Tag Archives for " India "

From the brilliant Indian author Amitav Ghosh, a sweeping historical novel set in Burma

Indian authorThe Glass Palace: A Novel, by Amitav Ghosh

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The brilliant Indian author Amitav Ghosh is one of India’s greatest gifts to readers the world over. His deeply affecting historical novels relate the history of South Asia in fascinating detail, reflecting years of intensive research, both on-site and archival. Anchored securely in time and place, Ghosh’s characters virtually leap off the page. They’re hard to forget.

The Glass Palace is a case in point. The novel sprawls across more than a century of Burma’s history, from the British invasion of northern Burma in 1885 until 1999. The story opens in the Mandalay neighborhood surrounding the residence and seat of government of Burma’s last king, Thebaw Min. In the palatial surroundings of his palace, Thebaw awaits the arrival of British troops who have moved up from the south to incorporate the kingdom as a whole in their empire. With little ceremony, he, his ruthless queen, and their daughters are hustled down the Irawaddy to Rangoon. Then they are bundled onto a ship and sent to a small town on India’s west coast. There, Thebaw lived out his days in exile.

The central characters are Rajkumar Raha and Dolly, a handmaid to the Second Princess. She is ten years old as the novel opens. Dolly is “a timid, undemonstrative child with enormous eyes and a dancer’s pliable body and supple limbs.” Rajkumar, who is just one year older, is a poverty-stricken orphan stranded in Mandalay by the captain of the ship he had crewed. When the two are briefly thrown together in the chaos surrounding the British invasion, Rajkumar instantly falls in love with Dolly. He remains smitten for many years until they meet again near the residence of the exiled king in India.

Though the focus in The Glass Palace is the history of Burma, the conflict at the core of the tale is the three-way tension between the Burmese, the British, and the Indian businessmen such as Rajkumar became as an adult. It’s essential to the story to note that two-thirds of the troops in the British invasion force were Indian as well, a great many of them Sikhs from the Punjab. The story leaps from 1885 to 1905 to 1914 to 1941 to the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, through four generations of the descendants of Rajkumar, Dolly, and their close friends. The key chapters devoted to the Second World War in Burma and Malaya are especially affecting. If, like me, you had no prior knowledge of Burma’s history, you’re sure to get a vivid picture of the events that most deeply shaped its evolution before the 21st century.

In addition to the Burmese King and Queen, there are several other historical figures that enter into this story: Mahatma Gandhi; Subhas Chandra Bose, the right-wing extremist who led the Indian National Army against the British in the Second World War; General Aung San, Burma’s independence leader, who was assassinated before taking office as president; and Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves as the country’s preeminent elected leader.

The Glass Palace was published in 2000. Amitav Ghosh is better known for his later Ibis Trilogy. I reviewed all three novels by this extraordinary Indian author at A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies, 2008), A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke, 2011), and An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire, 2015). And for a long list of other historical novels I’ve enjoyed, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.



Sudden wealth, arranged marriages, and class envy in India today

class envyThe Windfall: A Novel by Diksha Basu

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In The Windfall, the debut novel from Indian writer and actress Diksha Basu, a struggling middle-aged, middle-class Delhi family strikes it rich and moves across town to a wealthy neighborhood in the suburb of Gurgaon. Anil Jha had strained for years to build an online business, earning just enough to send his son to an upper-class school, when a surprise offer to buy his site led to a $20 million windfall. Mr. Jha’s immediate response was to purchase a Mercedes and a large and expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood, leaving behind the family’s cramped quarters in an aging high-rise development in East Delhi. His wife, Bindu, is less than enthusiastic about either purchase. Now, the two are moving into their new quarters—and Mr. Jha’s primary concern is to impress the new neighbors with how much money he has. The old neighbors, jealous about the Jhas’ good fortune, are unhappy about the move.

