The books I read during the IPL

Archive for May, 2013

A sponsor for our project.

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It’s been a great week for this little project. LINC pens have come on board as a sponsor and we now have half of the money that is needed to fund the library. LINC have also committed to providing stationery to the project to facilitate the learning aspect that this library intends to provides.

GOAL have been great in identifying a specific project and the Khanaberia Free Primary School has been selected as the beneficiary of this first project. This is a school in the Dumping ground situated near our team hotel in Kolkata. I went along with Morgs last year to see what great work was already being done for the kids who live on the dump.

The costing has been done and we have approved the go ahead of equipping the school with a library cum Resource Learning Centre.This centre will help the children from the primary to the secondary level to gain knowledge and upgrade their learning through different books and educational CDs. The children of the secondary section will be able to solve various test papers which are extremely useful before appearing for board exams. The children of the primary section will develop the base of the learning and will be exposed to a world of knowledge.

It’s going to be very exciting to see this all come together. Hopefully it is the first of many such initiatives.  This is a quote from a great author Katherine Boo : “If we can’t have perfect solutions to profoundly complex problems, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements.” I feel that each book that becomes available in this library will be an incremental step in improving someone’s life.

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The Eyes of Venice by Alessandro Barbero

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The Eyes of Venice by Alessandro Barbero

Having been to Venice myself I was excited to see this book on one of my favourite author’s recommended lists. The Eyes of Venice is set in the 16th century, at a time when the Republic is experiencing a famine and living conditions are tough for the poor. Barbero is  exceptional in setting the scene and placing the reader in the city as it would have been 450 years ago. The churches, houses, squares, canals, bridges, markets, ships and gondolas as well as the people of the time are vividly described and have an ancient authenticity to them.

The story starts when a newly arrived Albanian apprentice has a fatal fall from the scaffolding on the site of a stone mason named Matteo. Along with his son Michele, Matteo is doing some building  work for Sir Giralamo Lippomano, a wealthy nobleman. In these tough times labourers seem marginalised and underpaid but Matteo is portrayed as a fair and caring employer and he feels the pain of the young Albanian’s death.

When the scrupulous Lippomano puts a sudden end to the building project and quibbles over paying for the completed work, Matteo is frustrated and vents his anger over the oppression of the state and its wealthy senators over the ordinary citizens of Venice. In a finely poised state, when a class struggle looms ala French Revolution style, the Senate is keen to make an example of anyone threatening the balance of imbalance.

Without work and desperate for money, father and son go off to sell their remaining bricks to another stone mason. Here they are stopped and when an officer tries to search them for weapons, the frustrated Matteo punches one of the men and is subsequently himself assaulted by the police. He ends up falling into one of the city’s canals and after unsuccessfully trying to help his father Michele runs off in an attempt to evade arrest. When cornered, he is forced to board a vessel and pretend to be onboard to take up a job as an oarsmen. Uncertain of his father’s fate and having left a young bride at home without notice, he sets off with the crew of a merchant ship, having no idea about life at sea.

Life on the galley is tough, even for a physically abled bricklayer like Michele. When the ship stops on a small island for restocking, two of the crew try make off with some precious cargo ; a purse of coins which was an absolute fortune at the time. The ship’s officers capture and murder the thieves, burying both the bodies and the treasure, and report falsely that the thieves escaped with the purse. Michele witnesses the whole episode from the cover of darkness. Michele becomes a suspect and is torn between standing up to the officers and reporting what he saw or feigning ignorance with the hope of retrieving the treasure after returning to Venice on completion of the voyage.

Matteo’s death and Michele’s absconding have left his mother and young wife to fend for themselves at home. Barbero gives a great insight into how tough life was for the poorer people of the Republic around this time. From losing their home, to going hungry, to struggling to afford firewood and clothes to keep warm, we see how their desperation is preyed on by some evil people with selfish intentions. Bianca is intent on not becoming a prostitute and ends up doing a variety of jobs, even turning to begging at one point, to keep herself from starving.

