Monday, October 10, 2011

On Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke

This essay appeared last weekend in the New York Times as "Fashioning Narrative Pleasures From Narcotic Ones"

No writer in modern India has held a novelistic lamp to the subcontinent’s densely thicketed past as vividly and acutely as Amitav Ghosh. Since the publication of The Circle of Reason in the mid-1980s, Ghosh’s work has been animated by its inventive collages and connections. River of Smoke,  the second volume of his ambitious Ibis trilogy, is the work of a writer with a historical awareness and an appetite for polyphony that are equal to the immense demands of the material he seeks to illuminate.

Like its predecessor, Sea of Poppies, this new novel fashions narrative pleasures from narcotic ones, exploring the fizzing currents of language, politics, trade and culture that swept through the vast opium network operated by the British East India Company in the 19th century. Sea of Poppies was set almost entirely in the cities, harbors and plains of India, the source of the poppies from which the opium was made. River of Smoke takes the action forward to the same opium’s destination, the Chinese trading outpost of Canton.

Although convincing in its reconstruction of early-19th-­century India and revelatory in its linguistic ventriloquism, Sea of Poppies often labored under its own weight. Improbable plot turns too often tied its narrative threads together; its pastiches too frequently lapsed into stretches of creaking comedy. Superficially less dramatic, River of Smoke is much more evenly written and engaging.

It is clear that Ghosh is fascinated by the history of Canton and, within it, of Fanqui-town, a tiny foreign enclave on the edge of a formidable but mysterious civilization that is beginning to resent the corruption of its people by opium. The outpost is populated by traders from around the world (but dominated by the agents of the East India Company) and surrounded by a flotilla of boats that ferry smuggled goods and serve as eating and pleasure houses. Although so small it’s “like a ship at sea,” Fanqui-town is, in one observer’s memorable description, “the last and greatest of all the world’s caravansaries.”

At the center of Ghosh’s story stands a man who owes his life to Canton: Bahram Modi, a Parsee merchant from Bombay. Entirely absent from the first book in the trilogy, Bahram is almost everywhere in the second, and serves as a channel for much of its energy. One of the few independent Indian businessmen in a trade controlled by the East India Company, he is both insider and outsider. A self-made man who has staked his fortunes on one massive shipment of opium, Bahram is paradoxically rich and poor, caught between a group of British merchants who swear by “the elemental force of Free Trade” and a Chinese establishment eager to root out the commerce in opium.

If there is one thing that reveals all the constituent elements of Bahram’s life, it is his language, which is “silted with the sediment of many tongues — Gujarati, Hindustani, English, pidgin, Cantonese.” Probably the most memorable character in all of Ghosh’s fiction, Bahram is captured in every possible mood, from opium-­induced hallucination to boardroom bluster, romantic rapture to Zoroastrian-­inflected philosophical rumination.

Ghosh clearly sets up the events leading to the breakout of the Opium War of 1839 as a mirror to contemporary realities. His British merchants, although fully realized characters, are what today might be called free-trade fundamentalists, adroitly dodging any moral criticism of their position. The force of Ghosh’s ideas and the beauty of his tableaux of Canton are two of the book’s achievements; the semantic ripples of the variety of dialects he folds into the narration are a third. River of Smoke is both a stirring portrayal of the past and, novelistically, a beacon for the future.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Fakir Mohan Senapati and the Indian novel

In a famous essay published in 1990, the poet and literary scholar AK Ramanujan asked the question, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” In an analogous way, in the closing years of the nineteeth century the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati appears to have asked himself: “Is there an Indian way of writing a novel?” 

Ramanujan had to identify or isolate his answer; Senapati had to invent his. Senapati poured his idiosyncratic novelistic awareness into a story called Chha Mana Atha Guntha, published in serial form in an Oriya magazine from 1895-97, then as a book in 1902, and at long last in an English translation adequate to its linguistic energy and narrative agility as late as 2006. Upon publication of Six Acres and a Third, as the English translation was called, it instantly became obvious that this was one of the greatest novels of the Indian pantheon, as revelatory and powerful today as in its own time.

What did Senapati do that was so remarkable? His novel tells the story of the rise and fall of a greedy zamindar, Ramachandra Mangaraj, as he plots to capture the verdant landholding – the eponymous six acres and a third – of a pair of humble weavers in his village in Orissa. But this in itself was not unique. All over India at this point of time, a generation of writers across the panoply of Indian languages was discovering the power of the novel as a tool to depict the realities and injustices of the world around them.

