City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts is my very first Bali Rai novel. Bali spoke about it in Birmingham earlier this summer, and I simply had to read his book.

Did you know about all the Indian soldiers fighting for England in World War I? I didn’t, other than knowing that soldiers did come from other countries to fight. The sheer number is horrifying. It’s one thing – just about – to send ‘your own’ to die for your country. To send Indian soldiers to their deaths because you have a quarrel with your German neighbour is awful beyond belief.

This novel has a number of sub-plots, which together build a picture of India in the years before 1920. There is Bissen, the soldier who fought in France. There are Gurdial and Jeevan, two teenagers from the local orphanage in Amritsar.

We learn of what happened to Bissen in Europe, and how it affects his life in India after the war. He is an older and wiser influence on the two boys. Gurdial is in love, and Jeevan picks the wrong friends.

And then we have the time and place; Amritsar in 1919. You can tell it’s not all going to end well.

Bali has written a very Indian story from almost a century ago. You can smell the place, and you can see all the colours. You can taste the food, and you can almost feel what happened on that fateful day in April in Amritsar. There is a ghostly element, which although impossible to explain, fits in perfectly with the plot.

It’s very romantic, and it’s very sad and very violent.

It’s a story that needed telling.

It’s a story you need to read.

5 responses to “City of Ghosts

  1. Nicola Morgan

    It sounds like a brilliant and important book – I have to read this too.

    (I’d replace “England” with “Britain” but that seems a trivial point to make when you’re talking about such an important story … )

  2. > I’d replace “England” with “Britain” but that seems a trivial point to make

    Technically it was the British Empire, of course, which if one is pedantic about such things does make it ‘okay’ to send Indian soldiers, insofar as it was ‘okay’ to send any soldiers, which of course it wasn’t… What I’m trying to say is that, ‘according to the rules of cricket’, Indian soldiers were as ripe for cannon fodder as English or Scottish ones, being subjects of the Empire. The whole system and the whole war was vile, of course, but that was how things were at the time. Pretty much the whole world was at war, too (hence the term ‘World War’) so it wasn’t just Britain vs. Germany.

    ‘Birds Without Wings’ is a fascinating Great War novel (Louis de Bernieres). The focus there is the Ottoman empire, and the Turks are bemused because they think they’re fighting the Franks, but there is one race of Franks that is apparently on their side (the Germans, of course) and they are most perplexed by this. That book revealed to me the sheer awful scale of that war – it was, in the worst sense, epic.

  3. You’re right, Nicola. As a foreigner I worry about this so often, but I am fairly sure I had a reason for England this time, but I can’t remember what it might have been. England, as England, seems to have been important in the story. That could be why. Also the sheer ignorance of the Indian teenage boys, who had never heard of France until their friend was fighting there. Imagine laying your life down for something you don’t even know.

  4. Pingback: Remembering Amritsar | Bookwitch

  5. Pingback: Gåvor | Bookwitch på svenska

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