Monday, 29 February 2016

No Ghosts in This City

(February 2016)

A slim and brutal volume of short stories in and about the Indian state of Assam. If, as I was, you are a little hazy on the details, Assam is in the North East of the country, in that strange island of India wedged above Bangladesh, and almost entirely sundered from the rest of the country except for a slim corridor along the Brahmaputra.
The cartographic awkwardness is the result of, and testament to, the fraught colonial and postcolonial history of the region. No Ghosts in This City makes it abundantly clear that these conflicts are not safely consigned to the past. How Assam’s residents cope with such relentless strife is a, the, key concern of the book and it doesn’t make for particularly happy reading. It shares a few notable similarities with A Killing in the Sun, both in the way that seems to attach more blame to ‘local’ elites than their previous colonial overlords, and the pervading sense of powerlessness in the face of incontestable forces.

Sometimes I wondered how people could take living under the shadow of constant violence so casually (p. 114)

But live they do, and while the book lack’s Killing’s fantastical elements, its grounding in the real makes the situations it describes all the more harrowing. The quote above comes from “The Hills of Haflong”, which is by far and away the most ‘optimistic’ story in the collection and opens with the narrator considering throwing herself off a cliff.

The other key way Ghosts differs from Killing* is foregrounding women’s narratives. Zubaan is “an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi”, and so into all the ethnic and religious strife we can throw gender politics as well. Though obviously they’re pretty much indivisible at the best of times. This is not the best of times.

They could not stay in a city that I discovered had lost its soul and drowned in a cacophony of disinterested silence. Silences that saw but turned away from the real live ghosts of the land: people – just alive – who would have been better off as ghosts and who are alive only because they could not all be killed. (“No Ghosts in This City” p. 47)

In her afterword the author talks about her search for “small sparks of light” that “dispel the demons in our souls”, and in all honesty those sparks are conspicuous by their absence. Though I also suspect that your ability to detect sparks, to dispel the darkness, is heavily conditioned by your background and context. For all its pessimism, this book never comes across as unnecessary or egregious; it is, above all things, honest.

*I don’t quite know why I’ve fallen into comparing these two books, as I’m probably doing a disservice to both in doing so. Mea Culpa.

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