Tag Archives: Adventure

Captain Ramarao’s Adventures

There is no pleasure higher than playing with one’s grandchildren. When they play and laugh heartily, one’s heart skips with joy. The whole house comes alive, and the spirits of everyone present soar sky-high.

Unfortunately, children also fight amongst themselves. And fight they do, with the same passion they show while playing. It takes a few minutes for elders to sort out the dispute and settle the matter. The children repeatedly say sorry, forget about it, and resume playing. Unlike elders, they don’t hold grudges and settle scores later. All that is needed while dealing with such children is a little patience and gentle persuasion.

My six grandchildren, all bundles of joy, meet almost every weekend to come and play with me. While playing, they often get into arguments and scuffles but agree to my system of administering justice and settle their disputes.

Children love riddles and brain teasers. The expression on their faces when they successfully solve a mystery is just beyond words. I have been giving questions to them and rewarding them a buck each when they provide the right answer. This made no dent in my wallet but gave immense pleasure to the kids.

I used to tell my grandchildren several stories of my life at sea and adventures, some real and some made up, and found them listening with rapt attention. Notably, stories of monsters used to keep them spellbound.

Finally, stories of treasure and treasure hunt have been popular with children since time immemorial. Combining all these with my fertile imagination, I spun yarn, and the result is the book. Captain Riddle’s Treasure.

Riddles, popular with the kids, form the centerpiece of this novel. I took popular concepts and turned them on their heads. The ship is unique; the port side is a sailing ship of yore, and the starboard is a modern ship a cross between a warship and a freighter. The captain has some quirks and mannerisms. The kids outwit a sea monster, Godzilla, and the spaceship with their riddles. The sword fight between the girl and the pirate, an army of leprechauns, a rainbow at midnight, a knight astride a lion, a fight between the knight and the Night Fairy, the kids taking rides on a lion, putting their hand in its mouth, lion chasing the monkey in the superstructure of the ship, the computers and gizmos confusing the knight and a boy getting stuck in the timeline- all new concepts will tickle the interest of kids as well as adults.

The second book Race for Crown Jewels deals with mysterious creatures and educates children about Mars, Esperanto, expressions such as white elephant, pink panther, and has a story full of action. The fight with the flying pigs, the way Emily gets the better of a Gurkha soldier in a sword fight is a few of the many highlights of the book.

If you have kids looking for mystery and fun, this is a great way to help them spend time during the pandemic!


G.V. Ramarao served for the best part of his life in the Indian Navy as an officer and later switched to the mercantile marine. He has published many humorous short stories and a range of articles in various magazines and newspapers in India.

Masterful Debut Novel

Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel – The Far Field – is many things all at once. A tale that spans from Bangalore to Kashmir, a tale that hints at the dark clouds of mental illness, of love lost and unrequited and the protagonist’s attempt to be honest about her own role in the story. 

The novel spins on the relationship that the protagonist Shalini shares with her mother –   “Somebody once described my mother as a strong woman,” she says without fuss. The vignettes she paints about her mother are where she is at her best  – “My mother, with her lightning tongue and her small collection of idols on a shelf in the kitchen. My mother, with her stubborn refusal to admit the existence of meat or other faiths, who crossed the street when we passed a halal butcher with his row of skinned goats, their flanks pink and shiny as burn scars.”  

Her father, a successful business executive, looks on at the world with pragmatism and confidence.

In the previous quote, the admission that her mother crossed the street at the sight of a halal butcher’s stall takes on new meaning as the novel progresses. A Muslim – Bashir Ahmed, enters their house selling Kashmiri kurtas and shawls, carrying a cloth bundle on his shioulders. He tries to eke out a living far from his home in Kashmir by walking from door to door selling his wares on the streets of Bangalore. 

“I was six the first time he came, and I still remember it. How my mother had not ceased moving even for a second, all week….How she had intense surges of laughter at nothing. How she cooked, a pile of vessels growing dangerously high in the sink, but how, at the same time, she claimed never to be hungry….When the bell rang that afternoon, I was in the living room.” The afternoon visits start then, and soon, Bashir Ahmed is the teller of tall tales about his land that leave mother and daughter listening with mouths agape.

