Looking at Chulia Street off Raffles Place and Boat Quay now, no one would know what it was like before. Chulia Kampong, unlike Kampong Glam, has vanished from the map of Singapore. So I was intrigued by the description given by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh in his novel, River of Smoke. The book, set in the 1830s, is about the opium trade between India and China which used to pass through Singapore.
Here’s September 1 one day late: September 1, 1939, written by WH Auden in New York when Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War.
The war produced epic novels and movies. Casablanca was made in 1942, the year America joined the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Brief Encounter was made in 1945, From Here to Eternity in 1953.
The news that Vikram Seth is writing a sequel to A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, had me reaching for another book I love: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.
What set me off was an interview Seth gave to The Hindu newspaper in India. The sequel, A Suitable Girl, will be set in the present, he said, and Lata, the heroine of A Suitable Boy, will be in her eighties. She was a young woman in A Suitable Boy, set in the early years of Indian independence, and the title referred to Haresh, the shoe company executive she married.
“She may be married to her husband Haresh, or she may be widowed,” said Seth about the sequel, which will be published in 2013, and is also about the Indian custom of arranged marriages. “A Suitable Girl is being sought for her grandson, who confides in her quite a bit.”
He added: ““It is going to be largely set in India, but could also involve other nations.”
That is why I was reminded of The Glass Palace, an epic novel starting with the British conquest of Burma and ending with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon.
The book starts with the Indian Rajkumar’s arrival in Mandalay just before the British occupation in the 19th century and goes on to describe the lives of people in Burma, India and Malaya under British rule, the momentous events of the Second World War, and their aftermath.
Rajkumar is just a boy, an orphan, when he arrives in Mandalay. We see him make a fortune as a timber merchant in Rangoon, lose everything in the Second World War, and live to a ripe old age in India.
In this panoramic novel with a diverse cast of Indians, Burmese and Chinese, three characters stand out: Rajkumar; his beloved wife, Dolly, who had been a maid to the Burmese queen; and Dolly’s friend, Uma, the Indian Collector’s wife.
Englishwomen in the early 19th century bathed only twice or thrice a week in India – and mocked the Indians for bathing every day. The memsahibs – Englishwomen – were bathed in their bathtubs by their maids who soaped and scrubbed them, asking what to them sounded like “Cushy?” “Cushy?” — if they were satisfied. So the maids were called “cushy-girls”. In Bengali and Hindi, “khushi” – which to the English sounded like “cushy” – means “happy” or “pleased”.
Little nuggets like this fill the pages of Sea of Poppies. The author, Amitav Ghosh, shows how Indian languages and culture and cuisine made inroads into Anglo-Indian society – the Britons in India. They had their own code. They were expected to speak only “bazar Hindustani”, a pidgin language, and inter-racial sex was frowned upon. Yet, there’s one scene where a rich Indian’s mistress observing the guests at dinner from behind a screen (because Indian women at the time were not allowed to be seen by strangers) is startled to see an elderly Englishman. He had sex with her when she was a courtesan, she tells her female companies, describing in Bengali the things he did to her. The Englishman, who overhears her, flies into a rage and has to be restrained by others from beating her up with his walking stick. It turns out he knows Bengali. “There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand,” he says.
It’s a comic scene, but it underlines the racism of the British rulers in India.
Sea of Poppies shows the suffering they caused. Peasants were forced to cultivate poppies instead of food crops and sell the harvest to the English India Company, which ruled the country and held a monopoly in the opium trade. There’s a harrowing description of an opium factory where the poppies were converted into balls of opium, which were then shipped to China. The novel is set in the 1830s when the Chinese rulers banned the opium trade, provoking the British to go to war to lift the ban by force.
The opium trade had far-reaching consequences, leading not only to the Opium War and the British conquest of Hong Kong but also contributing to the Indian diaspora. Indian peasants who got into debt and lost their land were sent off to remote British colonies to work as indentured labourers.
Sea of Poppies tells their story.
I am not surprised Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence has failed to get past the long list to the short list for the 2008 Man Booker Prize even though bookmaker Ladbrokes installed it as the 4-1 favourite. As I wrote in an earlier post, the West might find the story too exotic. Midnight’s Children, the 1981 Booker winner which went on to the Booker of Bookers award this year, was exotic, but it was also a political allegory published at the right time, four years after the lifting of the state of emergency in India, which made it highly topical and relevant. And, of course, it’s a classic.
The Enchantress of Florence is highly relevant, too, if one looks under the surface. It deals with magic, the power of words, and social engineering — for what is the central character, who calls himself Mogor dell’Amore, but a piece of social engineering who has crafted a new persona for himself? Reading the book, I was reminded of Barack Obama who is as charismatic, confident and articulate and who has also been able to forge a persona of his own through his autobiographies.
But The Enchantress of Florence also has the fairytale quality of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children’s classic, and that’s not usually found in Booker winners.
As an Indian, I am rooting for Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which has been shortlisted for the Booker.The winner of the 50,000-pound prize will be announced on October 14.
The Fortune of War was a great read — typical Patrick O’Brian. There are setpiece naval battles, intrigue, romance, all that is a typical of an adventure involving Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend — surgeon and British secret agent Stephen Maturin. They are caught up in the War of 1812 and brought as prisoners of war to Boston. But not all Americans like the war — not the rich Bostonian merchants at least whose trade suffers as a result of the British naval blockade. Maturin meets Diana Villiers again, and this time she is his. She leaves the wicked, rich Southern plantation owner, who also happens to be an American secret agent thick as thieves with the evil Frenchmen, and joins Aubrey and Maturin as they escape from detention and are picked up by a British man-of-war. This synopsis makes it sound like a typical action adventure but O’Brian’s deft characterisation and period details make it a compelling story.
I have just started reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. I earlier tried reading his The Calcutta Chromosome, attracted by the title because Calcutta (Kolkata) is my home town, but gave up — science fiction usually leaves me cold. The Glass Palace, on the other hand, deals with history. It starts with the British colonisation of Burma and, says the blurb, “presents… a band of memorable characters, spread across Burma, Malaya and India”. I have only read the first few pages where an Indian boy, just arrived in Mandalay, sees the British invade the royal capital and depose King Thebaw. The story beginning in the 1880s continues through subsequent generations till Burmese independence and its aftermath.
I am interested in the colonial experience and expect to spend some agreeable hours reading about the era. Coming from India and living in Singapore, I want to know more about the region and its history, especially as seen through the eyes of immigrants. A lot of Indians, like a lot of Chinese, settled in South-east Asia during British rule. Life for the local population also changed under the British. This book deals with the experience.