The Circle of Reason

A picaresque tale, with comic and intellectual overtures, THE CIRCLE OF REASON tells the story of the orphan Alu, adopted by his elderly uncle, a teacher in a small Indian village. Balaram Bose had been a brilliant student, but his obsession with rationalism has declined into a fanatical study of phrenology. After measuring Alu’s lumpy head, he has him apprenticed as a weaver, where he soon surpasses even his master.

Unfortunately, Balaram also is involved in a local feud, which ultimately results in the bombing of his home. Alu, the only survivor and a suspect in the bombing, flees, closely followed by a young Indian policeman, Jyoti Das. Taking ship across the Arabian Sea, Alu arrives at the small, oil-rich state of al-Ghazira, where he moves into the home of Zindi, an enormously fat madam. After a near fatal accident, he has a vision worthy of his uncle--the people of the Indian quarter will wage war on germs and money. This bizarre social experiment almost succeeds, until the local government brutally ends it. Alu flees again with Zindi and other friends, still closely pursued by Das. Finally, after wandering over much of North Africa, they accidentally meet in a small Saharan village, concluding with a sad denouement which determines their future.

A mere plot summary hardly does justice to this dense novel, loaded as it is with plots, subplots, dozens of nationalities, and the complicated intellectual rationale for Alu and Balaram’s theories. American readers may find this heavy going, but close reading will yield definite rewards. Ghosh has undeniable talent, particularly in that peculiar synthesis of the intellectual, the comic, and the ridiculous which is so intrinsic to life in India, but he would be well-advised to prune his cast and plot in future works. Still, this is an amusing and provoking look at the “real” India, for those with the time and interest.