With his arrival, the strife in Kashmir enters their lives in faraway Bangalore – during one of Bashir Ahmed’s visits, her father happens to be home sick and launches into a tirade that will sound similar to what many Hindus might have heard right in their homes. “These poor Pandits leaving their houses and running away in the middle of the night, because they might be killed for being Hindu! It’s sheer madness, and these militants sound like animals.” And, the verbal lynching goes on.  To this, Bashir responds saying, “It is very sad about the Pandits, janaab. But that is happening in the Valley. In my area (in the mountains) no Hindus are being killed.” After a while, Bashir Ahmed stops coming to their house, for reasons that are explained later.

When Shalini becomes an adult, she leaves in search of the vendor Bashir Ahmed in the mountains in Kashmir and a whole set of characters appear. Army soldiers who rule Kashmiri towns with impunity, men and women who grieve the disappearance of loved ones, tiny offices where grieving mothers file petitions to the government, and the harsh conditions in which they eke out a living.  Soon Shalini’s life starts to intersect in complicated ways with Bashir Ahmed’s family, and her choices start to matter in their lives as well.

The author has tried to marry the political to the personal, and for some reason, the political side of the equation did not carry with it the urgency that the personal did for me. Two themes that she repeats at opportune times in the novel when she comments on the choices made by characters in her novel stayed with mel. Never be a coward. Do something, anything – is advice that her mother first spouts and other characters in the novel spout this too at other times. Along with this, comes another piece of advice that seems to have been drawn from the Bhagavad Gita – without action, what is there to life but to wait to die? A question that hangs with great significance in the context of the novel and one that seems to reach every reader.

The tautness with which she draws the characters of her parents, Bashir Ahmed and herself does not somehow extend to the characters living in the mountains in faraway Kashmir. However, in the lines of the plot, she masterfully manages  to carry a certain tension that lasts till the last page of the novel. A twist at the very end only amplifies this tension.

A masterful debut novel and a must read!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

 

Battle Hits and Myths

BAAHUBALI 2—The Conclusion.  Director: S. S. Rajamouli.  Player: Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Sathyaraj, Ramya Krishnan, Anushka Shetty, Nassar, Tamannaah.  Music: M. M. Keeravani.  Telugu with Eng. subtitles.  Theatrical release (Arka Media Works)   Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Where we left off two years ago, a virtual century in box-office parlance–Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) had muscled out all but one or two of the biggest Hindi language movies to clinch a top spot on the Indian cinema box office food chain. In a breezy two years later, along comes Baahubali 2The Conclusion, the would-be crown jewel to what was only the crown. Even with its opulence, flashy costumes, epic story-telling and gimmicky showiness, while Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is better filmmaking, it falls a little short of what Baahubali: The Beginning spoiled us to expect.

Continuing the adventures of Amarendar Baahubali (Prabhas) in the mythical kingdom of Mahishmati, Queen Mother Sivagami (Krishnan) is soon to declare the new regent for the crown.

Baahubali, ever the outsider, has heroics and dashing good looks going for him while Bhallaladeva (Daggubati), the wily scion of Prime Minister Bijjaladeva (Nasser), stands to lose more if he does not play palace shenanigans. Enter the gorgeous Princess Devasena (Shetty), she who is romantically betrothed to Baahubali and who may be victimized by Bhallaladeva’s mischief making. No story this dramatic can end without a good fight. And sure enough, this vast chess game can only end in a winner-take-all cosmic battle.

Director Rajamouli and team bring to play often show-stopping and cutting edge theatrics and action sequences. Like with Hollywood’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Greek-era action entry 300—movies that Baahubali 2 brings to mind more than once, for the most part there is seamless interaction between mortal fighters and the fauna they encounter—be it horses, elephants, wild boars, gaurs or even bow and arrow. The action-sequences flow and are physically plausible. The palace riches shine with royal elegance and nifty waterfalls still flow.

