Warning: this review is highly coloured by circumstances. I went for the book release by the man himself before I read the book. One remark he made put all other ideas I may have had about the book (right) out of my head. While talking about what made him want to write this book, he said how, when he was a kid, he enjoyed reading all these stories at sea – all that Melville and all those Sabatinis.
That was, as you can imagine, enough.
One of the great joys of reading good historical fiction is knowing that while what you are reading is a good yarn in its own right, it is also a careful and often very political selection of the past that is in dialogue with the present. What a writer chooses to present as the past is often a function of what it is about the present that most preoccupies him or her.
Historical fiction is also characterised by more description, more ‘local colour’ than the fiction that was produced at the time; it sometimes has a fictional character responsible for historical shifts of varying magnitude that may be familiar to us who stand at the end of history – think of Andre-Louis Moreau’s speech at Nantes; of the comfort provided by the Persian Boy to Alexander that may have had small but important influences on the course of his campaigns.
Such narratives remind us that the locus of power in stories often lie not only with the characters, but with the author of these narratives. This is a very 19th century perspective, one that refuses to acknowledge the Death of the Author, while still retaining a very 20th century self-consciousness in the act of writing historical fiction.
The book follows the stories of motley characters who will find their way on the Ibis: Deeti (whose shrine contains her sketches of relatives and will later contain every one of the main characters on board the Ibis) who, when her opium-addict husband dies, escapes with Kalua, the outcaste strongman; Zachary Reid, a half-black American, who brings the Ibis to India after rising improbably early to the rank of second mate; his lascar mentor, Serang Ali; Neel Ratan, the Maharaja of Raskhali, dispossessed by the owner of the Ibis, Mr. Burnham; Paulette, the daughter of a French naturalist and her almost-brother, Jodu (whose mother was Paulette’s wet nurse); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the gomusta who thinks he is undergoing a spiritual transformation that will end with his finding the Lord Krishna.
But beyond the fun that is to be had in the curious melange of languages and comic situations involving the navigator Mr. Doughty, or Baboo Nob Kissin is the knowledge that here is a story that speaks directly to the present in its engagement with the themes of displacement and belonging and in the politics of enterprise.
At one point during a dinner that Neel Ratan gives on board the Raskhali budgerow, Mr. Burnham says:
The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principles apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.
The hawkishness of powerful governments is familiar to us, as are its tactics. Ghosh takes care, though, to avoid the pitfalls of polemics. This conversation takes place during what is essentially a rather hilarious social situation, one of many that punctuate the book.
Reading this book, it occurred to me that, just as an experiment, Ghosh is trying to find out what it is about the 19th century that makes it so adaptable to the novel. The enterprise of Empire certainly looms large thematically; but because this is Ghosh, the area of maximum interest is at the estuary where language meets language, and displacement or belonging is as much a function of speech as it is of space. This is why the reclamation I speak of in the title is primarily one of language.
Ghosh has said often in interviews and at readings, that the language of 19th century English in India was richer than it is now; that it absorbed a variety of influences that are now lost to us. As an example, he talks about writing about sailing. Most of the terms are unfamiliar to us anyway, he says, and a lascar term or a Bengali one would do just as well as an English one. That he chooses the lascar over the English is not just deliberate but a way of stating a perspective that is ‘native’ or at any rate not colonial.
In other words, though this is historical fiction of the kind that is familiar, it at the same time one that consciously situates itself in the subcontinent, with subcontinental perspectives. If I was an academic, I would say that Ghosh is retroactively attempting to write back to the Empire. But I’m not, so I will say, instead, that the choice of historical fiction is significant because from a peripheral perspective, there weren’t enough stories told that we know.
The book ends dramatically and you can’t help considering what it must have felt like back then, to await the next instalment of a Dickens. Then you remember that bhasha magazines in
[Part of The 2008 Booker Mela]