Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen

Rating: 7/10

Simultaneously referred to as the toughest to read, most uninteresting, most controversial of Austen's popular six novels, Mansfield Park is all that and more. The story of good, honest, mildly annoying Fanny Price, moralizing, more annoying, incredibly boring Edmund Bertram is one of an unlikely hero and a heroine, a far cry from the Elizabeth Bennets and the Captain Wentworths of the Austen world. Indeed the two other major characters of Mansfield Park, the glamorous and utterly fascinating brother and sister duo of Henry and Mary Crawford are far more interesting. 

However, Mansfield Park is easily the most intriguing of Austen's books, for it tends to be the antithesis of Pride and Prejudice. The setting is so much more grim, realistic, and despite the tongue in cheek commentary and ridiculously brilliant comic interludes in the form of Mrs. Norris, remains a far cry from the unabashed entertainment of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, the heroine of Mansfield Park is more a Mary than Elizabeth Bennet and it wouldn't be a stretch to compare Edmund's sermons to Mr.Collins'. 

For the reader expecting a conventional Austen tale, this is a rather incredible experience: a love story where it is easier to like the 'adversaries' and their charm,wit rather than the protagonists to whom you wouldn't mind saying the Regency-equivalent of 'Please loosen up'.

The Bertrams of Mansfield Park offer a home for their relative Fanny Price, away from the chaos and problems of her own family. Constantly shown her place by her aunt Mrs.Norris, Fanny grows up timid and shy, with only her cousin Edmund to offer her comfort and real care. As the charming Crawfords capture the imagination and hearts of her cousins, Fanny isn't too sure of her feelings towards them. 

Much like most of the inhabitants of Mansfield Park, the reader too is likely to be enamoured by Henry and Mary Crawford. Therefore, when Austen sets up the book as Fanny and Edmund vs Henry and Mary, with Henry professing attachment for Fanny as Edmund does for Mary, she plays with the sympathies of the reader. Mansfield Park challenges the traditional notions of a likable heroine and a hero everyone is ready to fall in love with. 

I will be the first to admit that reading Mansfield Park wasn't all easy going. While the typical wondrous satire of Austen is sure to keep one entertained, the fact that I wasn't all that emotionally invested in many of the main characters might have dampened my excitement. Like all of Austen's works, Mansfield Park  is eminently quotable:

"But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them."

"A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of."

"In a review of the two houses, as they appeared to her before the end of a week, Fanny was tempted to apply to them Dr. Johnson's celebrated judgment as to matrimony and celibacy, and say, that though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures."

"An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert al her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done" 

As for the characters, Mrs.Norris is an incredible creation of comic genius. Exasperating to the point of calling Mrs.Bennet subtle and restrained, pointlessly wicked and mind-numbingly petty and miserly, she is an unforgettable character. [Part of me thinks that Austen made Edmund marry Fanny precisely because Mrs Norris predicts early in the book that they won't] Deservedly, she finds a place among 100 favourite fictional characters as chosen by 100 literary luminariesSally Beauman picked Mrs.Norris and provided us with a spot-on description:

"Mrs Norris in the glittering satire Mansfield Park, is Austen's most profound, subtle portrait of the banality of evil"

Mansfield Park is a rude shock to the reader who has imagined Austen as exemplified by the unforgettable Elizabeth-Darcy romance. Which is what, in my opinion, makes it mandatory reading for Austen fans. You might not adore the book, but it is worth reading for being a brave, unconventional satire. Mansfield Park would also make an excellent book club read, for the simple fact that there is so much to discuss: everything from how on earth Edmund thinks he could '..persuade her that her warm, sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love' to what would happen if Mrs.Norris ever knew she inspired an annoying cat.

Recommended reading, to understand Mansfield Park better: How do you solve a problem like Fanny Price? by Lynn Shepherd

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Irony To Remember: Passports before Partition

I've always believed that one of the most fascinating things for a history buff is to spot and acknowledge the many ironies in history. Not just because they give us a chance to compare and contrast, but because they give us an idea of how much we have derailed from what many of our ancestors took for granted. These ironies also provide us a guiding light, if we show the courage to remember and learn from the past.