So why the skittishness on my part, you ask? Well, Part 1 was fluid in just about every aspect—from the natural looks of the ethereal waterfalls to neon bright colors that looked ready to peel off the large screen to lead Prabhas’ studly muscle-flexing–alright, there was swooning in Part 1 when Prabhas’s Baahubali single-handedly and effortlessly hoisted up the massive stone Shiva lingam. In Part 2, those same elements—dressed up even spiffier appear a little flat and the animals just don’t move like they should. Also M. M Keeravani’s Part 2 score is good but not great. While T. Sreenidhi and V. Srisoumya’s “Kannaa Nidurinchara” and Daler Mehndi and Mounima’s “Saahore” are catchy, Part 2 has no signature hook that stands up to the rousing orchestra of the “Dhivara” number from Part 1. We want to be wowed and we end up settling for oh-that’s-very-nice instead.

From it’s infancy, Indian cinema culturally gravitated towards popular mythological stories that the masses could relate to. Early standout proto-Indian movies Raja Harishchandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917) and Sairandhri (1919) all borrowed elements of Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. For Bombay-based filmmaking, the love affair with Indian cultural standard-bearers lasted well into the last century and eventually transferred almost entirely to television. For film houses in southern India, however, the mythological well never quite dried up and the incredible success of the Baahubali franchise is testament to the vitality of that genre.

And how phenomenally it has paid off! Rolling out with a 9,000 screen global debut–by far the biggest ever for an Indian movie–Baahubali 2 has outdone even Baahubali 1. At press time, this cash cow has garnered approximately US $300 million (about 2 billion Indian Rupees) in four Indian languages—it was filmed in both Telugu and Tamil during the same filming and dubbed into Hindi and Malayalam versions. This massive box office take exceeds even the combined lifetime collections of the next three box office top ranking Indian movies, including Aamir Khan’s Dangal, which is now at No. 2.

The fit-for-a-thesis perfect alignment of incredible word of mouth, industry buzz, incessant promos and free publicity surrounding the ginormous loot that traded hands for pre-selling of satellite-TV rights transformed Baahubali 2 into that perfect craze–face it, it is a craze–where otherwise frugal cinema goes skipped, strolled or raced to line up to pay up to $40 in the US and a jaw-dropping $60 per ticket in some Indian multiplexes. Baahubali 2 has singlehandedly turned the economics of movie making in India topsy-turvy. This movie has changed Indian cinema!

EQ: A
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.         

Of Frescoes, Havelis and Adventure

Of Frescoes, Havelis and Adventure!

There was a faint whisper of a song coming from afar. Draped within the folds of a warm blanket, I strain my ears to try and catch the tune. I was ensconced n the warmth of an artistically decorated room adorned with frescoes within a refurbished century-old haveli (mansion). The chorus of voices that seemed to cascade towards me made me leave the comfort of my seat and I threw open the intricately carved jharokha (window). A chilly mid-December breeze touched the warmth of my cheeks. In the fresh dewy dawn, a group of women walked past the building singing spiritedly as they made their way to see the village deity.Outside of a haveli, Mandawa

Shekhaji of the Kachhwaha dynasty set out to establish his principality in the 15th century. Later his descendants set up small fiefdoms, which now comprise the Shekhawati region.

This serene start to the day in a room amidst artistic decor perked me up. I was staying at Vivaana, a haveli now transformed into a heritage hotel situated at Churi Ajitgarh in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. This and other surrounding villages in the region are known for their havelis with fresco-filled interiors built by Marwari traders during the late 19th century.

In this semi-arid land with sparse vegetation, people have compensated for the drab landscapes around them by filling their homes and lives with colorful attire and art. Rich merchants had the entire interiors of havelis resplendently arrayed with vibrant paintings featuring subjects ranging from mythology to modes of modern transportation.