The crux of Senapati’s achievement lies not so much in what he said, but in how he chose to say it. When dealing with the public and private events of the story, Senapati’s narrator uses a plural “we”, rather than the conventional "I" or "he", to bind himself and the reader up with the world of the characters, like a village storyteller sitting with an audience of friends and intimates by a lantern under a tree at night. This innovation makes the story sound oral rather than written, and allows the narrator to both impersonate and ironize the voice of the village community, into which the reader is co-opted.

Sly and salty, riddling and chirruping, the narrator of Six Acres appears not to inhabit a stable world of truth retailed to the reader from on high, in the manner of the classic nineteeth-century British novel. Rather, he shunts between competing knowledge systems and ways of making meaning, leaping lightfooted between the points of view of traditional village order, colonial modernity, and the flickers of his own nonconformist intelligence. In doing so, he gleefully subverts the pieties of both the old and the new orders, and a kind of anarchic laughter rings throughout the book.

The great merit of Colonialism, Modernity and Literature, a new book of essays by different hands on Six Acres and a Third, is that in making an argument for the ingenuity and subtlety of Senapati’s narrative art, it also serves to showcase the interpretative range and appetite for ideas of contemporary Indian literary criticism. Edited by Satya P. Mohanty, one of the translators of Six Acres, the anthology brings together striking readings of Senapati’s novel by both Indian and western scholars, in a language that is theoretical and conceptual without being inhospitable to the lay reader.

The contributors demonstrate how Senapati Indianized the novel by seeding it with the communal intimacy and the skepticism of Indian oral storytelling traditions, creating in place of the “descriptive realism” of contemporaries like Bankimchandra Chatterji a narrative voice as murky and as fertile as the village pond to which Senapati devotes one of his chapters.

In one essay, Himansu Mohapatra explains how Senapati’s “complex and polyphonic realism” produces a more powerfully analytical world-picture than even that of a novelist as socially conscious as Premchand, because Senapati works in such a way as to reveal the “causal joints” of the world. Simultaneously, the “links, nudges and dodges” of the narrator produce “an active reader”, one who discerns the skeptical and critical awareness required of him as a political subject. Pursuing his comparision, Mohapatra writes:
Ironically...the label of a realist seems to have attached more readily to Premchand than to Senapati. This is because realism has over the years been identified with the kind of descriptive familiarity and psychological profiling that we associate with the panoramic psychodrama of Premchand's novels. Senapati's Chha Mana, on the contrary, encourages skepticism about what is given. Its epistemic achievement is to have problematized the real so that the rules of this world can be rewritten. This tradition of radical social critique is among the forgotten legacies of realism in Indian literature.
The writers also toss Senapati’s novel into a dialogue with books from other languages and traditions, thereby working it into the canvas of world literature. The scholar and translator of Telugu literature Velcheru Narayana Rao compares Six Acres with another late nineteenth-century work, Gurajada Apparao’s play Girls for Sale, to show how both writers deserve to be seen as  creators of "an indigenous modernity, distinct from colonial modernity". That is, they wrote from a position that could critique the faults and failings of the traditional Indian order without assenting wholesale to the values of Western modernity.

Even more interestingly, the critic Jennifer Harford Vargas links the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez not to Salman Rushdie (the Indian writer whose method most readily invites such a comparision) but instead to Senapati. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Six Acres try to shake off the burden of the colonial gaze, Vargas notes, by employing “underground types of storytelling – mainly oral, ironic, dialogic, and parodic ones – developed by those on the underside of power.”

Without raising the subject directly, Mohanty’s anthology has something to say to the contemporary Indian novel in English. Far too many novels in this domain today, whether popular novels written in an undemanding style or literary novels seeking a more complex awareness of language and character, remain intellectually lazy or formally unambitious, unthinkingly applying dozens of large and small narrative conventions to the act of storytelling (in the scene-setting opening sentence of a recent bestseller, I read that "a soft breeze blew gently", the writer's one claim to distinction being that a cliche has been turned here, through the proud emphasis of that "gently", into an even greater cliche). 

Through the independence and energy of his example, Senapati serves as a rebuke to complacent, even consumerist, storytelling, and the widespread suspicion in the Indian book market in English today – heard or hinted at in the press, among certain kinds of readers, and even from some novelists themselves – that formal ambition is something intrinsically self-indulgent or pretentious. As the essays in this stimulating anthology demonstrate, when someone works on the scale that Senapati did to think the novel anew, that book always remains new.