In The Armchair

Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on September 6, 2007

This complex and interesting novel talks at several levels. At the personal level, it tells a story of individuals caught in a rollicking jungle adventure; trapped by their own principles; or surmounting the insurmountable to bring succour to a poor community; and the intertwined lives of a small group of humans brought together by history. At the community level, it captures the fragile frontier lifestyle of a community on an island and tells the story of historical atrocities wreaked on another large frontier settlement settlement by an uncaring government. And at a broad level, it attempts to render nothing less than the very soul of the Sunderbans.

The story follows Kanai, a Bengali businessman settled in Delhi, and Piya, an American cetologist of Bengali descent. Kanai and Piya arrive in the Sunderbans for different reasons, but are soon caught up in a web of interpersonal relations spanning three decades. Both discover things about the Sunderbans they did not imagine.

The reactions of the characters at specific times are a little hard to believe. But the tapestry that Ghosh weaves more than makes up for this slight flaw; the reader is given a glimpse into what the Sunderbans are like, what makes them and the people who choose to live there tick, their history and their fauna. The mood of the novel is alternately immediate and pensive, now dealing with the immediacy of danger, now dealing with the larger questions that plague the region (and humanity in general).

Significantly, Ghosh seems to see the characters and places in his story as they are, and not as a vehicle to propagate a particular ideology or to paint himself, the author, in a particular light. This is a refreshing contrast from authors who write “fashionably” or select their topics for their ability to shock or impress (often Western) audiences. It results in an interesting balance of conflicting viewpoints, each of them portrayed but not judged. All in all, a great read.

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