The history of the partition of British India and the birth of the two nation states of India and Pakistan is one that is littered with remarkable stories and ironies. Here's one that I'd like to share:

To quote Mahatma Gandhi is a national obsession of sorts, and not without reason. Everyone eagerly quotes the need to 'be the change' and not take 'an eye for an eye', to 'hate the sin and love the sinner'. However, some Gandhi quotes seem less sacred than others, even when they are arguably more significant. In fact, perhaps because they are more significant and slightly more inconvenient. Case in point:

“I do not consider Pakistan and India as two different countries. If I have to go to the Punjab, I am not going to ask for a passport. And I shall go to Sind also without a passport and I shall go walking. Nobody can stop me.”
[Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Speech at Prayer Meeting, 16th June 1947]

The India-Pakistan border is today one of the most dangerous borders in the world and boasts of rigorous, strict visa regimes on both sides. The two neighbours have fought several wars and are deeply distrustful of each other. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the fact that anyone could have ever thought of going to Sindh from Delhi without a passport. And before people dismiss this as the rantings of a disappointed old man, it is important to point out that Gandhi wasn't the only one to think so.

"In the summer of 1947 few could appreciate the full connotations of the division which would ultimately result in some of the harshest border regulations in the world; indeed one newspaper headline read ‘Passport rules believed to be needless at present’ [The Great Partition, Yasmin Khan]

Strange and quite overwhelming for those of us born long after independence, on either side of the border, to imagine this was even considered possible. The horrors of Partition are vital to understanding India and Pakistan. But equally important is the need to understand sentiments that prevailed in the lead-up to August 1947 and how Independence, Partition and its aftermath changed them.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Imagine this scenario

You are a British judge who agrees to draw the line that will, in essence, partition the two sensitive regions of Bengal and Punjab through the Boundary Commission and thereby create the maps of India and Pakistan. 

You've never been to India and you're landing in India only to decide how to divide her best. Apparently, the British Government in India thought this was a smart idea since it proved your neutrality. But how can you decide to partition an area you've never even visited? They had an answer: maps. 

So imagine yourself using the 20th century equivalent of Google Maps to draw the borders of new countries. That's sort of what happened. It would have been a fun thing, to take a pencil, ponder over a map and draw a line where you think is best. But sadly, this was all too real and all too serious, where a flick of the pencil and a line drawn slightly slanted, gave birth to conflicts and disputes that exist till date. A rather dubious, slipshod way for two new nation states to be born, boundaries decided by a man who has never even visited the villages his Line broke into parts.

Now let's see the material at your disposal to help you decide which regions go to which country: a census that was six years out of date. At a time when small populations had already moved from place to place, rendering any census quite irrelevant.

And oh, your decision will impact about 88 million people at that time, and thousands thereafter. No pressure. 

As you thank your lucky stars that you never were in that awful position, here's the name of the man who was: Sir Cyril Radcliffe. The man who gave his name to a line that partitioned India and Pakistan, the Radcliffe Line. 

Wiki informs me that Sir Cyril Radcliffe refused his salary of 40000 rupees after seeing the mayhem occurring on both sides of the boundary that was created by him. The least he could do, I would imagine, after the guilt of that rather thankless job.

{Radcliffe line facts found in Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan are predominantly used here}

Recommended Reading: Drawing the Indo-Pakistani Boundary by Lucy Chester.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about Partition and the Indian struggle for Independence,  as India and Pakistan get ready to celebrate their independence days.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson

Rating: 9/10


Every once in a while there comes a book which tackles serious, crucial issues in a seemingly effortless fashion, with heart and elegance. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one such heart-warming tale. Set in the beautiful English countryside, in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary, this is the story of a 68 year old retired English Major falling in love with the charming 58 year old Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs.Ali. 

