The true India slid by unnoticed

passage to indiaA Passage to India
by E M Forster

This is the second time I’ve tried reading this book and I almost didn’t finish it again, but this time I was near the end when I got a little bored. For the most part I found it gripping and beautifully written, if a little troubling when it comes to race and politics.

The thing is, it’s a story about how problematic colonialism can be; effectively it’s about racism, and yet it itself reads as racist. It was written in the 1920s so that wouldn’t normally be a surprise, but when Forster has taken race as a central theme you’d think he’d have the self-awareness to avoid his own racist remarks. Unless they’re all intended ironically, which is a possibility, but in that case the point being made is just as obscured as if it were not ironic.

“She continued: ‘What a terrible river! What a wonderful river!’ and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness.”

The story centres around Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor in British-run Chandrapore (a fictional city in north-east India). He is well liked by everyone and has a large circle of close friends from different religions, different backgrounds. So it is doubly surprising when he is accused of assault by newly arrived Englishwoman Adela Quested.

Continue reading “The true India slid by unnoticed”

Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

Continue reading “Defeated by its own decay, it was dying”

Bristol Old Vic Ferment Fortnight

Bristol Old Vic
(CC-BY NotFromUtrecht)

Bristol Ferment is the community of theatre-makers from Bristol and the South West that Bristol Old Vic supports and helps to develop exciting and adventurous new work. Twice a year, we can get a glimpse behind the scenes of the artistic process during Ferment Fortnight, when work in progress is performed and discussed directly with the audience.

The current Ferment Fortnight runs until 31 January, so there’s still time to check it out for yourself.

The Stillness of the Storm That Never Came at All
by Clerke and Joy
Bristol Old Vic, Friday 24 January 2014

I arrived in the Studio Theatre to the powerful smell of garam masala, coming from a large pool of it spread on the theatre floor. Josephine Joy created sound effects using a laptop, a microphone and an array of electrical goods, while Rachael Clerke delivered a monologue about an Indian girl who has just moved to Mumbai after studying abroad in London. The sounds were a combination of traffic, voices, weather and domestic appliances, occasionally ratcheted up so that they threatened to drown out the monologue. Combined with the spice smell this gave a powerful sense of place to the story, especially considering there were no visual cues to place it anywhere particular. The story is currently only a snippet but it was absorbing and well written, and I definitely felt that a whole character had been created in this brief snatch of a play.

After the performance we had a Q&A in which Clerke and Joy explained the roots of the show and where they hope to take it (as well as encouraging lots of feedback, which is after all the whole point of Ferment Fortnight). Their plan is to write three monologues for three actors, each set in a different city. They will have a musician or DJ on stage and do a lot of their scene-setting with soundscapes. They have themes they want to explore but no firm story as yet. (To be fair, I should mention that they have only been writing this for a few days, having not long been back in the UK after spending three weeks in Mumbai running theatre workshops and developing the concept for this show.) Their themes include weather, feminism, decline in industry, reclaimed land, migration and oral storytelling – which is quite an eclectic bag, yet I can see it working. All of those are already present to some extent and the choice of the other two cities (one of which is likely to be Belfast, but the third is completely unknown right now) will no doubt both be informed by and have an effect on that list of themes.

The monologue text came from the workshops and some other conversations that Clerke and Joy held in Mumbai. I thought they demonstrated a gift for picking out the thoughts and observations that got to the heart of what this one lonely girl’s experience of Mumbai would be like. This play has the potential to turn into a really fascinating glimpse of some very different locations and lives.

I loved this opportunity to see something so raw and new, something unformed but brimming with potential. I’ll definitely be checking out future Ferment performances.

Disclaimer: A free ticket was kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for contributing a review to Theatre Bristol Writers.

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen

The White Tiger

The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga

This book looked like a fun read that would be something a bit different, and that’s pretty much exactly what it was. I enjoyed it greatly but in the week since I finished it, it hasn’t really stayed with me.

The style is initially surprising and unusual. The story is written in the form of letters addressed to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao from Balram Halwai, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur from a very poor background. Balram wants to tell his life story, beginning with how he got the nickname White Tiger and up to how he is wanted by the police. Through this device, Adiga exposes the state of India, or his opinion of the state of India, at any rate. And it’s not a particularly favourable opinion.

“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power. I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse. Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices. See, the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods…Bear with me, Mr Jiabao. This could take a while. How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?”

This was my pick for book club and from our discussion it looks like I thought there was more to it than the others did. There was a general feeling that the characters were a bit thin, and the overall tale a bit preachy and lacking in shades of grey (though I should note everyone found it funny and enjoyable). I must say I didn’t find it preachy but I’ll allow that it definitely had a message about class and poverty in India. And it’s certainly not subtle either – the humour is savage and the reality that is revealed is shocking.

