Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In Bed with Ghosh


A friend tickled my interest with a teasing text message – “ In bed with Ghosh”. Generally I am a little wary of buying over-hyped books soon after their release. Vikram Seth’s Two lives and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games were 2 such disappointments in the recent past. I couldn’t go beyond the first 100 pages of the first and not even 50 pages of the second. So, I was a little hesitant in picking up Amitava Ghosh’s latest – the Sea of Poppies despite the rave reviews all over (and, now, also a nomination for the Booker).

Till date Ghosh’ Shadow Lines remains my favourite with the Hungry Tide coming a close second. Somehow his Glass Palace, liked a lot by many, didn’t do much for me – I thought it somehow lost its way between a family saga and a historical epic - tho’ its sprawling canvas and gigantic sweep are truly awe-inspiring. Ghosh’s prose often leaves me a little cold. It doesn’t have the soul uplifting quality that I look for in a great book. While I certainly don’t have the temerity to go as far as Hugo Barnacle to say – “There isn't one badly composed sentence in the book……, there isn't one particularly good sentence, either” , his impeccably constructed sentences fail to challenge the reader's imagination.

Infact, what’s perhaps Ghosh’s singular strength among Indian authors writing in English ( don’t think they use the term Indo-Anglican anymore) – his rigorous research also turns out to be his greatest weakness. His narrative is often weighed down by the copious details – which read like what should have appeared as footnotes in a thesis built into the main body of the text. It reminds me of our student days – when we were well prepared for an exam – we tried to pack in everything we had studied into the answer. Similarly, at times he gives the impression of getting carried away displaying his erudition on the subject – leading the unsuspecting reader to miss the woods for the trees.

For me, the Hungry Tide was an exception – its narrative soared to great heights as the killer tide raged through the Matla. He never let the details take over the story. Even in parts where there was either a historical background or an anthropological data they were seamlessly woven into the plot. This, sadly, didn’t happen – at least for me – in the Glass Palace, where the various strands seemed to come apart towards the end.

Reverse Parochialism

And yet, though I am not usually prone to parochial chauvinism, I end up gifting Ghosh’ books to many a friend. That’s because – among the new breed of Indian authors I find him to be the most consistent and none of his books can be dismissed as bad fiction or being light weight ( something that can’t be said even about Rushdie – who I don’t think has written a single worthwhile book after Midnight’s Children and I find most of his heavy tomes not just forgettable but at times downright unreadable)

I have so far come upto some 150 odd pages of the Sea of Poppies – as the IBIS takes berth in the Hooghly. The description of the of the Poppy fields and the Opium factory in Ghazipur is riveting – as indeed is the tale of Zachary Reid and his band of lascars and serangs who steer the schooner (which was once used for ferrying slaves from West Africa) to its new owner – Benjamin Burnham in Calcutta who had purchased it for shipping opium to China. But, there are times I do wish that Ghosh hadn’t come upon reference material such as “ An English and Hindostanee Naval Dictionary of Technical Terms” or “Anglo-Indian Vocabulary of Nautical terms and the Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases”. I find myself constantly tripping over the forced colloquialism – often breaking the rhythm and cadence of the read.

But, I’ll reserve my judgement – for what it’s worth – till the IBIS completes her voyage.

Of Falls and Failings


The other very interesting book I am reading in tandem is Sudhir Kakar’s collection of essays – “Mad and Divine”. In the first article – titled “The Childhood of a Spiritually Incorrect Guru : OSHO ”. All things said, there is no denying that Rajneesh was a remarkable character – deeply charismatic even if a fascinating charlatan. Kakar has tried to unravel the phenomenon that was OSHO by tracing his evolution through the journey from his childhood with not just the insights of a master psychoanalyst but also with the sensitivity of a novelist.

I have always been intrigued at how so many of these self-proclaimed God-men and Gurus - merchants of the Spiritual Bazars as I like to call them - stray from their “path”. A simple Google search would reveal that – almost all ‘big brands’ exported to the West have got embroiled in some sexual scandal or other – starting from the great Mahesh Yogi, Swami Rama, Kriyananda to the latest one in a Texas (Austin) Ashram – who is out on a multi-million dollar bail for charges of paedophilia.

I know many of you would assert that, there was no question of a fall or straying as their chosen “path” was far from straight to begin with. But, I would like to give the benefit of doubt at least to some of them if not all. That’s because – I genuinely believe ( and, here I am not trying to make a case for myself ) that it is the same “vital energy” which drives both the spiritual and primal urges. This is clearly recognized in Tantra. And, it is for the same reason – the ancient sages have always stipulated exercise of abundant caution in climbing up the serpent (Kundalini) as it were – otherwise, face the risk of a grave fall. Ramakrishna and Swami V – who prescribed strict abstinence for the true spiritual aspirant, enunciated the same principles in more recent times.

Kakar explains this beautifully, when he writes:

“…..the spirit when it soars pulls up the psyche in its wake. But… the spirit never completely escapes the gravitational pull exerted by the forces of narcissism, aggression and desire in the psyche..”

then he goes on to add – “what may be essential for our gaze, however, is to attend to the vision of the spirit’s soaring, not the oft-repeated tragedy of its fall
.”

Gol-Maal

I find this resonating strongly with 2 other teachings of Ramakrishna. He used to say “ Jadio Amar Guru Shudi Bari Jaye.. tabuo amar Guru Nityananda Ray” – which roughly translated means – even if my Guru goes to a bar or a brothel, he would still be my Guru. Or putting it more simply, he would say – that the world is full of “Gol-Maal” , it is for us to eliminate the “Gol” and take the “Maal”

The next essay in the book is - “Seduction and the Saint”. I would be dishonest – if I say that, I am not looking forward to reading it a wee bit more than the next chapter of the Sea of Poppies.