Meanwhile, Basu’s other key characters enter the stage. The Jhas’ son, Rupak, is flunking out of an MBA program at Ithaca College in New York. He’s infatuated, and maybe in love, with a beautiful young American woman named Elizabeth, a student at Cornell. But Rupak is terrified of letting his parents know he’s dating an American, and he has been procrastinating about telling them. Bindu’s friend, Reema Ray, a widow at 37 and now 42, is pretending to be happy living alone. And the Chopras, who live next door to the new house in Gurgaon, are fretting about whether their new neighbors have more money than them.  Their own wealth has permitted Mrs. Chopra to buy a large quantity of flashy and expensive jewelry and their adult son, Johnny, to live at home, chase girls full-time, and avoid work.

The Windfall is what critics are fond of calling a “comedy of manners.” It’s at times an amusing tale, but it would be a stretch to call it comedy. Though the dominant themes are class envy and the corrosive effect of having a great deal of money, Basu also shows belief in the possibility of romantic love—as well as her fondness for the practice of arranged marriages. Under the story’s surface lies the tragic reality of India’s poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor in the country’s fast-developing economy.

Indian writers have contributed a great many award-winning novels in English. Among those I’ve enjoyed greatly are Amitav Ghosh (reviewed at A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War), Neel Mukherjee (The human toll of social change), and Manu Joseph (A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too).

An Indian novelist celebrates cricket

Indian novelistSelection Day: A Novel, by Aravind Adiga

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Aravind Adiga entered the literary world with a splash in 2008 when he won the Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Although I frequently find Booker Prize-winning books to be unreadable, I picked up The White Tiger, anyway. My interest in India trumped my hesitation about the self-important “literary” Booker jurors. Imagine my surprise when the novel enthralled me. I found it insightful, timely, and occasionally hilarious. (I read the book two years before I began writing reviews, so no review appears here.)

That experience with The White Tiger led me to pick up Adiga’s second novel, Between the Assassinations. Structured as a collection of fourteen interconnected stories set in a small town on India’s west coast, Between the Assassinations was very different from his debut effort. Like so many second novels that arrive after a hugely successful debut, it didn’t measure up to The White Tiger. Still, I enjoyed the book. I found it a fascinating look from the inside out of India’s caste and class system.

By contrast, Selection Day, Adiga’s fourth novel, is a disappointment—for three reasons.

First, it’s all about cricket. The book teems with cricket terms that are nowhere explained. (There’s a glossary in the back of the book, but it’s sketchy and obviously an afterthought, probably included at the insistence of the publisher.) It’s boring to read sentence after sentence that makes no sense.

In any case, the contrary views of my British friends and the author notwithstanding, the game of cricket itself is boring. Over the centuries, the game has acquired such a massive collection of rules that no one can possibly understand them all. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would put up with that. Admittedly, in fairness, I also find baseball and American football to be boring. But at least the rules are reasonably transparent. (Well, more or less reasonably so.)

Second, though I’m a fan of English-language novels written by Indians, Indian-Americans, or in this case an Indo-Australian, I can usually navigate through the occasional word in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, or one of the other of India’s hundreds of languages. Adiga uses far too many in Selection Day. I frequently found myself baffled, since many terms weren’t clear in context.

Third, I got the impression that Adiga has come to take himself too seriously. Maybe that Booker Prize went to his head. Apparently, he wrote the book to prove he could write “literature.” At times in Selection Day—too many times, for my taste—his meaning was impenetrable even when written in plain English. Take this sentence for example: “A son’s true opinion of his parents is written on the back of his teeth.” Excuse me? (Yes, I grabbed that sentence out of context. But it still stopped me in my tracks.)

Selection Day spans a fourteen-year period. It begins three years before the day when seventeen-year-old Mumbai cricket players audition for a place on a prestigious citywide team and ends eleven years after the day. The story centers around two brothers, Radha and Manju Kumar. They live with their father in a hovel in one of Mumbai’s endless slums. Both are extremely promising cricket players forced since infancy by their brutal father to conform to his rigorous, unorthodox, and undoubtedly insane methods to train for stardom in the game. Other key characters are a third boy, a Muslim, unlike the Kumar brothers; an aging cricket scout who writes an embarrassingly self-congratulatory column for a leading Mumbai newspaper; and a wealthy Mumbai businessman recruited by the scout to sponsor the two boys in exchange for a third of all their future earnings from cricket.