Meanwhile, an order of banishment with Michele’s name on it arrives on the ship. The parone of the ship takes a liking to Michele and plans his escape and hiding, aswell as finding a new ship to take him on. Without knowing it, he also saves Michele from being murdered so that any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the missing treasure do not cause problems down the line. Michele’s new vessel of employment is a pirate ship where the majority of rowers are convicts and all rowers are chained to the benches. The author gives a vivid account of the brutality of pirate life as raids and murders are carried out with the least care of though for the victims.

Barbero uses many peripheral characters to add variety to the story. Turks, Jews and Christians work alongside each other. Villainous characters that rape, pillage and murder during raids on ships and villages are balanced with more caring beings. There is a constant undertone of the fight for national supremacy between the Italians, the Greeks, the Venetians and the Turks. When a raid on a Turkish village goes wrong it is all but the Muslim and Jewish oarsmen and sailors who are spared. Michele is at the mercy of the two  oarsmen with whom he shared a bench on the ship and with some help from some Jewish merchants they escape slavery and head to Nicosia as free men.

Illness, starvation, disease and violence are daily challenges that face the poor. But Bianca has a change in fortune when she is placed in the service of Lady Clarice, the wife of a wealthy and influential member of Venetian nobility. Lady Clarice takes a liking to Bianca who in time becomes her chambermaid. It is ironically Bianca’s peasant knowledge of childbirth that helps The Lady to finally give birth to a family heir after an excruciatingly difficult labor.In the meantime Bianca has fallen into the desires of a controlling and deceitful spice merchant who has managed to scare her into moving in with him. Lady Clarice not only comes to her rescue but when she hears Bianca and Michele’s full story she also promises to use her husband’s influence to gain a pardon for Michele.

In a game of political chess,Sir Lorenzo (Lady Clarice’s husband) is sent to Constantinople where a  Senator of the Republic is cheating the books and profiting from the export of grain to Venice. This thief is none other than the heartless Sir Lippomano who unjustly dismissed and refused to pay Matteo, starting the family’s fall into despair. Barbero, after using so many characters and taking the story from port to port across the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, is a master at bringing the story together in a way that is easy to follow. The subtle link between all the characters is easily understandable and he maintains the reader’s interest throughout the book.

News of the secret mission to arrest and return Sir Lippomamo to Venice had reached his people and an envoy was hurriedly sent to intercept Sir Lorenzo’s party and to make sure that Lippomano avoids arrest. The progress of the  respective voyages are played out in a cat and mouse chase through the interaction with various leaders and merchants to secure a safe passage to Constantinople . I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see if the kind-hearted Michele would be spared and the villainous Lippomano would get what he deserved.  The land of the Turks is as vividly depicted as Venice. Walled cities with fortified castles, minarets, markets and camels are all used to give an authentic feel to the trading ports of the time. The journey by land is slow and arduous and the constant threat of ambush adds to the tension.

On arrival in Constantinople Sir Lorenzo replaces Lippomano as the bailo or ambassador to the region. Lippomano is unsure of whether his grain profiting scam is known to the Venetian authorities and reluctantly agrees to go back to try clear his name. Michele has also made his way to Constantinople and approaches Sir Lorenzo to explain his story and to tell him of the lost treasure that belongs to the Republic. To his amazement Sir Lorenzo realises that Michele is the husband of his wife’s chambermaid and that he knows of this story and has already obtained a pardon. As fate would have it Michele and Lippomamo are bound for Venice on the same ship.

But the emerging of the truth is an inconvenience to certain members of the senate and Michele is arrested upon returning to Venice. An investigation is launched and when the police search the island there is no sign of the hidden treasure. The corpses of the two oarsmen were however found to lend some credibility to Michele’s Story. Family reputations, political interests and the owing of favours make it difficult for Michele to clear his name and the Council of decision makers are intent on covering up the scandal to protect the nephew of one of it’s members. In a male dominated society it is Lady Clarice who has the courage to insist on the truth overcoming convenience and it is by her persuasion that Michele is freed and the guilty nephew and his accomplice are sent to Constantinople for punishment.

