A New York Times Notable Book: A policeman chases a falsely accused man on a wild journey around the world in this “utterly involving” novel (The Sunday Times).
When eight-year-old Nachiketa Bose first arrives in the East Bengali village of Lalpukur, he receives the name Alu—potato—for the size and shape of his extraordinary head. His uncle Balaram, the local schoolmaster and phrenology enthusiast, sends Alu to apprentice as a weaver, and the boy soon surpasses the skill of his master. But when a tragic bombing leaves Alu suspected of terrorism, he flees across India to Bombay and the Arabian Sea, followed all the way by the dogged policeman—and avid ornithologist—Jyoti Das.
From East Bengal to the Persian Gulf and North Africa, Amitav Ghosh’s wild and extraordinary novel “follows in the footsteps of magical realists like Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie” (The New York Times Book Review).
“A novelist of dazzling ingenuity.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A Scheherezade effortlessly spinning tales within tales, the possessor of a strong narrative voice quite like no other.” —Newsday
“Ghosh’s writing soars, producing electric images.” —The Baltimore Sun
“A wonderful mix of magic and horror, wit and curiosity . . . Ghosh has really woven a fresh world for us to visit.” —Providence Sunday Journal
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The boy had no sooner arrived, people said afterwards, than Balaram had run into the house to look for the Claws.
There were plenty of people gathered outside the big house to vouch for it — boys in buttonless shorts, toothless, shrouded widows, a few men who had not found work for the day, squatting and scratching. Toru-debi threatened and scolded, but not one of them budged. It was not every day that someone new arrived in Lalpukur. Especially in such unusual circumstances (everyone knew them, of course).
Years later — thirteen to be exact — when people talked about all that had happened, sitting under the great banyan tree in the centre of the village (where Bhudeb Roy's life-size portrait had once fallen with such a crash), it was generally reckoned that the boy's arrival was the real beginning. Some said they knew the moment they set eyes on that head. That was a little difficult to believe. But, still, it was an extraordinary head — huge, several times too large for an eight-year-old, and curiously uneven, bulging all over with knots and bumps.
Someone said: It's like a rock covered with fungus. But Bolai-da, who had left his cycle-repair shop and chased the rickshaw which was bringing Toru-debi and the boy home from the station, all the way to the house on his bamboo-thin bandy legs, wouldn't have that. He said at once: No, it's not like a rock at all. It's an alu, a potato, a huge, freshly dug, lumpy potato.
So Alu he was named and Alu he was to remain, even though he had another name, finely scriptural — Nachiketa. Nachiketa Bose. But Alu was all that he was ever known as, and nobody could deny its appropriateness.
It was remarkably apt, as Bolai-da said — a little too apt, if anything — that Balaram, who had for so many years spent all his spare time measuring and examining people's heads, should have a nephew who had the most unusual head anybody had ever seen. No wonder he had run inside as soon as he set eyes on the boy (though he could have waited a bit since the boy was, after all, coming to live with him).
People were sorry for the boy, of course. It was barely a week since he had lost his mother and his father (Balaram's brother) in a car accident. It was hard after a shock like that to go away to live with an unknown aunt and uncle.
It was common knowledge that the boy had not met Balaram, his own uncle, ever before. Balaram and his brother had never so much as exchanged a letter since the day, fourteen years before Alu arrived in Lalpukur, when Balaram took his share of their inheritance and moved to the village — without so much, as his brother shouted after him, as a thought for the floundering family business. Later, with that vicious prescience peculiar to close relatives, he had even left instructions in his will that Balaram was not to be told of his death, nor asked to attend the funeral. But, as people told their children, nodding wisely, death chooses its own ironies: in the end it was to Balaram that his orphaned and more or less destitute son had to go.
And after all that to be faced with an unknown uncle bearing down on you with what looked like gigantic eagle's talons!
Actually, it was only Balaram's Claws. The villagers through long familiarity knew it to be harmless; but, still, they also knew it was little less than terrifying when seen for the first time. It was a kind of instrument, with three arms of finely planed and polished wood, each tapering to a sharp point at one end and joined to the others by a calibrated hinge. Balaram had designed it himself, soon after he discovered Phrenology. It had been made for him in Calcutta, at considerable expense. But, for all that, it was a simple instrument; merely a set of calipers, for measuring skulls. Only, at first sight, it looked as though it had been specially designed for gouging out eyes.