Enough said. If you follow cricket, you might enjoy this novel. I have my doubts, though.

December 27, 2016

Indian history portrayed through biography

indian historyIncarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives, by Sunil Khilnani

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Picture a stretch of territory of nearly 1.9 million square miles, housing 1.7 billion people. These people speak 26 major languages and more than 1,500 lesser languages and dialects. How can such a place be a single nation? In fact, in recent years, that territory has consisted of three countries: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But historically it was, in the view of historians and geographers, just one country. That’s India.

2,500 years of Indian history

In his engrossing new book, Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives, the eminent Indian historian Sunil Khilnani sets out to paint an impressionistic history of that endlessly complex country. The 50 lives he sketches in a series of brief essays span the full 2,500 years of the subcontinent’s discoverable history. Khilnani’s subjects include poets, religious leaders, emperors, artists, actors, film directors, social activists, political leaders, industrialists, and more. The effect is dizzying. In his attempt to convey a sense of India as a whole, he highlights instead the many, many small parts that make the country appear implausible. In the subcontinent, the whole is not greater than the parts.

Without question, India has produced a great many gifted and influential individuals. From the Buddha and the Emperor Ashoka to Mohandas Gandhi, India has made its presence known to the world. These three towering figures are all included in Incarnations. Most of the rest are unfamiliar to most Western audiences. Even having spent time in India and read some of its history, I recognized no more than a handful of the 47 others portrayed in the book.

Unsparing portraits of India’s greats

Khilnani’s selection of subjects is unorthodox. For example, the country’s founding Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is missing. Many of the others portrayed in the book are unlikely to figure in anyone else’s list of India’s greatest individuals. “If you don’t yet know the arresting stories [told here],” he writes, that is perhaps not accidental.” Instead of Nehru and other latter-day personalities whom others might include, he sketches the lives of such individuals as “Malik Ambar, a gifted seventeenth-century Abyssinian slave turned Deccan warrior king” and “Chidambaram Pillai, a dogged Tamil nationalist who took on the steamship might of the British Empire.” It’s unlikely that even a well-educated Indian in any field but history would recognize either of these names.

Incarnations is no celebration of India’s greatness. Khilnani’s portrayal of his subjects is often merciless. Virtually every one of the essays in the book shows their dark side. Mohandas Gandhi, for instance, is portrayed in a particularly unflattering light. But so are most of the other people included in the book. Don’t read Incarnations expecting white-washed Indian history.

Diversity squared

The United States today pictures itself as ethnically diverse. The Census Bureau reports that more than 350 languages are spoken in American homes. But only a relative handful communicate exclusively in any language but English or Spanish. America’s diversity pales beside that of India. There, 29 languages are each spoken by at least one million people. The top 10 are spoken by at least 33 million. Indians who can carry on conversations in five or six languages may still be unable to communicate with a majority of their countrymen. In religion, too, the two countries contrast sharply. In the US today, two major variants of Christianity encompass most of the population. India is “the only place on earth where each of the world’s four great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) has at different times ruled large areas.” Even today, all four claim large numbers of faithful in India.

Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations will help you gain a sense of the depth of Indian history and the breadth of its differences. It won’t help you “understand India,” because no one can do that.



Islamic terrorism, from the inside and out

islamic terrorismThe Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s 1996. Two brothers, ten and thirteen, walk into a busy Delhi market with their twelve-year-old friend. The brothers are Hindu, the friend, Muslim. As they arrive, a terrorist bomb explodes, instantly killing the two brothers but only slightly wounding their friend. Karan Mahajan’s novel, The Association of Small Bombs, explores the consequences of this attack from every perspective over the years that follow. He traces the lives of the brothers’ parents, the surviving boy and his parents, the bomber, and a circle of younger activists who fall into an association with the bomber many years later.