As the two find companionship, friendship and love, we realise theirs is no ordinary love story. It is one that is trapped in the conflict of rigid traditions and suspicion on either side, multiculturalism facing its litmus test in the face of subtle yet piercing racism.

Helen Simonson writes like a dream; a dream that brings to life the quaint countryside and the quirks and eccentricities of its people with great wit and charm. Major Pettigrew and Mrs.Ali, united by the loss of their loved ones, their love of literature, make a fascinating couple. The Major is very much a traditionalist (he cannot bear to hear his son use the Royal family as the punchline of a joke), chivalrous, sarcastic and quite hard to dislike. In many a way, Major Pettigrew might be the older version of the oft-referred quintessential 'English gentleman'. Simonson paints a character who despite his stereotypical dislike of certain things/people (his son's American girlfriend whom he initially dislikes mostly for just the fact that she's an American), will grow to accept and adore them once he gets to know them better. 

Mrs.Ali is a wonderful character: a staunch liberal, she firmly believes in making her own decisions, is unfailingly  polite but won't put up with the disdain of others.  The Major and Mrs.Ali are the kind of people who would make wonderful dinner guests: charming, courteous and most likely to provide intelligent conversations on everyone from Kipling to Johnson.

What makes Major Pettigrew's Last Stand special is how beautifully it focuses on the simple joys of life, while delving into complex issues of immense importance: the multicultural experience, how the British society reacts to people who hail from former colonies, racism. Simonson is a delightful, incredibly witty, very quotable writer who handles sensitive themes such as multicultural relationships, falling in love after 60 with understated elegance and respect. Her exquisite turn of phrase is captivating:

'Garden gates and driveways gave glimpses of well-stocked gardens and thick lawns studded with clover clumps and dandelions. He liked the clover, evidence of the country always pressing in close, quietly sabotaging anyone who tried to manicure nature into suburban submission' 

Comparisons with Jane Austen ,which is what drew me to this book in the first place, are  justified, for Simonson makes sparkling satirical observations on society. Indeed Austen would be proud of this line:

'When true love combines with clear financial motive, all objections must be swept away' 

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a triumph for how skilfully it interweaves the customs of an English village with the warmth and tensions that come with the breeze of multiculturalism in modern day Britain. As Mrs. Ali points out so beautifully in my most favourite book quote in a long time, 'A couple may have nothing in common but the colour of their skin and the country of their ancestors, but the whole world would see them as compatible.' 

Reading this book is as pleasant as drinking endless cups of your favourite blend of tea. If you're in the mood for a tale that demolishes the notions that all 'feel good' stories are light and frivolous, this is the best choice. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is sure to brighten your day.

[P.S I've heard there are talks going on for making this book into a movie. I'm looking forward to it, for this story should lend itself beautifully to adaptation for the screen!]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire - Rajmohan Gandhi

Rating: 10/10

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is omnipresent today: the most recognised Indian in the world and a mandatory reference name for almost everyone speaking of peace. You can find him peering at his people from crisp Indian money notes, looking down from portraits in government offices, smiling from T shirts and flairs, repackaged for a new generation, and quoted so often that it would probably make him dizzy.

The simplistic saintly Mahatma (Great Soul) of our textbooks, is a depiction that does no justice to the immense complexities and controversies that Mohandas Gandhi faced and overcame. For what makes Gandhi so great is not the fact that he was flawless. Gandhi's place among the most unforgettable men of the millennium came from the fact that he was greater than the flaws that he tried valiantly to overcome. The Mahatma is an outstanding example of the greatness that human beings can aspire to.

Rajmohan Gandhi's magnum opus biography of his grandfather Mohandas is a stunning, beautiful, unforgettable, emotional passage to understanding Bapu, one that takes your breath away as it reveals the sheer magnitude of what Gandhi lived through and achieved.

