By Abhishek Jha:
I had established by this afternoon that there exists a literary feud between Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Blame it on the extra onion that was chopped into my food. Perhaps bitterness in food made way into my life, like chutneys spill over in the writing of Midnight’s Children.
Back in 2008, Rushdie and Ghosh had both published a novel and were nominated for the Man Booker Prize. However, while Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was on the shortlist, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence could only make it to the longlist. Ghosh is shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year and is coming up with the final instalment of the Ibis trilogy. If my prayers are answered, Flood of Fire will get a chance to spar with Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (which is Rushdie’s next) at the Man Booker. It’s a petty quarrel that the onion has made me imagine and I am unable to settle it. (Even when I took Rushdie’s word for the highly contested fact that Cambridge people are taller than those at Oxford and hoped that he would beat Oxford Ghosh, I couldn’t arrive at a conclusion.)
As the two new books fight for your attention span, awards and adulation, let me lend you spades and sickles for the fight. Rushdie’s book is going to be out in September and Ghosh’s in May and, one might say, the race has already begun.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which is Rushdie for One Thousand and One Nights, looks like another quintessential Rushdie novel. “A baby identifies corruption with her mere presence” in the story for instance. Real presence often signifies abstract notions and vice versa in magic realism, and we are going to see quite a lot of it presumably. It’s a novel, we are told, about the children of Dunia- a jinn princess- and her lover, “a mortal man of reason.” Salman is supposedly turning the last dregs of swashbuckling left in him into a tempered magical sword that will fight his feuds in ages to come, for in the novel “words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.” Rushdie, now a regular at free speech debates, has had his share of trouble with words. Now that he has successfully penned down a memoir about his fatwa days and BBC has done two documentaries on it, it is not strange to see the scrap, shavings, and essential fumes get fictionalised.
Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, on the other hand, is the climactic finale of the build-up to the Opium Wars, which brings together an Indian sepoy, an impoverished young American sailor, and a widow on a ship travelling from Bengal to China. A war rages between China and Britain “following the crackdown on opium smuggling by Beijing.” On the sea and in a war – expect thrill. His characters may populate a bygone century, but perhaps it is the medium of a novel and the nature of history that has made the previous two instalments of the trilogy relevant to even young audiences, through the lens of neo-colonialism perhaps. Flood of Fire is a descendant of two earlier books and should inherit its fan-following.
Booksellers might say that each of them have carved their own niche, they are equally good, and so on. But fans and readers expecting new books will draw swords if so much as their names are uttered in the same breath. Luckily for them, the bitter onion has made me put the heavyweights together in a ring. Let the readers draw blood.