Wall and ceiling frescoes in Vivanna, Churi Ajitgarh        We set out to explore the region. As we visit Nawalgarh and Mandawa, nondescript dusty towns hiding ancient history in their midst, I felt a little sad when I observed the nonchalance in the attitudes of the locals towards their inherited art.

My chance encounter with a local milk woman on a morning walk led me to her home. The spaciousness of the haveli in which she lived surprised me. I didn’t know whether she was the owner or merely the caretaker but I felt that she would not have been able to maintain such a big house.

The fading frescoes that I witnessed in her haveli revealed a silent story of despair that is writ on almost every haveli in Shekhawati. Most grand havelis are in a state of ruin, locked in inheritance disputes and largely forgotten. The smaller havelis can be adapted for living in a modern-day setting but even here the high cost of trying to match the natural colours in the frescoes serves as a deterrent to owners to keep up their maintenance.

Room in Vivawana, Chari Ajitgarh      In spite of these drawbacks, it is still fascinating to visit Shekhawati in Rajasthan to find some stunning frescoes which have stayed intact through the passage of time. A mere stroll down the street is enough to lead one on a path of joyous discovery.  It is no wonder since this region has earned the moniker of being an “open art gallery.”

Few havelis have been painstakingly restored to their former glory and are thrown open to the public as museums or heritage hotels. The muted brown landscape with peacocks preening around and sporting camels and horses for hire sets the stage for the rustic charm that one finds here

I visited this region over a weekend and the occasion coincided with my sister-in-law’s silver wedding anniversary. It was the perfect excuse for family and friends to get together. They drove down from Delhi while we drove down from Jaipur. As we left the traffic of the Pink City behind and hit the smooth highway I rolled down the car windows and loved the feel of cold wind against my face. The sweeping greenery slowly gave way to sporadic shrubs and trees of Keekar and Babool.

In about three hours we reached Nawalgarh and entered its main bazaar which remains reminiscent of bygone days. Roads narrowed down to single lanes and the cacophony of shouting hawkers, hagglers shopping for vegetables and honking auto rickshaws became louder. Bandhej sarees and lac bangles vied for attention with their deep bright colours while the shimmer and shine of copper utensils could not go unnoticed. Cattle ran astray, and dogs were yelping added to the noisy din. The bubbling oil in large kadhais from which hot jalebis were lifted and dunked in sugar syrup invaded my senses. I could not help wondering about all the Rajasthani delicacies that I would get to taste during my trip. Family bonding over daal baati churma, mangodi ki kadhi, mong daal ka pakoda and kulhad chai was just waiting to happen.

As I was wondering about the tasty meals that lay ahead, I was rudely jolted into the present because our car had gotten stuck in the narrow lanes of the bazaar. After a few minutes of difficult maneuvering, we reached a desolate stretch flanked on either side with grand havelis with frescoes on the outer walls. An auto rickshaw decorated in kitsch decorative frills and posters passed by.
We decided to walk down admiring the frescoes, some which were intact while some fresco images were peeping through peeling plaster. Taking a flight of stairs we were greeted by two paintings of santris (watchmen) at the imposing door of the Dr. Ramnath Anandilal Poddar Haveli Museum, one of the well-maintained havelis in town.

Rahul Singh Parihar, a cheerful guide, welcomed us. He guided us through the haveli built as a residence for the Poddar family. In  1935, they migrated to Bombay and Calcutta. Then, the haveli housed a school for forty years and now it is a museum of frescoes and Rajasthani cultural heritage. Rahul enlightened us about the etymology of the word haveli that means ‘the house of wind’ in Persian. Havelis typically have two to three courtyards opening one after another. The Poddar haveli had 750 frescoes ranging from mythology, royalty, Rajput legends, festivals and fairs (teej, gangaur, holi), floral motifs, pictures of animals, mundane scenes from everyday life to images of British colonizers. What caught my attention was a steam engine train with elegant coaches for British gentry.

When you visit Shekhawati in Rajasthan, you can find some stunning intact frescoes. A mere stroll down the street is enough to lead one on a path of joyous discovery.  It is no wonder since this region has earned the moniker of being an ‘open art gallery.’

