Top critical review
A highly disappointing read from a great author! Trying too hard!
9 July 2019
Amitav Ghosh is a legend in modern Indian writing. My first introduction to this phenomenal author was through ‘The Hungry Tide’ followed by ‘The Glass Palace’ and ‘the Ibis Trilogy’. He has several more books to his credit and when I found out that he was coming out with a new novel, I ordered it sight-unseen. I did not even know what it was about and was simply happy to be spending my time trying to decipher its very intriguing cover.
So, the first thing that struck me about this book was its writing style. It read like a translated bit of fiction with short, sort-of abrupt sentences. It was extremely disconcerting for a bit as one does not expect something like this from an Amitav Ghosh book. There was a complete lack of poetry and rhythm that was an essential part of his initial works. Still, one ploughs on in the hope of better things. The second thing that irked me was the first person narrative by the author. This seems to be a new phenomenon with me, but first person narratives have to be done exceptionally well for me to be on board with them. Unfortunately, here every time the author said ‘I’, it implied the author himself instead of his character Dean aka Dinu aka Dinanath. And while the author tried to establish Dinu’s credentials as a lonely man looking for love, I kept imagining it to be the great man himself struggling with this mid-life crisis.
The characters that the author has etched out for us also seem to have no meat to their bones and decidedly lackluster. Ghosh’s characters have always been ones with incredible depth and scope, while here they are anything but. The main protagonist is imminently unlikable with his super sad outlook towards life, his cringing from moving on with the realities of life, his loneliness and his quest for love ( oh God! the quest for love). The characters that he has brought forward from his much-loved ‘The Hungry Tide’, are peripheral here and do not seem to carry the same heft as they did all those years ago. Dinu’s best friend and mentor Cinta seems to be the only one who seems to have a stable, satisfying life except for the bits where she begins to spout some very incomprehensible views on ‘believing in stories’ and stuff like that. Also, she solves the entire folk lore mystery in five minutes flat! Centuries of confusion solved by a firang with a click of her fingers - how unbelievably colonial!
So, the main themes here are climate change, human migration for economic and other reasons and then the fact that magic is real! While it is easier to understand the first two, the last one just becomes too grandiose a divergence from the norm, leaving one to just shake heads in utter bafflement at the absurdity of it all. The author, through his character Dinu, displays all the distrust of the highly educated to the folk tales and lore of our culture, contradicting with the wish to ‘prove’ the reality of these stories for once and all as either true or false. Why not simply accept them for what they are and try to take away what moral lessons one can take from them or leave them beside the wayside to wither and die from the collective human consciousness? The introduction of the particular folk tale that forms the backbone of this story into the life of the author, followed by his reasons for pursuing the story told by an aging matriarch when he is so obviously an atheist, are the first inklings that things might not pan out as smoothly as his previous works. The author has tried too hard to integrate the folklore and the search for truth into contemporary times with the aid of some ‘magical coincidences’ that are supposed to make the reader believe in the power and reach of the Goddess in the folklore. Why the book suddenly turns into a contemporary modern-day reliving of that tale with our main protagonist as the hero is beyond comprehension. Was Dinu meant to do something for the Goddess in return? And why did he begin to assume that it was the much persecuted gun merchant who was ‘helping’ him and sending him signs all along? Were the entities trying to kill him or lead him to salvation?
At the end of the book one is left to wonder what the author wanted you to take away from the story? The climax scene is such a colossal letdown that there is simply no getting over it.
A highly disappointing and unsatisfying read.