Balram has a theory that the poor in India are in a chicken coop. Most of them accept this and stay within the bounds of the coop, but those who do try to escape are quickly shoved back in their place. It takes something extraordinary for anyone to escape the coop. He of course is one of the extraordinary (the only escapee we meet in this tale) but he freely accepts that the method he employed to escape is extreme.

“A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope…cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hipbones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”

Balram is a genuinely funny narrator. Since being told that he is as rare as a white tiger when he was the smartest kid in school, he has had ideas above his station. He’s also selfish, objecting to his grandmother’s repeated requests that he share his earnings with his family. He talks through his life, from working in a tea shop in a small village, to being a rich man’s driver in Delhi, to being a businessman in Bangalore. He reveals early on that he has done something shocking, so that most of the book is the answer to the question why and how.

“In the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.”

This is not a book for those who want a subtle exploration of how modern India operates, or if you want a wide-reaching study of Indian society. It is a funny, easy-to-read, fast-paced window opened just a crack onto a version of reality. I genuinely enjoyed it and even learned a few things but I can’t say that it changed my view of the world or stunned me with its language. Not every book can do that.

Published 2008 by Atlantic Books.
Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize.

Source: A book swap.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

Tears are the perspiration of the eyes

Saadat Hasan Manto

Selected Stories
by Saadat Hasan Manto
translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan

This collection was recommended – and indeed loaned – to me by a friend after a conversation about classic books in India versus in the UK. Many of the names were the same for both of us, but one literary giant I hadn’t heard of, much less read, was Saadat Hasan Manto. So we had to fix that, obviously.

“It was about this time of year. The monsoons had come and, outside his window, the leaves of the peepal tree danced as the raindrops fell on them…Outside, in the milky dankness of the evening, the leaves of the peepal tree swung in the breeze like a golden ornament on a woman’s forehead.”

Manto wrote in almost every medium but the short story is what he was known for, and this selection, specially translated (though apparently most of Manto’s work has been translated into English before at some point) attempts to provide a representation of his whole career, including stories considered classics, such as “The new constitution”.

When telling people what I am reading I have stumbled over such basic information as his nationality, or country of birth, because the answer to those questions is a bit tricksy. He was born to a Kashmiri family in Amritsar in British-ruled India, later living mostly in Lahore, Bombay and finally Karachi. He died less than a decade after the Partition of 1947, and is quoted in the introduction to this volume as saying that he truly did know whether India or Pakistan was his true homeland.

And that, with the turbulence of those years and tensions between religions and social groups, is central to many of the stories in this collection. Which is a great insight and can be very moving. However, in all I’d say I had a mixed reaction to these stories. The language is often beautiful, not flowery and easy to read – except occasionally for the subject matter. The stories are often erotic, with lots of describing women’s bodies, and they don’t shy away from getting down and dirty at times. This is particularly true because many of the women characters are prostitutes.

And I think this is where I began to have a small problem. Where the male characters are varied, three-dimensional and cover a wide strata of careers, the depiction of women is a little…misogynist. Women are always described physically in detail and tend to be defined by their social position or religion rather than having a clear character.

“Tears flickering over her thick eyelashes will look lovely. It will be like raindrops dancing down a shuttered window. It is possible that you may not think tears to be necessary in women’s eyes, but I cannot even imagine a woman’s eyes without tears. Tears are the perspiration of the eyes. A worker’s brow is only a worker’s brow when it is shining with perspiration. A woman’s eyes can only be a woman’s eyes when they are drowned in tears.”

But that reservation aside, these are good stories. They’re real, sometimes shockingly real. There was one story, “The return”, that left me stunned. In fact, for that one story alone I would rate Manto very highly. I also really liked the (very different) story “Odour”, which is sensuous and strangely touching.

This translation first published by Penguin Books India 2007.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.

Putting the story into history

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

This book is very much about its settings. The time and place of events is irrevocably linked to the story and I found that intriguing. It doesn’t hurt that I have a long-held fascination with India and it is India, perhaps unsurprisingly, that is depicted with the greatest affection.

I found the writing more accessible than I had expected, which was good because a lot of the story is set in war-torn Kashmir and I’m not a big fan of war stories (Yes they’re very important and the genre includes some genuinely great writing but sitting down day after day to read about military tactics and lots of people dying in gruesome ways? Not my cup of tea), so I needed something to keep me in.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to the novel than that. It centres around four characters: Max Ophuls – an aged ambassador for the US and World War II Resistance hero, his daughter India – named for the country of her birth though she has no memory of it, Max’s killer – an Indian chauffeur who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, and Boonyi – the Kashmiri beauty who links their lives.