The Poddar haveli had 750 frescoes ranging from images drawn from mythology, Rajput legends, festivals and fairs (teej, gangaur, holi), floral motifs, pictures of animals, mundane everyday scenes to images of British colonizers. What caught my attention was a steam engine train with elegant coaches for British gentry.

Frescoes in Nawalgarh

Could this region have boasted of a steam engine at that time? Explaining this discrepancy of a train being found amidst trradtional patterns and scenes, Rahul said that the artists who were from Nawalgarh were sent to Bombay so they could paint the latest visuals from a big city. The stories captured in frescoes could well be a social commentary of those times.

Rahul then led us to the baithak khana (sitting area) where the Marwari seths (merchants) transacted business. It had been recreated replete with a plush gadda (mattress) to sit and masnad (elongated pillows) to recline on. The intricately designed antique hookah and the cloth fan hanging from the ceiling added to the ambience of that era.

As Rahul tied red bandhani turbans on our heads to make us feel a part of the set up, he shared interesting trivia. In those days, the fan bearer used to always be a deaf man so that he could not hear anything about money or other matters. He showed us the secluded room where the merchants huddled to make secret negotiations. We were charmed by the beauty of the place but also felt sorry for the womenfolk who were confined to four walls in the zenana (women) wing of the haveli. The jharokhas were their mirror to the outside world. The realistically carved veiled bust of a woman in marble could well have been patterned after any of the ladies who lived there. Earthen utensils, woodwork, turbans, different schools of miniature paintings, bridal dolls of various castes and a room full of Gandhji’s memorabilia can be seen here.

Steam engine train fresco at Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh        From Nawalgarh we proceeded onwards towards Churi Ajitgarh where the family reunion was to be held. We looked forward to our stay in a haveli that exuded old world charm. Vivaana (which literally means “the first rays of the rising Sun” didn’t disappoint us. Earlier it was called the Nimani kothi but Atul Khanna, an arts heritage enthusiast and his wife Devna now own the haveli.

They recounted the innumerable trips they undertook scouring the entire Shekhawati region for their dream haveli till they chanced upon Vivaana. Acquiring a haveli was a challenging task as each building in Shekhawati has been passed on from generation to generation. There are multiple owners and disputed titles. One of the reasons that havelis fall apart is that no one has the exclusive responsibility or liability towards their upkeep and maintenance.

Looking back, it was Rao Shekhaji of Shekhawat sub clan belonging to the Kachwaha dynasty who set out to establish his principality in the 15th century. Later his descendants set up small fiefdoms, which now comprise the Shekhawati region.

When the old silk route of trading was in decline, the Marwaris from the desert migrated to Shekhawati in quest of burgeoning trade and soon prospered. In the early days of the 19th century they again migrated to emerging trade ports of Calcutta and Bombay with the encouragement of the British. They poured their wealth to add beauty to the havelis but never came back to enjoy the life there.

The Poddar, Birlas, Singhanias, Ruia, Khemka, Khaitan, Khandelwal, Maheshwari, Goenka and many other business families have roots here. The region is also famous for its chivalry, sacrifice, entrepreneurship, trading, farming, art and  culture and music. Many war veterans and soldiers in the military who belong to Rajput clans hail from here.

Traders had a special place for havelis just as Rajput chieftans felt towards their castles. These castles are also adorned with frescoes and many have been converted into hotels. We visited the Mandawa castle in Mandawa that was built by Thakur Nawal Singh in 1755.  It has antique armour, portraits of family and frescoes to see. The town once stood as a trading post in the Delhi-Bikaner route and prospered greatly. The 175 havelis with frescoes are relics drawn from that era.

It is not easy to restore havelis for it is a tedious and costly process. The point in case is Vivaana where many pillars were missing and wooden structures were broken. Pillars, windows and gates can be purchased from antique dealers. Atul said that there are also many old masons in the region who have inherited the art of making and reconstructing the haveli architecture. Under their guidance, the work force could restore these places retaining their authenticity.