As Balaram advanced with the Claws held out in front of him, the boy shrank back, his knees shaking beneath his starched black shorts. Luckily for him, at that very moment Toru-debi turned towards the house after paying off the rickshaw. One look at the Claws and she knew exactly what was happening. She bounded up the four steps to the door with a cry, and snatched the instrument out of her husband's hands. He dropped his head, crestfallen, and ran his fingers through his thick white hair. Again? she cried, herding him into the house. You've started again? And on your own nephew, even before he's stepped into the house?
She came back to fetch the boy only after she had shut Balaram safely into his study. The boy was standing on the steps in front of the door, staring silently with his large wondering eyes, at the people gathered outside and the swaying coconut palms and fields of green rice beyond. She took him by the hand and led him into the house, and with one last angry gesture at the people outside she barred the door behind her.
But once he was inside the house she panicked. Tugging him across the courtyard towards the smoky, soot-blackened kitchen on the other side, she shouted: Nonder-ma, Nonder-ma.
Nonder-ma hobbled out of the kitchen mumbling toothlessly, bent almost double, no more than a few withered bones, with her widow's white homespun wrapped so carelessly around her that her dugs flapped outside, hanging down to her shrunken waist. Give him milk, give him milk, Toru-debi cried. She remembered that children are said to like milk. Muttering and complaining, Nonder-ma handed him a brass tumbler; and then, thrusting her face forward till he could see the grey flecks in her eyes, she examined him minutely. Liverish, she muttered. Look at his eyelids. Probably constipated, too.
The boy put the tumbler down and looked away. Be quiet, Nonder-ma, Toru-debi said, and handed it back to him, clucking her tongue in encouragement. But he would not touch it again.
What did he want? What do boys of eight do? What do they want? Childless herself, Toru-debi knew nothing of children. Children inhabited another world. A world without sewing machines. They neither hemmed, nor chain-stitched, nor cross-stitched, nor quilted. What did they do?
She had spent the whole morning worrying. How would a boy of eight, brought up in the clamour and excitement of Calcutta, like Lalpukur, she had wondered, as the cycle-rickshaw, honking with flurries of its rubber hooter, took her down the red-dust lanes of the village; past the great vaulted and pillared banyan tree with the tea-shop and Bolai-da's unrepaired cycles nestling in dark niches in its trunk; past the rickety shed of the pharmacy, where the young men of the village gathered in the evenings to read newspapers and play cards and drink toddy; past the ponds mildewed with water-hyacinth and darkened by leaning coconut palms, through velvety green fields of young rice, to the little red-brick station three miles away.
Once she was at the station she forgot her greater worry for the more immediate one of finding the right boy. And when at last she saw him, potato head and all, with a few bits of luggage and an impatient relative beside him, the Singer which had so long and so securely colonized her heart wobbled precariously. For a moment. Ten years earlier she might perhaps have pushed the machine away altogether, but at middle age it was too difficult to cope with the unexpected. Besides, the Singer had been part of her dowry; she had seen it for the first time on the morning after the traumas of her wedding night; it was her child in a way her husband's nephew could never be. On the way back to the house she began to explain to the boy that his uncle had not come to meet him because he was busy (which was a lie: the truth was that Balaram had been afraid — he had not been able to summon the courage to meet this offspring of his brother in the impersonality of a railway platform), but he showed no interest, so she talked to him happily of the clothes she would make him on her sewing machine.
That was how it was to be with Toru-debi and Alu. After he arrived her courtship with her machine was to be forever punctuated by bouts of concern for the boy. Had he eaten? Had he bathed? Where was he?
But actually the daily chores of bathing him (for it was clear that he had never seen a well before) and feeding him fell to Nonder-ma. She complained, of course; but, then, Nonder-ma had always complained, ever since the day Nondo, her first-born and only son, left her tyranny behind him and ran off to Calcutta with all that she possessed (which was very little), leaving her only the life-long curse of his name.
Everything in this house, Nonder-ma often muttered, falls to me — the cooking, sweeping, washing, everything, and now the boy, too. And all for what? A few rupees, hardly enough for a sari a year.
