Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Title: The Hungry Tide
Author: Amitav Ghosh
My Rating: 5 Stars
Short Review: Fabulous story that is as complex, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful as the fascinating sunderbans that it is set in.

Amitav Ghosh is one of the most prominent Indian English authors. I have always read great things about him and his books but after one failed attempt at comprehending Calcutta Chromosome a long time ago, I have always shied away from trying any other book of his. I made an exception for “The Hungry Tide” only because of the place the book was set in. I have always been fascinated by the area that is called the Sunderbans – a swampy archipelago at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. The dense mangrove forests and the hundreds of salt water waterways are home to some of the most terrifying animals – the royal Bengal tiger, crocodiles, snakes, etc. But what’s fascinating in this place is that humans have little to no control over the land here. Landforms are constantly changing as the sea comes in and goes out at its will. I’ve always been very intrigued by the power of nature in this area and when I found out that the hungry tide was set in the Sunderbans, I decided to read it. The book was completely unlike anything I expected. The Sunderbans wasn’t just a location in the book; it was a living entity - one of the most compelling characters! Amitav Ghosh descriptions almost transported me from my quiet little american suburb to the fascinating Sunderbans teeming with dangerous wildlife.

The settlers of the Sundarbans believe that anyone who dares venture into the vast watery labyrinth without a pure heart, will never return. It is the arrival of Piyali Roy, of Indian parentage but stubbornly American, and Kanai Dutt, a sophisticated Delhi businessman, that disturbs the delicate balance of settlement life and sets in motion a fateful cataclysm. Kanai has come to visit his widowed aunt and to review some writings left behind by her husband, a political radical who died mysteriously in the aftermath of a local uprising. He meets Piya on the train from Calcutta and learns she has come to the Sundarbans in search of a rare species of river dolphin. When she hires Fokir, an illiterate, yet proud local fisherman to guide her through the mazelike backwaters, Kanai becomes her translator. From this moment, the tide begins to turn.

The characters that Amitav created in this book are so memorable – Piya Roy – the born and raised in Seattle cetologist. Her parents are Bengali but for Piya, Bengali is just a language that they used to fight. With no knowledge of her parents language, Piya bravely ventures to the sunderbans to study a rare species of dolphins that has been spotted in the area. To help her in her quest, she hires Fokir – an illiterate fisherman who knows the waters better than the back of his own hands. The relationship between Piya and fokir is fascinating. They couldn’t be any more different from each other. But in spite of having no common methods of communication, they sense a level of bonding and are able to understand each other on a completely different plane. They share a love for the mysterious waters of the sunderbans. And if this wasn’t complicated enough, we have Kanai – suave, arrogant, educated Kanai who meets Piya on the train from Calcutta and follows her to aid her as translator in her quest.

One of the aspects that I really loved about this book was Ghosh’s effective play with multiple timelines. One thread is set in the present with Piya, Fokir and Kanai navigating the Sunderbans waterways in search of the elusive dolphins. A parallel thread takes us back in time through a manuscript written by Kanai’s revolutionary uncle that he has come to translate. Through the manuscript, we learn more about the 1979 Morichjhapi eviction of refugees and the political war between the government and the settlers in the Sunderbans area. Ghosh manages to intersperse another love triangle in the politically charged past as well.

The Hungry Tide is a complex novel and has so many different aspects and layers to it. It is an amazing creation. Amitav Ghosh is a fabulous writer and he successfully transports you to the world of Piya, Fokir , kanai and the mysterious sunderbans. He daringly sprinkles the text with mythological references, folklore, scientific research, political history. He jumps erratically between the two timelines. The pace of the writing is just perfect through the book and I feel that there’s something in it for everyone who reads the book.

I definitely want to read the book again. And this time, I want to read it at leisure because there’s no anticipation. I already know what’s going to happen to Piya and Fokir and Kanai. I can relax and grasp the many nuances and multiple layers of this fabulous fabulous book.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 5 Stars
Summary: Easily one of the best books of 2013. Adichie proves that she’s a master story teller once again. 

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

My thoughts..