Relaxing on its “Fresco lounge” sipping a refreshing chamomile tea I was told that it was discovered almost intact. There are also two rooms in the haveli having age-old erotic frescoes. However I was more intrigued by the steep narrow staircases that lead me to the  passage between the walls. A secret passage here and a jharokha there as antiques and curios lay scattered around.

Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer from India. She strives to bring about positive stories from across the country that gets published in leading publications in India. An explorer at heart she has a penchant to take a detour from touristy places or discover something offbeat in a tourist place.  

SRK Looms Large In “Raees”

Raees rides shamelessly on the tough and broad shoulders of Shahrukh Khan. Khan, being the dynamic performer he is, takes on the responsibility like a gallant hero but manages to save only as much as sheer presence and charisma can save, of an essentially lazily written film.

That is the main problem with the film. That it takes Shahrukh Khan and fails to make a mega event out of the proceedings. It is happy to keep everything and everyone except SRK ordinary, even the amazing Nawazuddin Siddiqui and lovely Mahira Khan. All eyes are on him, all spotlights on him and although he shines through, all guns blazing, thoroughly enjoying himself in a film best described as tepid, it’s not enough.

Despite being the hard-core mainstream, big-budget entertainer it is, Raees, the film somehow manages to forget that larger the star not only must larger be the mounting, but also the padding, and stronger must be the world he emerges from and merges into. If the world falls there is little the star and his star-power can do to save the ship except extract wolf whistles at isolated moments.

And this world that SRK as Raees inhabits is fortunately full of good actors but in generic roles, rendered almost useless in a generic world. From Mahira Khan who manages to hold her own opposite SRK, to the inimitable Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays the tough, upright cop exquisitely, to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub who infuses life into the staunchly loyal friend prototype – all these essential characters remain at the periphery and worse, generic.

SRK looms large, as he rightly should, but among a mayhem that is little more than a half-baked story about a bespectacled, bootlegging Robinhood who hates to be called ‘battery’ (coz of his specs) and launches into the usual Rohit Shetty style acrobatics to prove a point, which is his raw machismo. On that scale SRK gets full marks but stop to ask him what is this golden-hearted Raees all about and he’d probably look back at you with his kohl-rimmed eyes and simply mesmerise as you his comeback. That’s how the film works.

And it is really unfortunate because the mix does get interesting when he is pitted against Nawaz’ honest cop (even as Deewar plays in the background in the film). Nawaaz, with his foot firmly in his character and SRK in his own presence, spark off a rich potential of moments that fructify few and far between. Similarly, he strikes a refreshing chemistry with the much-younger Mahira Khan who is every bit as vibrant as him but without a character or arc that would raise any level of interest in her presence in the film.

It’s been a while since our films have changed and a while since Shahrukh has changed too. But the more Shahrukh changes the more he remains the same. That’s the joy of it and the pain of it too, and it shows up both ways in Raees.

Producers – Farhan Akhtar, Gauri Khan, Ritesh Sidhwani

Director – Rahul Dholakia

Writers – Rahul Dholakia, Harit Mehta, Niraj Shukla, Ashish Vashi

Cast – Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahira Khan

Music – Ram Sampath

This review first appeared in Indian Entertainment Online

Love In A Time Of War

ANIL’S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje. Alfred A. Knopf. 312 pp. $25.

Anil Tissera has many enigmatic qualities as the protagonist in Ondaatje’s first novel since The English Patient. Since my parents gave me the same first name, the most salient enigma for me was that Tissera is female while I am not. So, I went to hear Ondaatje read from the book primarily to have my question about the name answered. I need not have bothered. The explanation, an important clue to her character, is in the book. Without giving away the answer let me say that Ondaatje who emigrated from his native Sri Lanka to Canada, has come up with another clear winner, a tale of love in a time of war.

