City of Ghosts was captivating and superbly written. I had heard of the fact that one third of British troops weren’t from Britain, but I’d never really considered the practicalities of this – would a Sikh be able to wear his turban in the trenches? How would it feel to fight in a horrific war, be regarded as a second-class citizen by the side you fought for, then return home to unrest and countrymen who consider that your fighting for the British makes you a traitor? Bali Rai addresses these questions and many others in City of Ghosts.
It’s surprising how well he has told many sides of the same story – though it’s clear which side he sympathises more with, the author is careful not to vilify indiscriminately. In the afterword he mentions not sticking exactly to the facts. While I’m sure this is the case, he seems to have managed to capture the feel of the time. It’s refreshingly unbiased – I’ll admit that I usually cynically find that books like this have been written to prove a point, which, however valid, usually annoys me. However, I felt that with City of Ghosts, it was written to tell a story, one that has not been told before.All of the characters are sympathetically portrayed. It’s interesting to see not only the characters and their actions, but also the circumstances causing their decisions, how far each of them will go when pushed. A city on the brink of chaos is the perfect setting to examine human principles and capabilities, to push characters as far as possible, which in turn creates an interesting sense of tension to the story. The love stories between Gurdial and Sohni and Bissen and Lillian are not simple, both relationships have huge obstacles in their way, yet somehow are still hopeful.
My one main complaint is that the book seems to condone Udham’s actions. City of Ghosts helped me to understand and sympathise with his plight, but however justified it may have been, his own action was still murder. I also found the ending of Bissen’s storyline slightly confusing, leaving me wondering whether the letter was legitimate or not. Other than that though, the book ended with clarity and conclusiveness.
A beautiful story of just a few citizens caught up in the strife that gripped Amritsar in 1919. Through telling the story of these young people, the story of the city itself is also told. A rich, vibrant city so well portrayed you can almost taste it. This is a masterful tale of love and loss, of falling, failing and dying, but also of hope.