Mahajan deserves high marks for his insight into the ongoing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and into the motives of the Kashmir-based terrorists who bedevil Indian society to this day. It’s a pity that he doesn’t seem to like any of the characters he has created. Several are despicable human beings. The others are simply unpleasant.

The Association of Small Bombs was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. I can’t profess to be surprised: literary critics typically choose books that annoy me. My excuse for picking up and reading this one is that the subject matter is so compelling — and I read the book to the bitter end because it’s reasonably well written. I say reasonably, because the author uses far too many Hindi or Urdu words, the meaning of which is sometimes unclear even in context; a glossary might have helped for readers who don’t speak one of those languages. Unless you have a special interest either in contemporary Indian affairs or in Islamic terrorism, I do not recommend reading this book.

August 9, 2016

Do property rights explain why capitalism works in the West but not in the rest?

property rightsA review of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando de Soto

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

One of the world’s enduring mysteries is why there is such a wide gap in prosperity between the developed nations and those so often referred to as “developing.” Two centuries ago, China was the world’s wealthiest nation, and many of today’s developed countries were still poor by the day’s standards. Including the USA. There exists a plethora of explanations for this discrepancy, which has emerged over the last 200 years. Included are neocolonialism and the ascendancy of the multinational corporation in world affairs. Neither is especially convincing. But one of the most satisfying explanations comes from a noted Peruvian economist named Hernando de Soto. He spells it out in detail in The Mystery of Capital, the second of his books describing his life’s work.

Property rights lie at the core of the problem

The gist of de Soto’s argument is straightforward. Developed nations have over time adopted a system of property rights that enables those who possess them to unlock their potential as capital through such means as mortgages. Developing countries lack the infrastructure to enforce the property rights of the billions of people who have crowded into shantytowns in major cities or work the land they occupy in rural areas without acceptable documentation. As a result, they do not “own” their land or the improvements they have built on it and cannot capitalize on them. Thus, trillions of dollars in capital remain locked up in the homes of many of the world’s poorest people. Unlock that potential, and economic growth will soar, he contends.

De Soto’s solution to this quandary is to put such a system of property rights into place. The premise of his argument is undeniable. Anyone who has worked in any one of the scores of developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the former Soviet satellites should be well aware of the problem. Unfortunately, de Soto’s proposed solution poses several problems.

(1) In most of the world, respect for the rule of law is lacking.

Simply putting a new legal regime in place is unlikely to clear this hurdle. Many if not most developing nations have admirably crafted laws which are routinely ignored. De Soto claims that he and his team have demonstrated the feasibility of his approach in Peru and several other nations. In fact, there is evidence that they have succeeded in Peru, at least to a degree. Peru is now one of the world’s fastest-growing nations; perhaps at least some of the credit belongs to de Sot0. And the heads of state in many other countries have hired him to consult on the reforms he proposes.

However, I’m unaware that any of de Soto’s efforts have been effective nationwide anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Peru. I can easily imagine countries like Estonia, Uruguay, or Tunisia adopting such an approach; perhaps they already have. But it strikes me as unthinkable that Zimbabwe, Somalia, South Sudan, or Haiti, much less North Korea or Cuba, would ever consider such reforms anytime in the foreseeable future. Surely the world’s failed states or those that are nominally Communist will not do so without enormous changes in governance. Even India seems unlikely to me; one-third of the world’s people who live on $2 a day or less live there. Economic reforms in India require years of negotiations and often fail, even with a pro-business Prime Minister on the scene.

(2) Dominant elites find it to their benefit to sustain the status quo.

De Soto argues that conferring property rights on the poor would, in fact, benefit everyone, because it would dramatically lift the level of a nation’s economic activity. He asserts that elites can be educated and will come to understand the benefit, and he claims he has succeeded in doing this in Peru. Apparently, that is true to at least some degree. However, my observations above about other countries are applicable here, too.