Lying, ungrateful woman, Toru-debi would rail. I do nothing but give you money all day long, do everything for you, and still you go on and on. D'you think I've got a money tree?
And in any case it was little Maya Debnath, no bigger than Alu, who actually did most of the washing and sweeping, walking over every day from her father's huts beyond the bamboo forest. Besides, Toru-debi would say, what do you have to do for the boy anyway? But that she would say a little uncertainly, for her idea of what had to be done for the boy was by no means clear.
The truth was that Nonder-ma did not really have to do very much for Alu even in his first year in Lalpukur, for when he was not at school he was busy exploring the house.
It took him a long, long time, for the house brimmed over with rooms. The plan was simple (Balaram had designed it himself): there was a large square courtyard in the centre, shaded by the overhanging branches of a huge mango tree. There were rooms all around the courtyard, built on a high foundation a few feet off the ground. A cool open veranda ringed the courtyard, joining the rooms. A red tile roof, held up by bamboo struts, sloped low over the veranda, so that the sun never reached the rooms. It was always cool inside, and green, for the light was filtered through the innumerable lemon and banana trees and coconut palms which grew around the house.
The kitchen and the store-rooms fell on the far side of the courtyard, opposite the front door. A path snaked out from a small door next to the kitchen and led to a well and, beyond it, a pond surrounded by thickets of bright yellow bamboo. One side of the courtyard was Toru-debi's and the other Balaram's, each with four rooms. The fourth side, which faced out towards the dusty red lane, was kept for receiving visitors. That was the only part of the house which had two floors: there was one small room directly above the front door, joined to the courtyard by a ramshackle wooden staircase.
In those early days nobody could be sure where Alu disappeared. Sometimes he would be found in Toru-debi's room with its perpetually burning electric lights, its heavy mosquito-netted bed, its hillocks of trunks and discarded cloth, its sewing machine, and its incense- blackened images of Ma Kali, Ma Durga and Ma Saraswati piled high on the trunks (you had to be an athlete to pray in that room, Balaram used to say); and sometimes they would find him in the huge room which faced out, with its clutter of dust-laden furniture, carefully laid out for guests who never came; or in rooms pungent with pickles in stone jars, or rooms piled high with old newspapers and English magazines and cut-out sewing patterns, or others stacked with grain and alive with rats' squeaks and the quick slithering of snakes, or others half-full of firewood and coal, or others still, empty of everything but dust, built in who knew what unspoken hope?
And of course there was Balaram's study in one corner of the courtyard.
For a long time Balaram could not persuade Alu to come near his study, and he bitterly regretted the rash impulse which had sent him looking for his instruments the day the boy first arrived. It was little less than a torment to him to have to watch that extraordinary skull at a tantalizing distance, just beyond examining range.
Balaram did not know that when he was away, or when he had to work late at the school, Alu would often slip into the dim, dusty room and perch on Balaram's immense easy chair and arrange its folding arms at right angles like the wings of a plane. And when he tired of that he would prowl around the room breathing in the smell of yellowing paper and staring at the rows of books in the tall, glass-fronted bookcases.
It was not till many months had passed that Alu would enter the room while Balaram was in it, and even then he would only stand at the door and look in, often for hours, while Balaram read reclining in his easy chair. Balaram kept his patience, and it was well worth it, for when at last the boy trusted him enough to let him run his fingers over his skull for the first time he knew at once that it held material enough for a lifetime's study.
At first, as Balaram admitted to himself, he was baffled. The boy's head confused him utterly and for entirely unfamiliar reasons. Most heads were puzzling because they were so even. Often there was nothing, not the slightest undulation or bump to mark the major faculties and organs. Most heads, in a word, were dull, even boring.
With Alu it was another matter altogether; it was like sitting down to a wedding feast after years of stewed rice. His head abounded with a profusion of bumps and knots and troughs, each more aggressively pronounced than the next and scattered about with an absolute disregard for the discoveries of phrenology. The array of bumps and protuberances grew cheerfully all over his head and showed no signs at all of dividing into distinct and recognizable organs. It was all very confusing and very exciting — a wealth of new stimulating material. In time it prompted Balaram's paper on the Indistinctness of the Organs of the Brain (he sent it to the Bombay Natural History Society and to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, but unaccountably it was never acknowledged).