This book is a fine piece of historical fiction. The scenes are authentic for the time period and the author gives a fantastic human account of life from various social perspectives. At the same time it is a great story that flows easily and builds steadily to its climax. The Eyes of Venice is a brilliant mix of the physical battles of men and ships at sea with the less tangible political, social and economic battles for power and influence on land. It is a fantastic book that i would highly recommend.

Narcopolis; Jeet Thayil

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

In a side alley off a busy road, nestled between fruit sellers, tea counters, street vendors and a collection of brothels is Rashid’s Opium den. Men lie on their backs in the silence of dark rooms, slowly smoking away as life continues on the bustling streets of the metropolis. Narcopolis is a no holds barred look at the drug and prostitution scene of  Bombay from the 70’s to the 90’s.

The central character is Dimple. After being gelded at a young age, she is given away to an unspecified priest by her mother. Still a young ‘girl’ she ends up in a brothel in Mumbai and is put to work. She is introduced to Opium use by Mr Lee, a chines refugee, as a means to dealing with the pains of brothel life. On his death she inherits his family’s magnificent ancient opium pipe with which she secures a job in Rashid’s place. Dimple moves between gender, religion, occupation and even names and is a useful character to explore the diversity of the city.

The story is based around her interactions with a variety of other characters, all connected by their common desire for drugs. I particularly enjoyed Mr Lee, through whom we get to learn of life in Mao’s China and of his experience of being in the army. Mr Lee eventually escapes communist China and ends up living in Bombay.  Ironically after being a source of healing for Dimple, Mr Lee dies in her care, bitter and lonely in a foreign land.

Over time, Dimple lives at Rashid’s house and although he has many wives he uses her for his sexual enjoyment. We also see a shift in the drug scene as Rashid’s and many other opium dens are shut down and the far more potent and dangerous heroin takes root in Bombay. In a bid to avoid the shutting down of the den, a suspected agitator is threatened with a death that could easily be blamed on the Patha Maar or stone killer. This refers to an unsolved case where mainly homeless people were killed by having their heads crushed with a large rock while sleeping. This horrific crime epitomises the struggle of the cities poorest.

Thayil also brings to our attention the frightening memories of the religious riots that gripped the city in the early nineties. The associated fear had left people staying indoors and transformed the city into a ghost town. Fruit and vegetable supplies had been crippled but chemicals were always readily available. The infiltration of heroin into the market and an increase in violence in the story coincide as the author describes some horrific beatings and murders.

The book is a collection of stories, told by a variety of story tellers, all linked together by their addiction to narcotics. Pimps, abusive husbands, drug dealers, tourists, and even a famous poet are infused into this tale of drugs above all else. Strong friendships are developed but this line is quite pertinent: ‘We had once been friends, but I’d never thought of coming to see her or to ask after her. There was always some sort of crisis, a crisis every day, and heroin trumped friendship every time’. Naturally with the topic at hand, many relationships are also inappropriate, false and destructive.

The narration is interspersed by word for word accounts of the drug users thoughts during a ‘hit’. It is a fantasy/reality account of these trips where inanimate objects come to life and the users have conversations with the dead. It is an insightful account of how drugs muddle the mind and why they are a popular source for escaping unpleasant realities.

While possibly being a good reflection of the city of the time, the book didn’t match up to my experiences of this city as I know it today. While its worthy to note that 25 years is a long time, I expected the book to give me more of a sense of the vibrancy and energy that Bombay had back in the day. As much as I enjoyed the controversial subject and the informal style of writing, I have read other books on Mumbai where the authors portray the sights, sounds and even the smells of the city in a way that got me excited about the place. I expected more stories about the city, with possibly less of a focus on just the drug scene.