The story begins with Max’s murder on India’s doorstep. It is bloody and calculated. We then go back to learn why it happened. What was it about Max’s past and Shalimar’s that led to this event?

This book isn’t about the plot twists or the ending. The plot is mostly given away from the start. I remember reading once that in India the endings of stories – books and films – are openly discussed without concern for who does or does not know the details already. That was my experience here and it’s a definite break from what I’m used to. Not only does this novel give away it’s own ending but it also discussed the endings of three or four major films.

What makes this book great is the depiction of moments in history from one or just a few people’s perspective. Max was a Jew in Strasbourg in the years leading up to and during World War II and there’s a lot of detail about the gradual change in daily life packed into a small number of pages. A later section is set in LA during the riots of 1992 and again there’s so much detail that the chapter could almost pass for a history essay, if there weren’t a few fictional characters mixed in there.

Boonyi’s Kashmir is described in adoring detail, from the earthly paradise of her youth, when whole villages made a living from traditional arts and crafts and families of different faiths lived side by side without it being an issue (in fact they sometimes helped each other celebrate their religion); to the increasingly fractious, suspicious Kashmir following the India–Pakistan divide, when the valley gradually came under fire from all sides and your religion became all-important; to the deeply scarred warzone that Kashmir had become by the 1990s. It is a tale of tragic loss, of human idiocy and impotence. There were details that were appallingly horrific and, though this is fiction, I don’t doubt closely resemble real events and that sickens me.

The loss of the beauty and happiness of Kashmir is mirrored in the tale of Boonyi. A combination of history and human fallacies lead her ever downward and the world around her follows suit.

There are no particularly sympathetic main characters. Or at least, there weren’t for me. The love stories are touching but the characters involved are too cold or too single-minded for me to like them. My favourite character – and I’m sure the reader is meant to react this way – was the Sikh governor Sardar Harbans Singh who stayed true to his love of Kashmir to the end.

As with any novel with a historical setting it was sometimes unclear which bits were real history and which were fiction. I suppose it doesn’t matter really , except perhaps when words are put in the mouths of real historical figures. Is that okay? Is that allowed?

I greatly enjoyed this and was sad when it ended but it’s not a cheerful book. Consider yourself warned.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

The other side of the fence

The Romantics
by Pankaj Mishra

This debut from Indian novelist Mishra is at once beautiful and eye-opening. It provides an insight into different cultures in India, both native and visitor, and how they work (or don’t work) together.

The story follows Samar from university to postgraduate restlessness to his first job and in many ways is the tale of his ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding peace with himself’, but resolution is not the name of the game here and uncertainty is ever-present.

Samar is a Brahmin and, like most of his caste, by the 1980s his family has little of the old money left and can just afford to keep him until he’s 21. Until then he reads ferociously and, despite his studious quietness, mixes with quite a range of people. His neighbour Miss West is a middle-aged Englishwoman and through her Samar meets a whole host of westerners who come to India for spiritual reasons that he can never quite grasp (presumably these are the ‘Romantics’ of the title).

Mishra does a good job of encapsulating his hero’s mixture of revulsion and jealousy of these people, particularly of their money, freedom and opportunities – things he will never have. Mishra gently pokes fun at these visitors and their various reasons for coming to India – from having read a certain popular book to studying alternative medicine – but also points out the similarity between their displacement, their struggle to find a life path, and Samar’s.

I’m still not sure how much of my enjoyment of this book was based in it opening up to me a world I’ve never experienced, from a viewpoint I can never experience. It’s definitely a book that made me feel guilty for wanting to travel to far-flung places to widen my horizons when, of course, a week in Pondicherry could never tell me what life is truly like there.

Samar also has Indian friends, such as fellow student Rajesh through whom he sees a glimpse of India’s rural poor, a life lesson he badly needs after comparing himself to the westerners. His friendship with Rajesh and other Indians is markedly different from the one he enjoys with Miss West and her friends, which I found very interesting. The westerners are very quick to share the minutiae of their lives and each other’s. It takes a long time for Samar to discover that their true thoughts and feelings are kept just as hidden as his own, and cut them just as badly.

The book also includes a number of passages that lovingly describe India, particularly the Himalayas, and these could be quite moving. The author clearly loves his country. But it was the east–west relationships that really made this book the fascinating read that it was. From a glance at his website, it appears that he has written a lot of essays on this theme and other issues affecting modern India, so I shall be checking those out.

Published 1999 by Picador.