Tissera, a forensic pathologist by trade, is sent to Sri Lanka by an international agency to investigate human rights abuses. She is in many ways a sensitive female alter ego for Ondaatje himself. Both are Sri Lankan by birth; both emigrated at a young age to the West, Tissera to the U.S., Ondaatje to Canada. Tissera returns as an outsider who knows many things local intimately but is unwilling to accept all the norms and values of a culture to which she has a natural claim. Ondaatje returns as the writer researching his story and characters. He lives Anil’s naiveté and expertise, her enthusiasm and fear. To compare their experiences, one fictitious another real, is to go through a brain-warping juxtaposition of the writer and his alter ego.

The book appealed to me at different levels. Up front it is bound to invoke the themes of The English Patient. War, in this case the civil war, in Sri Lanka is the backdrop. There is love but it is all messed up with the bloody and often senseless carnage. Bombs blow up without notice. People disappear. And no one appears to be able to offer solace. In the end each is left to find one’s own peace. This is as haunting as it gets and it may be too much for some readers.

Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka of mixed Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage, moved to Canada while still in his teens and made Toronto his home. Anil lets him go back not just physically but spiritually and in that it is a first for the author. His earlier books have had little to do with Sri Lanka. The only thing that carries over from his other books is his style. If Ondaatje’s work were music it would probably sound like jazz. Although his narrative is more accessible than the Rushdiesque flights of fantasy, his story-telling does jump scales. At his Toronto reading he confessed that his novels are seldom written from the beginning to the end. The vignette that opens the book and tells of a young Tissera searching for bones in the jungles of Guatemala came to him half way through the book. Writing, he says, is an exploration, and some of it is as much a revelation to him as it is to the character or the reader.

In The English Patient style, there are several main characters. I like this feature of Ondaatje novels. It cuts across the grain of popular mainstream culture in which Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter) tries to pour all stories into a boy-meets-girl mould. The love interest is the main story and everything else is relegated to the background. (The wildly successful English Patient the moviesuffered this fate by having its four main book characters reduced to two main movie characters.) There are many ghosts in Anil’s story. There is Sarath, a forty-something local anthropologist who has lost his wife through neglect and war; Gamini, the doctor and brother to Sarath, who must conduct meatball surgery in twenty-four-hour shifts and look the other way when inexplicable wounds show up at the hospital; there is Ananda the unhappy artist whose wife disappeared. Ananda, once a renowned painter of Buddha’s eyes, an honour bestowed only on a chosen few, now searches for his lost wife in the faces of the missing that he is commissioned to reconstruct. Another haunting character is the great teacher-philosopher Palipana who is part sage, part intellectual and part a power-wielding autocrat. But by the time we meet him he is near the end of his journey living in the forest with a teenaged orphaned niece. Now nearly blind, a man who never lost a showdown, is negotiating the final stages of his exit. Ondaatje lets us meet each in depth and there is a profound sense of loss when we are parted.

The plot revolves around a victim, nicknamed the Sailor, whose bones have been found and need to be identified to see if human rights abuses took place. To people familiar with the excesses of the Sri Lankan civil war, this is no cliff hanger. No big deal. Abuses are common on both sides or rather on all sides. To bring home the point, Ondaatje injects a lesson from the European holocaust that “to name Sailor is to name them all.” Thus, it is a big deal and in the end a rather heavy price is paid.

At another level, Anil’s Ghost succeeds as few other books have in telling a story set in the third world in the voice of an insider-outsider. Although English writers from South Asia have made a big splash in the last twenty-five years by winning the highest awards, few have offered new insights about South Asia in particular and the third world in general. Naipaul’s lens is, by his own admission, western in its perspective. Rushdie’s and Seth’s stories are largely about the middle class. Other writers dwell on the poverty, squalor and social injustices. Ondaatje, a writer who researches his characters and topics with the zeal of a graduate student defending a doctoral dissertation, gives us a feel for this far away place and its problems without dismissing it all as vagaries of the third world. Neither do his subjects lecture each other on how things are done in the West. Anil’s Ghost tells us about the fight for human rights at a human level. It is a masterly work that should find a prominent place on history’s bookshelves.

Anil Verma lives and teaches in Toronto.