopadhyay records in a short biography.


This year, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito, was newly, miraculously restored. Ray’s original negatives were almost destroyed in a fire in the 1990s; it took the Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film lab in Bologna, almost two decades to repair the damage. The restored prints are astounding. In film clips, their clarity and delicacy seems a world away from the grainy, streaked versions we were familiar with.

But the man who wrote the books that inspired Ray to make his first films has almost disappeared from public memory, his life little recalled outside of Bengal.

Bibhuti gave to Apu, especially the adult Apu of Aparajito, many of his own experiences and feelings. In his twenties, Bibhutibhushan’s life was peripatetic; Chattopadhyaya records that his job as propagator of Keshoram Poddar’s Cattle Preservation League took him across Noakhali, Faridkot, as far as Chittagong.

Bengal’s smaller towns could not hold him for long, as he set down in Aparajito: “He was driven to distraction by his longing for his village, its wide open fields, glowing red in the evening sun, small white flowers gleaming on dark water like the diamond stud on a new bride’s nose, clusters of colourful flowers on high grounds. Where were the trees that were so much a part of his life? Where was the greenery? Apu felt suffocated… His only relief came through his imagination.”

But Calcutta sucked him in for a while. He was fascinated by the pace of life, despite his many hardships, and like Apu, he was comforted by the city’s libraries. His friend Nirad Chaudhuri wrote in his Autobiography: “I acquired a great respect for his mind, which had a wide range of interests. He would talk to me of EP Hubble and his theories…” The older writer often asked the younger writer, already respected for his short stories and articles, to recommend books on palaentology and prehistory.

The young Bibhuti lived in Paradise Lodge, a “West Bengal white crow” among the East Bengali students, as Niradbabu recorded in his memoirs, and in Ripon College Hostel in 64 Mirzapore Street. Despite his perennial lack of income, and the early days of joblessness and hunger, the city gave him a community he could not have found at home. There was something about him, a lack of envy and a guilelessness, that lent him immunity against the usual rivalries.

Even Niradbabu suspends his trademark cattiness when he writes about their friendship. He taught Bibhuti the basics of Western classical music so that he would fit better into Calcutta’s English-returned “esoteric and snobbish” cultural circles; then he worried about his friend’s progress. “I felt very anxious about him as a father feels after giving fireworks to his child, for my friend was a real innocent.”

Nirad’s wife lent Bibhuti a respectable dhoti when he joined them to travel to a literary festival in Patna. He had boarded the train in his everyday clothes, which were little more than rags. Back in Calcutta, they explored and weathered the city, surviving an ugly incident when they were caught in a Hindu-Muslim riot. There were less weighty battles with mess cooks who discriminated against the West Bengali but ran away from one such fracas rather than face Niradbabu’s wrath.

Bibhuti had a much more friendly reception from the city’s writers and editors, and was a welcome figure at the Bangashree addas, where the editor Sajanikanta held court along with writers like Tarasankar, Premendra Mitra and Nazrul Islam.

He fell in love here, in Calcutta; he married his Gouri when she was 14 and he was only 22. In 1918, Gouri died of pneumonia. Bibhuti was just 24 and Nirad writes: “He sat in the evenings in his miserable hovel in the light of the flickering oil lamp and thought of his loss until the whistle of the train from Calcutta reminded him that it was time to go to bed.”

Bibhuti stayed on for a while, and though he seldom aired his grief, Nirad writes that he carried a packet of papers (letters from his young wife) in his breast pocket and kept the embroidered hand-made fan she had made by his pillow. In time, his memories drove him from the city, but on Ghosh’s estate, he found a measure of peace again. He wrote the two most famous of his 20-odd novels in this forest house, and in Khelat Chandra’s home on the banks of the river.

Bibhuti would often go back to Calcutta, though he finally made his home in Ghatshila. He married again, happily; a detail that Ray made famous in the films was in fact taken from his marriage to Rama Chattopadhyay, two decades after Gouri’s death. She would tie the end of her sari to the end of his dhoti to prevent his getting out of bed to early in the morning. “Now, this is a very effective means of keeping a Bengali when you do not want to part with him,” Niradbabu noted.

As his books (Ashani Sanket, Chander Pahar) gained in popularity, Bibhuti took up many of his old interests. He was President of the Coochbihar Banga Sahitya Sammelan in 1943, and headed the fiction section of the Banga Sahitya Sammelan in 1945, for instance. Five years later, he was dead of a heart attack – he was only 56.