..when I started the book
“Why do people ask ‘What is it about?’” Ifemelu thinks. “As if a novel has to be about only one thing.”
And that line from the book describes the book perfectly. To summarize, it can be said that the book is about race and love (and hair!). Racial identity in the US, Ifemelu’s hair, and the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze are definitely the three most prominent themes in the book but it will be a gross understatement to say that those were the only things the book is about. Americanah is much more than a novel. It is like a complex work of art. There are so many layers to it and you can see as little or as much as you want.
After much anticipation, when I first started Americanah, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t held captive right from word one like I thought I would be. I read a few pages, didn’t see where it was going, put the book down, waited for a few weeks and then picked the book up to try again.. And that was something I never thought I would do with an Adichie creation.
The second time around, however, my experience was different. I wasn’t expecting as much from the book as I did the first time. I started reading it slowly and I let Adichie guide me and take me where she wanted me to go at the pace she wanted me to go in. And without realizing it, I was completely sucked in to the book.

..on the characters
The characters came to life. A very self-involved and strongly opinionated Ifemelu is a very difficult protagonist to work it. You can’t relate to her easily and she intimidates you as much as she intimidates everyone around her in the book. But none other than Adichie could have given so much life and character to Ifemelu. But this focus on Ifemelu has a down side. She overshadows every other character in the book. While Obinze manages to carve a little space for himself and stand out, the rest of the characters pale in to insignificance (almost!). But I am not complaining. Ifemelu’s character is a magnet and I found myself strongly drawn to her in spite of all her faults.

.. on the theme of racial identity
As an immigrant to the US, one of the things that has puzzled me most is the concept of racial identity. The perceptions of people of different races is something I am learning on an everyday basis and in many ways, Americanah was very eye opening. Throughout the book, Adichie handles the whole concept with so much ease and comfort. She doesn’t get tangled in the nuances. Her brilliance as a thinker and a writer is showcased beautifully in Ifemelu’s thought process and her blog posts. So many writers have attempted to capture the complexities of racial identity in the US. Most of them fumble through the topic and make it obvious that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Not Adichie.

..on immigration and returning “home”
One of the concepts that every immigrant battles with is the idea of “home”. What is home? Is it the place you left behind years ago: A place that only exists in your memory because what it is now is not what it was when you left it. Or is it where you are now: A place that you fight to feel included in. Ifemelu and Obinze have similar thoughts about Nigeria when they are together in school but they move forward in their lives in very different ways and have very different immigrant experiences in the countries they go to. They finally both return, as very changed people to a very changed Nigeria. Again, hats off to Adichie for addressing the concept in a way that only she can – with so much clarity and lucidity.

.. on Ifemelu and Obinze
The complex relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze was one of my favorite parts of the book. After her extended stint in the US, she returns to Nigeria and Obinze. By this time, Obinze is married to Kosi – who is not exactly meek and mild but definitely more lovable than Ifemelu. Ifemelu waltzes back in to his life and they rekindle their romance and passion. As much as you dislike Ifemelu for selfishly disrupting Obinze’s marriage, you can’t help but root for them to get together because in so many ways Ifemelu and Obinze just belong with each other.
The only place I found the novel lacking was towards the end, where Adichie seems rushed to wrap it up. I felt that the dynamics between Obinze and Kosi and Obinze and the “new” Ifemelu could have been fleshed out a little more. We finish the book not knowing if his decision in the end (which woman to be with) is a well thought out decision or a temporary state of mind. But I guess, the end is just another dose of reality. Not every decision you take in life is well thought out. Sometimes, you flow with whatever feels right at the particular moment and then you are forced to live with the consequences of your actions.

..on the book
In short, I loved the book. The more I let the book soak in and the more I think about it, the more I seem to like it. I read the book over the summer and I read a few books after this, but this book is still fresh in my head. I feel like Ifemelu and Obinze are people I have known in real life. Americanah is nothing like either of Adichie’s previous novels and that’s one thing that makes me respect her more. I have read tons of reviews online where people list the things that they didn’t like about Americanah. I can’t disagree with most. But there’s something about the book that overshadows all the negatives. Just like Ifemelu, the book comes across as strong, opinionated, with faults but strangely lovable.