Monday, October 18, 2010

Male Monday: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts by Bali Rai 2009

Doubleday/Random House UK

Rating: 3.5/5

IQ (Incredible Quote) "'Education is a funny thing. Ask yourself who is teaching you, what they are schooling you in and what reason they have for doing so.' [...] But do you really learn the truth or simply another person's version of it?" [The Woman]

Guardial shrugged. 'I learn what I am told to learn,' he admitted.

'Well , next time you learn something, ask yourself why you did so and in whose interest.'" The Woman pg. 235

It's the year 1919 in Amritsar, India. Tensions between the Punjabi people and the British are at an all time high. Set against this backdrop are several stories. Guardial is a poor orphan in love with Sohni, a rich girl. Jeevan, Guardia's best friend (and also an orphan) simply wants to be loved, to feel that he is a part of a family and he will do anything to be part of one. Bissen Singh has returned from serving in World War I and now he is waiting for a letter. That letter will change his life, for better or worse. All will come to head the day the Amritsar Massacre occurs and not everyone will live to the end of the day.

I love historical fiction so I don't mind lots of facts being thrown at me, but with this book, I didn't feel as though I got enough facts. I vaguely recalled the Rowlatt Act from freshman World History class, but I had to go look it up to really get my head around it. I think the Rowlatt Act (passed by the British in 1919 and it allowed the police to jail anyone for up to two years without trial) should have been explained since it seems to be the catalyst for the riots which eventually lead to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. I didn't get a good idea of what the political atmosphere was like for India. Yes there were extremists, but what about everyone else? I also didn't feel that all the characters were well-developed. I don't much about Sohni or Lillian. The book is long enough that more character/personality descriptions should have been included. This might be part of the reason as to why I didn't really like Guardial and Sohni's story. I didn't understand why Guardial or Sohni were so special to each other. My least favorite thing about this book is that too much was going on. I couldn't keep all the characters and events straight (why did Udham shoot O'Dwyer and not Dyer?). Why is Udham even in the story? I think some of the characters and even a storyline could be removed (I propose Guardial's).

My favorite parts was anytime Bissen Singh was in the picture. He is my favorite character and his story was devastating (both romantically and with his addiction). I became emotionally invested in his story and so naturally I wanted him to succeed. I love how the author addresses the issue of why Bissen Singh would volunteer to fight for the British, people who treat him as inferiors. Bissen doesn't understand why himself, but his reasoning has something to do with the hope that the British will treat Indians better by saving how brave they are during the war. Alas this is not the case for all British people, but I imagine that several British soldiers came away with a different (more positive) view of Indians. There is an obvious connection between the large amount of Indian participation in fighting for Britain in WWI and the large number of Black Americans who fought for America in World War I (along with WWII for both Indians and Blacks). Bissen's love story is adorable and the ending was probably one of the most upsetting ones I've read in awhile (maybe I'm becoming more of a sap?). I was completely engrossed in Jeevan's story as well, in his quest to find his family ink he he begins to struggle to hold on to his humanity. He is engaging in horrific acts that he didn't think he was capable of, and yet he his "family" accepts him.

The strength of City of Ghosts lies in the main characters and their stories. The surrounding characters are not as well developed, but that's OK for two of the three personal stories being told (Bissen and Jeevan). I have mixed feelings about the use of magical realism in this novel. At times I really liked it, it was well written and bewitching (;), however at other times I grew frustrated because I wanted more explanation (the whole Love saving thing vs. the Chinaman?). While I wanted more history, I did like the bits of history that were sprinkled in. Learning that one third of the soldiers who fought in World War I were not white was rather amazing and the war parts were tastefully described. They gave you a feel for the setting and they didn't dance around the awfulness of war, but they weren't overly graphic either (at least I didn't think so. But my dad loves watching war movies and I've seen a few that are waaay more graphic. It sort of depends on how much you "like" reading about war). Even though I think the author tried to do too much with this story, I would recommend it to those who already know a lot about this time period (I suppose it could pique your interest if you're new to this time period in India) and its affect on India and if you like magical realism. I do want to read more by this author, but one of his contemporary works.

Disclosure: Received for review from Random House UK. Thank you!

PS Just a point of clarification. I know Indians don't count as "Asians" to some people but to make things easier for everyone, I've decided to classify all books that take place on the continent of Asia as Asian. I truly hope this doesn't bother anyone and if it really is a problem, let me know.


  1. Bissen was my favourite too. The authors note says he's the central character who the story evolved around and I'd really like a whole novel about Indian troops fighting in WWI.

  2. Not that I'm Asian - Indian or otherwise - but in the UK I think I'm right in saying that it's common for 'Asian' to include Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan people (for example). In fact, it's MORE usual for us to say Asian and mean Indian, etc. than to mean Chinese, etc. My good friend, V, identifies as British-Asian, and he's of Indian heritage.

    I've often noticed how this is different in the US, where 'Asian' seems to more commonly include East Asians such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean people.

    Just something I'm interested in, so thought I'd give my view. Obviously, this is just my own perception and experience (second-hand, from friends and loved ones), and I'm sure not everyone feels the same! :)


  3. @Jodie-I saw that at the end as well and it totally made sense. I would like that as well, we should start dropping hints ;)

    @Kaz-That's really interesting, and you're absolutely right concerning the U.S. view. Here, "Asian" refers to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

    I wonder why Indian and Pakastani people are ferferred to as Asian in the U.S., but not so here?


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