“He could sense the existence of another world,” Bibhuti wrote in Aparajito. “The visible sky, the song of a bird, the mere act of living, all bore only a hint of it… This secret world was hidden somewhere under the mundane routine of everyday life.” Bibhuti’s conviction that there was more to this universe than humans could grasp ran deep, and perhaps only Ray could have translated his words onto film with such stunning visual force.

(NB: Aparajito quotes from Gopa Majumdar’s English translation; other quotes from Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, part 2.)

(Published in the Business Standard, Tuesday, June 9, 2015)

Book Review: The Dark Net


The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld

Jamie Bartlett

William Heinemann & Co, distributed by Rupa Publications,

Rs 699, 303 pages


This March, a user with the name NSWGreat posted a thread on Reddit: [Complaint/ Warning] Evolution Admins Exit Scamming. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” NSWGreat, “…but the admins are preparing to exit scam with all the funds. … I am so sorry but Verto and Kimble have f***ed us over.”

And just like that, Evolution had vanished. In the roughly 18 months since the well-orchestrated Operations Onymous had taken down Silk Road, Evolution had become the top dark-net, anonymous market for drugs, stolen identities and other high-value illegal commodities.

Jamie Bartlett has little doubt that some version of Evolution or Silk Road will return, despite these hiccups. “It is not surprising that online drug markets exist,” he writes in The Dark Net, “What is surprising is that they work.” There are no regulators, buyers and sellers are anonymous, the risk of infiltration by law enforcement agencies is constant – and yet, he found, dark net markets are surprisingly reliable. Almost all of the dark net markets in illegal goods run on trust, and customer reviews, product endorsement and reliability are easily available.

“When you buy drugs offline, your choice, to some extent, is limited by geography, and by who you know,” he points out, “On Silk Road 2.0 there is too much choice.” User reviews make these sites work; vendors rely on positive reputations. Bartlett does not debate the morality of these sites, assuming that we all know about the dangers of drug use. His analysis of how dark net markets are stable, broadly reliable systems make you see that Verto and Kimble are exceptions rather than the rule.

[Another, substantially distinct, view of Dark Net markets by Henry Farrell on Aeon.]

One way to read The Dark Net is to see Bartlett’s extensive, painstaking research as an enquiry into human behaviour, rather than just another travelogue into the seamier side of the online world. He meets crypto-anarchists, Bitcoin evangelists, trolls, hackers, hardworking women who make a living off the sexcam market, people whose conditions – anorexia, suicidal ideation – drive them online in search of communities that might be both comforting and dangerously enabling, libertarians, political extremists and idealists.

[Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller talk about conspiracy sites]

For much of the Internet-using public, accustomed to the relatively sanitized zones of Facebook and Google, the Dark Net is a scary place, little understood and seldom visited. The reputation of the Dark Net is summed up by the Assassination Market, dreamed up by the radical theorist Jim Bell in 1995. The four rules of the Assassination Market are simple: add a name to the list, add money to the pot in the person’s name, predict when the person will die. The fourth rule – making your prediction come true – is optional.

In truth, the Dark Net is as multi-faceted and complex as much of the real world itself. Dark Net sites are, at their simplest, illegal and under-the-radar sites that are not easily accessible from the surface web, but that can be found through Tor or through searches on the Deep Web. (Google indexes roughly 16% of the Internet; the Deep Web is the rest of the wide ocean of cyberspace, searchable through specific databases or concealed behind security walls.)

The Deep Web is neither dangerous nor innocuous in itself – it is just the larger, mostly unseen, part of the Internet, filled with leviathans and giant squids hidden from normal scrutiny. As public curiosity about the Deep Web and the Dark Net grows, the Deep Web is also no longer much of a secret. Dark net sites sell anything from information (hacking skills, cryptography) to the usual guns and arms, drugs, fake documents and identities, and provide an online home for offline businesses such as the trade in human organs.

[Joseph Cox in Wired on the Deep Web: “morally, it is a very colourful place”.]

Bartlett is an excellent guide to the Dark Net as it existed up to 2014. He has a well-informed, curious mind, is not squeamish and isn’t interested in sensationalism. He’s just as fascinated by the human creativity on display as by the crime and anarchy the Dark Net fosters.

For readers who remember the early days of the Internet in India, the section on doxing (revealing a user’s identity/ address to the world at large) and trolling are useful. This is a reminder that today’s trolls are just updated versions of the flamers who used to disrupt usenet groups or rampage through early role-playing games. “Trolling is a culture, it’s a way of thinking,” a troll called Zack tells Bartlett; and perhaps the best way to understand trolls is to see them as members of a tribe, bound by their need to be acknowledged.