Later, when Alu was old enough to understand, Balaram often said to him: You'd have to change your head if you read Spurzheim or Gall — wouldn't be able to live with the confusion.
Take, for instance, that big spectacle-shaped lump which covered a large part of the back and sides of Alu's head. Starting a little above the hair-line, it stretched across the skull, but stopped short of the ears. To put it more precisely, it covered the squama occipitus and grew over the lateral areas of the lambdoidal suture, covering symmetrical parts over the asterion. It looked harmless enough, though hardly pleasing, but for Balaram it meant a fair number of sleepless nights. It was large enough to contain a multitude of organs and yet its boundaries were too shadowy to say which. And the worst part was that it was right on the trickiest part of the skull, for the founders of the science of phrenology were all agreed that the organs which govern the lowest and least desirable propensities all grow on the back and sides of the head. For all Balaram knew, a witch's brew could be bubbling in that lump — Destructiveness perhaps, mixed with Amativeness or Secrecy and peppered with Combativeness or Acquisitiveness. And if he could find no way of identifying and combating those organs it would be just a matter of time before they drove the poor boy to some hideous crime.
But eventually it all turned out well, for Balaram discovered that the lump cloaked nothing more serious than the organs of Philoprogenitiveness or the Love of Children, Adhesiveness or Friendship and, regrettably, Combativeness. There was even a possibility of Vitality at the base of the skull but, on the whole, Balaram was one of those who argued against rather than for the existence of the Organ of Vitativeness.
Seen as a whole, it wasn't altogether encouraging, but still Balaram could not but be grateful that the lump so neatly avoided Destructiveness and Secretiveness and Acquisitiveness and all the other moral quicksands which lie around the ear. It was only much later, when Alu was older, that Balaram noticed Amativeness or, to put it bluntly, the Organ of Sex blossoming tumescently just above the hair-line. He jotted it down in his notebook with horrified embarrassment; no doubt it had something to do with Self-Abuse. Ever after he did his best not to look at it.
As for the rest of Alu's head, it took Balaram years before he could even begin to make sense of certain protuberances, and some were to remain puzzling for ever. But in a general way he was more or less sure that there were distinct depressions over the organs of Self-Esteem, Vanity and Cautiousness. On the other hand, there was a pleasing undulation over Benevolence, just below the crown. To Balaram's great relief the crown itself with its collection of religious organs was absolutely flat. And the two pronounced horn-like protuberances on both sides of the crown probably held Firmness, Hope and Wonder, while the depressions at the temples almost certainly spelt the lack of Poesy and Wit (over neither of which was Balaram likely to shed any tears). But the strangest part of that strange head was the forehead, for it was enigmatically flat exactly where all the higher Perceptive and Reflective faculties ought to have been, except for a mysterious bump in the centre, where the hair began. That bump could be anything-Language, Eventuality, Cause....
Excerpted from "The Circle of Reason"
Copyright © 1986 Amitav Ghosh.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Pasteurized Cosmos,
Signs of New Times,
The School of Reason,
The Ghost in the Machine,
A Voice in the Ruins,
From an Egg-Seller's End,
The Call to Reason,
A Last Look,
Playing to a Beat,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Circle of Reason is the first novel by Indian author, Amitav Ghosh. The story of Nachiketa Bose, known throughout the narration as Alu because of his misshapen head, is related from his arrival at his uncle Balaram’s house in the Bengali town of Lalpukur, when he is orphaned at eight years old. A boy who becomes gifted at languages and a skilful weaver, a cascade of events leads to Alu’s flight across India, into the Middle East and across northern Africa, pursued by a tenacious policeman, Jyoti Das, under the pretext that he is a suspect in a terrorist incident. Ghosh gives the reader a rich cast of characters that are appealing and complex; even minor characters are allotted a potted history in their turn. The plot has quite a few twists, and Ghosh manages to fairly seamlessly include a village squabble, weaving, phrenology and physiognomy, a man obsessed with carbolic acid, the life of Louis Pasteur, a theory on queues, a comparison between communism and capitalism, a self-immolation, an attack with boiling oil, a building collapse, the Hindu epic Mahabharata and sewing machines. An amazing debut novel.
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