The last book of Neal Stephensons "Baroque Cycle" trilogy entitled "The System of the World" is coming out soon and I realized I hadn't read the second book yet despite having enjoyed the first volume "Quicksilver" immensely. So last week I borrowed "The Confusion" from the New York Public Library. Although it's been out for a while for some reason this book was still on the one week book express shelf. And weighing in at 800 pages, that's a lot to read in one week. I managed it but I really will have to read it again sometime as I'm sure I missed some bits.The plot is as densely packed as in Quicksilver.
I'm going to try not to spoil the plot for those who haven't read it yet but I must mention "Half-cocked" Jack Shaftoe, who at the end of Quicksilver was raving mad from syphilis and bound for North Africa as a galley slave, turns up sane in Algiers. (The pox having been purged from him by the desert sun.) He and some of his fellow slaves concoct a daring escape plan which eventually takes them around the world with many ups and downs along the way.
In 1693, one of the places Jack ends up in is Gujarat brought there by one of his companions named Surendranath. That detail rang a little hollow as Surendranath is not a typical Gujarati Vania name. We find him in Ahmedabad which Stephenson notes was also named by some Guerdabad -- the place of dust. Today it is one of the most polluted cities in India. He is a living insect trap at an hospital run by Brahmanas for the relief of sick animals. There's another mistake. Those hospitals (They still exist.) are run by Jains.
He travels to Div which was then a Portugese colony passing en route through my ancestral land of Kathiawad. (Stephenson spells it Kathiawar. Actually in Gujarati it is a retroflex sound somewhat like saying r and d together with a little l mixed in.) This period, the last days of the Mughal empire, were something of a golden age for the area. Trade with European outposts (Div and Daman were Portugese. Surat which was a bit further away was English.) was making a lot of people rich and there was peace and plenty in the land.
All this would change a generation later when the Mahrattas would begin dismantling the Mughal empire and setting up their own which alas failed to achieve an equivalent amount of stability. It was that time when the founder of my family Kai. Shri Jagannath Vyas was staying in the house of a minor chief on his way back from performing some religious ceremony and was murdered for the gold he was carrying. Eventually it got so bad that the British East India Company which hitherto was only interested in making money behind the scenes began taking over the functions of government thereby beginning the British Raj. Though interestingly Kathiawad was never officially part of British India. Up until 1947, it was in the hands of some 202 local kings (well that's a kind way to call them. The Gujarati term rajvi or "princeling" more accurately describes the situation.) Of course there were British "advisors" at each court to ensure they didn't get out of line but atleast nominally they were independent.
Of course there is a lot more to the book than this. Stephenson again provides many fascinating glimpses into the trends that began the modern world like how the English and the Dutch overtook the French as world powers by moving to a cash-based economy. And he drops a few amusing anachronisms here and there. (Somehow I don't think synergy is a 17th century Armenian word do you?) There's sex, treachery, revenge, and reunions. All in all it was a really good read and I look forward to the concluding volume.
Now I have one week to read "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell" by Susanna Clarke. It's another "England is secretly full of wizards" type book. I've heard it being described as Harry Potter for grownups.