[A 2002 FAQ on Usenet and other trolls]

In many ways, The Dark Net is a reminder of the multiplicity of views and voices out there. Far right, or extreme nationalist or racial supremacist, groups resemble each other, but they evolve in very distinct ways on the Internet. When Bartlett meets Bitcoin enthusiasts, he finds a range of opinions: some see digital crypto-currencies as the ultimate weapon of freedom, striking at the nation-state’s power over money, others see it simply as a superior payment mechanism.

Bartlett might change the way many see online porn artists, who have to be increasingly skilled at nurturing an audience in a world where homemade porn floods that market. But the most disturbing section in The Dark Net tracks anorexics, cutters, and the suicidal, with the caveat that the Internet did not create the tendency to self-harm.

As Bartlett meets consumers of child pornography or users with suicidal tendencies, he raises uncomfortable questions – does the availability of child porn or DIY suicide guides make it more likely that people will cross a certain line? In one chilling interview, a pro-anorexic woman explains, “Your friends will understand you, but they won’t help you.” As with the real world, how you use the Internet and what you pay attention to will shape your reality. What you browse every day becomes who you are.

Despite this, Bartlett retains a sense of optimism, especially about the layers of privacy that enable the freedom many experience in the Deep Web, a freedom no longer really practical for users of the surface web.

“For me,” he writes, “[the dark net] is an idea more than a particular place: an underworld set apart yet connected to the internet we inhabit, a world of complete freedom and anonymity, and where users say and do what they like, uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society’s norms. It is a world that is as shocking and disturbing as it is innovative and creative, a world that is much closer than you think.”

Flood of Fire: The Ibis’s last tumasher

Destruction of opium at Humen Credit: Wikipaedia Commons
Destruction of opium at Humen
Credit: Wikipaedia Commons


Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh

Penguin India

Rs 799, 616 pages

It seems just the other day that a ship called the Ibis, “like a great bird, with sails like wings and a long beak”, set sail with a company man, a coolie woman escaped from suttee and the opium trade, a zamindar turned prisoner, merchants, baboos and other colourful cargo on board.

Over a decade has gone by since Amitav Ghosh first began his Ibis trilogy, and in that time, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and this final volume, Flood of Fire, have attracted thousands of fans across the world, and upended the usual view of the Opium Wars, Empire and the opium trade.

[Opium’s Empire: Amitav Ghosh on the background to Flood of Fire:]

The way that Ghosh would choose to write this was set as far back as 1992. When Ghosh wrote In An Antique Land, he started with a mention of “the slave of MS H6” who steps briefly onto the stage of history, “no more than a name and a greeting”. Ghosh was pushing back against the way histories are written. “…The only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests — the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time”.

Through the three heavily researched books of this massively ambitious trilogy, he has given equal space to those whose lives are chronicled in gazettes, letters, diaries, registers and reminiscences, and those whose unrecorded lives provided the labour, blood and sweat for much of these enterprises – the girmitiyas and the balamteers, the coolie women and men. This approach is risky – an excess of political correctness, and you have a 616-page pamphlet instead of a novel – but fortunately, Ghosh’s love of storytelling neatly balances his historian’s urge to set the record straight.

Flood of Fire sweeps into 1839, the year Commissioner Lin banned the sale of opium and closed the channel to Canton, sparking retaliation from the British. Neel’s letters bring that time alive: “… the stretch of water where the Chinese fleet had been was utterly transformed: it was as if a sheet of lightning had come down from the sky, to set the channel on fire.”

[Amitav Ghosh on China, now and in the time of the Opium Wars]

In quick succession, Ghosh lets readers catch up with the lives, travails and narrow escapes of now-familiar characters. Shireen Modi, Bahram’s widow, ready to undertake a sea voyage to China to claim her husband’s profits despite her family’s disapproval, bumps up against the discovery that he had a secret life. Neel is now in Canton’s American Hong, settled into his new life as a translator, though he can “never be comfortable anywhere around the British flag”.

Zachary Reid, the young American sailor, is cleared at his trial but must work as a “mystery” (mistri, carpenter) to Mrs Behram, who turns out to an expert at rattling a fellow’s rigging. She does this in order to deal with the damage he might suffer from the regular practice of Onania, the heinous sin of self-pollution, in passages that veer from playful to the ponderous.

Other characters, equally beloved, stay offstage; Deeti, for instance, is only glimpsed sideways. But everyone finds space in this capacious, fast-paced book. As Paulette reflects, “The bond of the Ibis was like a living thing, endowed with the power to reach out from the past to override the volition of those who were enmeshed in it.”

