Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Opium in a Handbag

Reached the end of the “River” and what a beautiful and rewarding journey it was. It’s arguably Amitav Ghosh’finest novel yet and I ungrudgingly take back all the criticisms and reservations heaped on him in my earlier blogs (Click here to read). Though billed as the second part of the trilogy – the narrative sails on its own and the threads linking it with the Ibis (Sea of Poppies) are at best tenuous. Here, the historical backdrop – is not like

a cloak sitting heavily on the story, but - acquires a life of its own as Ghosh, the master of minutiae, paints the canvas with every little detail of a Chinese scroll painting. Unlike some of his previous works – Ghosh doesn’t challenge or intimidate his readers – instead transports them to a charming old world, as if after a few draughts of that magical smoke. The historical details – such as Bahram’s chance encounter with Napoleon - yes, as in Bonaparte – in St Helena does not distract. And, the parallel tale of Paulette and Fitcher Penrose on the Red Ruth

– in search of the elusive Chinese Camellia is beautifully woven into the main plot – probably leaving a

trail to be picked up in the final part of the trilogy. A must read for everyone – even if one had missed The Sea of Poppies.

Handbag as a fashion statement

But, the book I am enjoying immensely is the Political Biography of Mayawati by the journalist Ajoy Bose. I had resisted it for a long time – probably because of my innate prejudice for the subject. But, on my couple of recent trips to Lucknow – I couldn’t help but being impressed by transformation she has wrought to the city. At the risk of being scoffed at by my more evolved friends – I have no qualms in admitting, I found grandeur, vision and aesthetic taste in what had been described as grotesque display of megalomania. Undoubtedly very deep and astute thi

nking has gone behind creation of these monuments of Dalit iconism.

Any future regime thinking of destroying them – would have to do so at their own peril and no naming any number of roads, bridges, airports, educational institutions, hospitals or other centres after members of one ‘family’ - can outdo these gigantic feats of architecture. In any case, it is better than the stadium I believe Mulayam Singh had built in his constituency – which is now a public cattle grazing ground.

It would be fashionable to argue that the humongous amounts of monies spent to build t
hese structures could have been better utilized on power plants and infrastructure projects that would have benefited the people and contributed to the development of the state. But, while roads, bridges and power
projects can be built even through private investments or PPPs – social re-engineering can only be done by the state and it is difficult to put a price tag on the costs of social change. Bose’ book gives a terrific insight to the psyche of Mayawati and, her late mentor, Kanshiram and the movement they created that could well be a turning point of Indian history.

My only worry is – after 400 years when future generations of archaeologists excavate the ruins of the Maya Age of Modern India and unearth the great Behenjis statues – they might mistake her handbags to be the fashion statement of our times.