In spite of its global spread, English is a language that has been predominantly used to discuss issues of Anglo-centric concern. Most often the native tongue of nations of ethnic and cultural variety, books in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and to some extent South Africa remain rooted in British ideology and the innate historical context. Translations trickle through the publishing industry’s woodwork, but the concerns of non-English speaking countries, particularly the East, remain vacuums of culture to the majority of the English language audience. Producing an ever greater number of quality writers in the English language, India, however, is an exception. Among the first to gain critical success across the seas, Amitav Ghosh is one such author, and The Circle of Reason, published in 1986, is his debut novel.
The Circle of Reason is the story of Alu, an orphan living in the small village of Lalpukur in Eastern India. Possessing an extraordinarily lumpy head, he immediately becomes a point of fascination for his uncle Balram, a self-proclaimed phrenologist with something of Ghandi’s eccentricism in him. Coming to learn the trade of weaving, the surrounding events and people of Lalakpur move in and out of Alu’s life like the loom shuttle he so expertly wields. The phlegmatic Shombhu Debnath and more vivacious Toru Debi are integral parts of his everyday life as much as the bicycle repairmen, policeman, and schoolmaster of the village. Lalakpur turned on its head one day by the mounting ideological differences between Balam and the village’s leader, Bhudep Roy, the story takes a surprising turn when Alu is forced to find a new home.
This description of the opening third of The Circle of Reason only begins to describe the color and salience of Alu’s youth. Lalakpur home to a variety of characters, the corners of the reader’s mouth will continually be turned upwards reading of Balram’s crazy tirades and Bhudeb Roy’s equally illogical reactions. The episodes picaresque enough, that Ghosh imbues the narrative with a sense of the believable-unbelievable only heightens the feel of life in the village. In the vein of South American writers who have used the magic realist mode of fantasy to discuss European imperialism, colonialism, and the remnants thereof, so too does Ghosh use the mode to outlay Indian concerns in the post-colonial era, gravity eventually pulling the novel into the waters of tragedy.
Like Nabokov, Conrad, Ishiguro, and other successful writers for whom English is a secondary language, Ghosh shows himself in full command. Better than many successful writers in the US and UK, he controls and colors the narrative, telling a multi-layered story in a rich, competent hand. In fact, as his later novels would prove, Ghosh has something of a knack for language, presenting idiosyncrasies of character and dialogue in native form. The Circle of Reason can thus be wholly enjoyed on the surface alone.
But what gives the novel its value is the themes beneath. Concerned with his native India, Ghosh starts with the symbolism inherent to Lalakpur’s weavers. A solid if not well-worn trope of literary fiction (venial for a writer’s debut, in my opinion), Ghosh advances the metaphor along cultural lines in telling Alu’s tale. Ethnic history the subject, Alu takes India with him to the countries and places he eventually calls home, intertwining his past with his present. Whether it’s in the form of the small communities of emigrants he encounters, the memories of his youth, or the literary and cultural events he becomes a participant to, at all times India shades his life in varying hues.
But as can be inferred from the title, logic is the main theme of The Circle of Reason. Starting with the ‘epic’ wars of words and deeds between Balram and Bhudep, and shifting into environments more politically and socially charged, at all times Ghosh examines the relationship between rationale and the reality it participates in. One tangible and the other not, Ghosh’s usage of magic realism to complement this thematic outlay is a delicious literary touch that elevates the novel above the average. As it would be spoil matters to further discuss events in Alu’s life, suffice to say the middle and final sections of the novel only dig deeper into the interplay of the two, up to and including the usage of myth.
In the end, The Circle of Reason is a quality book fully utilizing the mode of magic realism to tell the story of a young boy’s coming to terms with life and the rationale of life. A mix of enthusiastic, brooding, rebellious, proud, and vibrant characters, his development is informed by all manner of humanity. That the setting evolves underfoot, from India to places beyond, only adds color to a parrot of a story. Readers who enjoy magic realism, books like Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, would do well to give Ghosh’s debut novel a try.