(3) Entrenched bureaucrats benefit from the existing system by holding scarce jobs and securing bribes. 

De Soto and his team have studied four countries most closely: Peru, Egypt, Haiti, and the Philippines. He makes abundantly clear that in every one of them it can take years — as many as nineteen in one case — for poor people to complete the innumerable forms and secure the permissions needed to establish title to their land and homes. Simply put, property rights are entirely out of reach for huge numbers of the world’s people. Surely, dozens of bureaucrats are involved in some fashion in the application process. How likely is it that those office-holders will give up their jobs? Consider India as just one important example: many if not all government jobs are awarded on a quota system to permit the members of oppressed castes to gain access to the secure salaries and prestige represented by jobs in government.

(4) Discriminatory caste and class systems persist in many underdeveloped nations.

Nearly 70 years after independence, India’s caste system remains powerful, seemingly impervious to significant change. In most other poor countries, similarly discriminatory caste or class systems prevent people at the bottom of the pyramid to advance economically. In many, tribal origins or religious differences get in the way. Since such divisions have often persisted for many centuries, it strikes me as unreasonable to expect that they can be quickly overcome. Even higher education often fails to erase such differences.

(5) The biggest problem of all: the fallacy of growth.

Advocates of accelerated economic growth such as de Soto (or the leadership of China) fail to recognize the limits on the earth’s carrying capacity or the environmental damage that results from the rush to big cities and building ever more factories. India will soon surpass China (with one-fifth of the world’s people) in population. Should India ever manage to match the living standard in the Global North, that will represent the equivalent of adding five new USAs, doubling the world’s demand for goods and services. The consequences of such a development are unthinkable. Unrestrained economic growth is not just unsustainable — it’s suicidal.

A flawed but fully engaging book

In most respects, The Mystery of Capital is well written. The exception lies in the author’s tendency to repeat himself. The book reads as though it was adapted from a series of lectures strung together in sequence, with the repetition that is so common in such compilations. A number of de Soto’s key points are repeated several times.

About the author

Though Peruvian, Hernando de Soto was educated in Switzerland. He had left Peru at the age of seven and didn’t return until he was 38. (He’s now 75.) An economist, he specializes in studying the informal economy and property rights. He is considered to be a neo-liberal. The major influence in his professional life was the work of Milton Friedman.



Wondering why nearly all my book reviews are favorable?

booksIf you’ve read more than a few of my book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I rate every book on a five-@ system, and that I usually award books a rating of @@@@@, @@@@, or at least @@@. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve described a book as less than @@@ more than a couple of times since I began posting to this blog in January 2010.

This is no accident, and it’s not because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in English every year, not to mention the millions of older books that have been republished and are still in print. Well, not to put a fine edge on it, most of these books are crap.

Once upon a time, an educated person could actually read every book in print. Those were the days long before the United States had yet to be born. Most books available to Westerners were published in Latin, and every book was a rare book. That was a very long time ago. What we today call the information glut began no later than the nineteenth century. So, any conscientious reader has long had to be selective. Very selective. Which is the most important factor in explaining the question I posed in the title to this post.

My ratings run very high because:

  • I choose only books I really want to read — because I follow the author or am interested in the theme or setting or genre. For instance, I read a lot of history, current affairs, science, business, science fiction, thrillers, and historical fiction, but never romance, poetry, self-help, cookbooks, or books about sports, gardening, fashion, or art. I’m deeply interested in China, India, and Africa, and in World War II, espionage, poverty, and politics. (You get the point.) Fiction or nonfiction, it almost doesn’t matter.
  • If I find when I’ve read partway into a book that I don’t think it’s worth reading after all, I simply stop reading and turn to another book. And I only review books I’ve finished. Cover to cover. (Well, except for the notes.) This is not a rare occurrence. In other words, I’m a very picky reader.
  • Though authors now sometimes send me their books to read, I rarely accept one for review. It has to meet my standard criteria, or I won’t read it.

So, there you have it.