 Flood of Fire is a brisk read, for all of the dense historical research and period detail crammed into these 616 pages. Ghosh moves swiftly through action-packed passages, sliding in some virtuoso war scenes, made even more vivid thanks to his natural empathy with and understanding of the lives of sepoys who drew their tuncaw from the East India Company.

 It is Deeti’s brother, Kesri Singh, whose story becomes the emotional heart of Flood of Fire. Circumstances conspire to take him away from his home paltan in the Pacheesi to become a balamteer; cooped up in Fort William, he dreams of destinations, Lanka, Java, Singapore, Bencoolen. “But when Maha-Chin cropped up he derided the suggestion: who had ever heard of sepoys going to China? The very name Maha-Chin suggested a realm that was unfathomably remote: what little he knew of it came from wandering pirs and sadhus who spoke of crossing snow-clad mountains and freezing deserts. The idea of a seaborne campaign being launched against such a land seemed utterly absurd.”

 Of all of the details of a sepoy’s life that Ghosh sets down so well – the camp-followers and the stiff uniforms that impose another way of being on them, the discomfort of having worse equipment than their British officers, the initiation into combat and killing – the most striking is the question of loyalty. Elsewhere, he’s written of how “the sepoy always had to contend with the gaze of those he served”: a sepoy’s loyalty was “a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one was perhaps more unsure of it than he himself”.

Kesri Singh’s loyalty to his paltan is undercut by the fact that the men bring village loyalties, divisions and betrayals into the army with them. Race undercuts the loyalty he might feel to the Company, and yet, the army is the only place where he can feel at home; what he carries from his village is Bhojpuri and memories of his grey-eyed sister, not a sense of belonging.

 These questions, of loyalty to clan, caste, race, nation, place, ideas and great loves, weave in and out of Flood of Fire. Some betrayals cannot be undone, as Shireen Modi learns; some never happened the way you imagine they had, as Zachary and Paulette find out. Some run deep, as Neel knows in exile:

 “It is madness to think that knowing a language and reading a few books can create allegiances between people. Thoughts, books, ideas, words – if anything, they make you more alone, because they destroy whatever instinctive loyalties you may once have possessed.”

 Ghosh is a great writer, but he is not a flawless one, and yet the weaker timbers of the Ibis Trilogy do not undo his accomplishments. His exuberant love of language is as much a feature of the book as the landscapes and seascapes. Perhaps there is too much bunnowing of dumbpokes, and some sentences read like dilly-wrecks, with too much detritus crammed into them. But I cannot dislike a novel that spells tamasha two ways – tumasher, tamasha – and Ghosh’s fascination with the Bhojpuri of the soldiers’ and the slang of Canton is equally endearing. The strongest criticism of the Ibis trilogy is that it sometimes reads like a historical novel of the period, not just a historical novel about that period.

But that does not gainsay the pleasure of meeting favourite characters again, and cheering them on as they claim freedom amid the action and the drama. As Mrs Burnham says: “Have we not done enough by our duty, Shireen? Do we not also have a duty to ourselves?”

In these ten years, Amitav Ghosh has permanently changed and reshaped the way histories — colonial, Indian, Asian — are seen and fictionalized. He is more acute at reshaping race and class, and giving back narrative spaces to those long silenced by one or the other, than he is on refashioning gender, but he is a master at shifting your worldview.

When he set the Ibis and the Anahita afloat, he also created a history of the past written by those who were long considered powerless to bring their lives to the attention of the world. Flood of Fire is a grand tamasha, but it never lets you forget what the Ibis was: a vessel of blessed memory.

 (Published in the Business Standard, Weekend section, April 30th)

Speaking Volumes: Slow Reading

From 'Animalinside'; artwork by Max Neumann
From ‘Animalinside'; artwork by Max Neumann

For years Laszlo Krasznahorkai has been explaining that he does not use long sentences. Every second review of his work mentions those long sentences, but he would not agree. He writes the way people speak (or think, or imagine).

The full stop – “the dot”, he says dismissively – is an artificial convention, like apostrophes, commas. Call his lines real sentences instead, accumulated slow phrase by slow phrase from the voices he hears in his head.

The Man Booker International prize, awarded to Krasznahorkai last week, is, like the Nobel, one way for a great writer to be honoured among his peers. The other writers shortlisted for the Man Booker this year included Amitav Ghosh, Alain Mabanckou, César Aira and Hoda Barakat, all towering figures in their own right.

[The complete Man Booker International shortlist, in The Guardian.]

Krasznahorkai’s work, familiar and cherished in Hungary and Germany for years, appeared in imperceptible stages to the English-speaking world. The gradual discovery of his books, first from Bela Tarr’s films, then from the translations, has been like watching the raising of an iceberg stage by stage: you catch glimpses of alien forms of astounding beauty and black ice as the great mass of it comes up from the depths.