15 great recent novels I’ve read in 2015

recent novelsI have no idea how many new novels were published in the English language in 2015, but I’m sure it was a lot. Hundreds of thousands, for sure. More than a million, maybe. So, when I consider what fiction to read and then review, I’m forced to be picky to an extraordinary degree. And I don’t even finish reading every novel I start. Which means that I review an even smaller number than I start, because I review books only if I’ve read them cover to cover.

The 15 novels below represent a wide range of superb fiction. Many are award-winners. Many have topped the bestseller lists. (Sometimes critics get it right. Even more of the time, readers do.) I’ve reviewed every one of these books. The titles are linked to those reviews.

The Incarnations: A Novel, by Susan Barker

A curious but engrossing tale of a Beijing taxi driver and the many previous incarnations of his soul, spanning more than a thousand years of Chinese history, each of them evocatively realized. A New York Times Notable Book of 2015 and winner of several literary awards.

The Secret Chord: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks

The latest effort from the keyboard of the Pulitzer-winning historical novelist. Set three thousand years in the past, this is the enthralling story of King David as told by the Prophet Nathan, who served as his close adviser.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

The deeply moving story of two teenagers caught up in the maelstrom of World War II. One is a young German pressed into the Wehrmacht, the other a blind French girl. Their lives cross in tragedy.

Flood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy #3), by Amitav Ghosh

The concluding novel in the Ibis Trilogy, which explores the history of India and China in the years just before and during the First Opium War (1839-42). The word-smithing is brilliant.

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

The life and career of an English woman who becomes the star of a television sitcom built around her personality. Amusing at times, but not the usual laugh-out-loud work that I’d grown to expect from Nick Hornby.

The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu

Set in the capital of Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s most benighted former colonies, this is the story of a hairdressing salon and the characters whose lives explore the reality of life under a brutal dictatorship.

World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

The third entry in a series of novels about the Boston gangster Joe Coughlin and his family, set late in his life when Coughlin has long since moved his operations to Florida and Cuba. The author also wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, and other novels.

Watergate: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon

The inside story of Watergate viewed through the eyes of Pat Nixon and many of the President’s men on his White House staff and reelection committee. Superb political fiction!

Head of State, by Andrew Marr

A delightful send-up of British politics at the highest level, written by that country’s most familiar pundit. Funny, and deliciously convoluted.

Consequence: A Novel, by Steve Masover

An exploration of environmental protest and environmental terrorism, exploring the boundary between the two through the lives of a group of activists living in a collective house in San Francisco.

Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

A young British woman is recruited into a top-secret commando unit that supported the French Resistance in World War II. Her life encompasses captivity in Nazi France, a German concentration camp, and suspicious treatment after the war by her former bosses in the UK. Haunting.

The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

The lives of three generations of a family in Calcutta in the early 1970s as the brutal Naxalite Rebellion leaves its indelible mark on their family.

The Book of Aron: A Novel, by Jim Shepherd

An illuminating story of the experiences of a young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Based in part on the historical figure of the heroic man who guarded the Ghetto’s orphanage with his life.

The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America, by Donald Smith

Set during the grim years of America’s Revolutionary War, this is the story of a murder mystery and the volunteer investigator who travels from North Carolina to Quebec to bring the suspected killer to justice.

Girl Waits With Gun: A Novel, by Amy Stewart

A fictional treatment of how a young woman became America’s first female deputy sheriff, set in 1914 as Europe plunged into war. A grim picture of relations between the sexes a century ago.




An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War

opium warFlood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy #3), by Amitav Ghosh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Opium is at center-stage in Flood of Fire, which traces the consequential history of the British, their Indian allies, and the mandarins ruling China just before and during the First Opium War. Though it occurred nearly two centuries ago, this historical event is worth revisiting today for its lasting influence on today’s Chinese rulers, whose memories are vivid about the humiliation visited on their country by the British, other Europeans, and (later) the Americans. Few of us in America today can appreciate the intense feelings this nineteenth-century conflict continues to conjure up in the minds of educated people in China.

Flood of Fire is the concluding novel in the monumental Ibis Trilogy by that Indian giant of historical fiction, Amitav Ghosh. It’s the sequel to Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. Taken together, the three books tell the story of the Indian opium-trading ship Ibis and the colorful, polyglot personalities who are connected to it, during the momentous four-year period from 1838 to 1841.

Flood of Fire, as well as the two novels that preceded it, is remarkable in two ways. First, the author’s documentary research was exhaustive and clearly required years of reading old documents and traipsing from one library to another: in an Epilogue, Ghosh includes eight pages of references tightly packed together into paragraphs. Second, Ghosh’s love of language is palpable, with every character in this novel displaying a distinctive mode of speech that seems to reflect accurately the way people spoke in mid-nineteenth-century India and China.

The principal characters in this third volume in the Ibis Trilogy all appear in the earlier stories as well: Kesri Singh, a havildar or sergeant in the military service of the British East India Company; Zachary Reid, a young mulatto from Baltimore who begins his career as a ship’s carpenter; Benjamin Burnham, the fabulously wealthy opium trader who owns the Ibis; Burnham’s wife, Catherine, who lives under the shadow of a dark secret; Shireen Modi, a Parsi (Zoroastrian) mother of two in Bombay who is now the widow of Seth (“sir”) Bahram Moddie, a penniless youth who had risen to the top of the opium trade by taking audacious chances; Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who has become an adviser to the Chinese in their standoff with the British; Zadig Bey, an Armenian trader close to Seth Bahram; and assorted other soldiers, sailors, traders, officials, and hangers-on. It’s what Hollywood used to call “a cast of thousands.” This is an immensely complex story and sheer pleasure to read.

At times, Flood of Fire is hilarious. There are extended passages about masturbation which highlight the Victorian obsession with sex and brilliant examples of the malaproprisms that result from people attempting to communicate in their third language, or their fourth. For example, “‘You must meet me at Strand, with money-purse, at 5 p. m. Kindly do not be late — I will be punctually expectorating.'” It takes a writer with the talent of Amitav Ghosh to make this stuff up.



Which countries read the most?

reading habitsI’m indebted to Bryan Fuller for passing along a link to his fascinating — and surprising — article, “Interesting facts about reading habits around the world,” which appears on the website Interesting Facts. As one of several well-chosen illustrations accompanying the article, Bryan created a colorful infographic that shows the picture worldwide. You can access the map here. Excerpts from the article, and a link to the full piece, appear below.

India: 10:42

With its citizens reading 10 hours and 42 minutes per week on average, India tops our list. In India, non-literary fiction is rising in popularity. This is thought to be because of the rise in TV, mobile phones and the Internet. People want to read material that is easily accessible and cheap.

Many readers in India are first-generation English readers. Urban children in India are the most likely to read for pleasure, with schools placing high importance on keeping children passionate for books. There are regular book festivals, and schools are holding book weeks dedicated to reading.

Thailand: 9:24

Thailand is second on our list, with a time of 9 hours and 24 minutes on average per week. Traditionally, reading in Thailand involves accessing meanings through symbols, similar to Chinese characters. It is often easier in Thai to express words through symbols, and much like we read English without thinking, Thai people can easily tell the meaning of a symbol based on the other symbols around it.

In 2010, it was found that the average student reads for pleasure about 20 minutes a day. Fiction lists lower for Thai reading preferences, with journals topping the list, followed by Internet.

China: 8:00

China ranks third with eight hours on average. In a 2010 study, 69 percent of respondents believed that reading is important for their own development. This trend was evident in respondents aged 19 -29.

In 2009, it was found that a little over 70 percent of people read. 50 percent read books, where 58 percent read newspapers, and 46 percent read magazines. 7 percent read text online. Townspeople are slightly more likely to read than urban people in China. On average, 15 minutes a day are spent reading books, 21 minutes reading newspapers and 16 minutes reading magazines.

Read the full article.