The general misconception about Krasznahorkai is that his books are “difficult” writing, a loose description employed on everything from the truly impenetrable, cerebral novel, to anything more ambitious than Coelho bestsellers.

But that doesn’t convey what it’s like to read him. His long sentences, unspooling on the pages, are neither dense nor incomprehensible. They require you to slow down, but they are composed by a skilled writer who pays careful attention both to the world he lives in and the fictional worlds he creates.

[Read the first chapter of Seiobo There Below]
Satantango begins, famously: “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.” Kamo-Hunter, the first chapter of Seiobo There Below is made up of evocative, spiralling sentences that track a snow-white heron in the middle of the Kamo River, near Kyoto (“the City of Endless Allusions”).

[The Millions interviews Krasznahorkai after Satantango was translated, 27 years after its first publication.]
As a writer, he believes that living in the world, you must pay attention to all that it contains, not skimming its violence and ugliness but also holding on to the idea that something beautiful may exist, elsewhere. Krasznahorkai makes me want to start a Slow Reading movement, in praise of books that are strange, rich, rooted in fertile soil, redolent of flavour, that reward you for spending time with them.

One of his favourite translators, Ottilie Mulzet, said in an interview: “I would never insert a full stop where there isn’t one in the original, because for me these sentences are like rivers, and if you place a full stop where there isn’t one in the original text, it’s like you’re damming up the river.”

From 1988 to 2011, he and Bela Tarr collaborated on six films, each a classic (Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man From London, The Turin Horse). Satantango is the most celebrated, remembered for Tarr’s legendary long tracking shots and for its seven-hour length.

[Bela Tarr on his films and the collaboration with Krasznahorkai]

Satantango begins with the return of Irimias and Petrina to a failed village collective; the villagers don’t know that the two are also the eyes of the totalitarian state. “We kept the structure of the book,” Tarr said, “Like the tango, it’s six steps forward, six steps back.” The Turin Horse picks up on a key incident from Nietzsche’s life – his breakdown after he witnesses the whipping of a horse by a hansom cab driver. What happened to Nietzsche has been thoroughly chronicled. Krazsnahorkai, typically drawn to the porous border between human and non-human experiences, asks what happened to the horse and its driver.

It was only in 2000 that the first of his books, The Melancholy of Resistance, was translated, in 2010 that George Szirtes’ striking and faithful translation of Satantango came out, in 2013 that Seiobo Down Below was released in English. From 1990, Krasznahorkai had begun travelling in parts of Asia, starting with Mongolia and then moving on to China and Japan – his second wife, Dóra Kopcsányi, is a sinologist of some note.

His Asian books are startling and unusual. The Prisoner of Urga (1992) was his first travelogue from China. From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River (2003) pulls off the trick of capturing some of the wabi-sabi principles of Japanese art and calligraphy in literary form. Its chief protagonist is the fictional grandson of Genji. Destruction and Sorrow Beneath The Heavens, his 2005 memoir of travelling in China, is out in a new translation in January 2016 – he compares past and present, recording what feels irredeemably lost.

“…it turns out that all the buildings here are brand new and fake, that all the Lohans and so-called Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are brand new and fake, that every groove and every pillar and every inch of gold paint is brand new and fake, that everything is a fraud…”

The more I read of Krazsnahorkai’s books, the more I am drawn back to his readings. He often starts without preamble, pulls his readers into the world of his book in just a few sentences, ends without speaking further of what has just been read, and he is usually mesmerising. Over the years, his readers have grown in number and loyalty; he was famous for them long before the Man Booker.

Krasznahorkai, reading from Animalinside with Forrest Gander:

On one occasion, he reads in a dark room with light falling only on the pages. At a reading in the US, asked about war, he gives a stirring speech about peace as one of humanity’s most surprising achievements. To the astonishment of the organisers, the audience breaks out into an impromptu rendition of Lennon’s Imagine. In Berlin, he steps out onto a balcony, reading an apocalyptic section to the startled street as the image of a dog in silhouette is projected on the window of the balcony below. “With no warning,” Adam Thirlwell writes, “he disappeared. Simultaneously, the lights went dark.”

I think of what Krazsnahorkai said he aimed to find through writing. He said this in an interview, in two uncharacteristically short sentences: “Beauty in language. Fun in hell.”

 (Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2015)

— More: James Wood’s definitive profile:

Krasznahorkai, George Szirtes and James Wood:

– Dancing in the Pub, Satantango