Mohandas' childhood in Gujarat, where he grew up watching his mother fast on religious occasions, where his nurse Rambha taught him to recite the holy name of Lord Rama whenever he was nervous, where he resolved that he would go out of his way to make Muslim friends, even if he didn't make many Hindu friends, is far more important than people probably think. As we can see, events of his childhood instilled the beliefs that would inspire him while leading a nation. 

A fashionable Mohandas went to London to study to become a barrister. Vegetarianism, agnosticism, love and respect for friends of different cultures and religions enchanted him. He wanted all citizens of the Empire to be treated equally and many aspects of the English way of life inspired him.

But it was South Africa that marked the biggest turning point of his life. As Nelson Mandela would later say, “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi”. Facing up to racism and injustice to the Indian community in South Africa, the lawyer Mohandas wrote to newspapers opposing unjust laws and traditions.  And more importantly, protested and mobilized several people to protest non-violently. Tolstoy farm, where 'untouchables', people of many religions and countries would live and work together, was a big inspiration for Gandhi. Traits of what India would see Gandhi present to her as solutions to long-suffered problems, are visible already. 

India soon called for her prodigal son and his return to his homeland changed India forever. Travelling third class to discover the real India, Gandhi was clear of the three issues he would focus on: Hindu-Muslim unity, bridging the shameful gap between upper caste Hindus and 'untouchables' and preparing the country, from the villages, to be worthy of freedom.  These were issues that would haunt India in the lead-up to Partition and he was prescient enough to understand that very early. Satyagraha and ahimsa became his 'weapons' of choice, as he rejuvenated a party of elite lawyers and urged the Congress to really represent the millions who toiled in the villages of India.

The political Gandhi was born out of necessity. For there was little social and religious reform he could do without sorting out the politics of India. Gandhi was the hero of Champaran, the  initiator of non-cooperation, the controversial creator of Quit India, the exquisite strategist, publicist of the Dandi March. A prolific letter writer, Gandhi wrote regularly for his newspaper Harijan, mentored Nehru, Patel and the top brass of the Congress: his political 'sons' and wore just the minimum of hand-spun cloth in solidarity with the masses of India, many of whom had nothing to wear.

His experiments with brahmacharya/celibacy (which sometimes involved sleeping naked beside women of his ashram) are no doubt as bizarre and controversial now as they were then, when Gandhi made no attempt to hide it. His usage of religion in politics has been criticised by some, but he understood the importance of religion in every walk of life in India and used it to spread only one message: that all religions preached love, tolerance and goodwill.

What makes the Mahatma incredible is not just the space and respect he gave to those who disagreed with him, but the earnest effort he made to understand their point of view and even change his opinion if need be. His conversations with  Tagore and Ambedkar are a case in point. That Gandhi practised what he preached, is what attracted the world to him. He was the change he wished to see in the world, even if the change he wanted to see, was different from what others wanted to see. Gandhi specialised in holding a high moral ground by loving his enemy. 

Churchill, who with great sensitivity asked the Viceroy when the Mahatma was fasting, if Gandhi hadn't died yet, spoke of blood, toil, tears and sweat. So did Gandhi. Except, he spoke of blood, sweat and tears shed by a man who toiled and protested with great courage, non-violently. After all, 'non-violence is a weapon of the strong'.

Even if people had thought him distant and out-of-sync with reality, it was Gandhi who healed some of the many wounds of Partition. Fasting for peace, especially when Delhi was in the throes of horrifying Partition violence, was his ace card of sorts. While Dandi and Quit India might have become the most popular expressions of Gandhi and his triumphs, his greatest moment, without a doubt, came while visiting areas tormented by religious violence.

Be it Noakhali, Bihar, Delhi or Calcutta, wherever Bapu (Father of the Nation) went, he cured the insanity of communalism, he healed wounds with his overwhelming humanity, he spoke the language of love to those who had seen devastation on a scale that would crush India. He made Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who attacked and killed members of the other community repent and promise him that they would protect each other always. His prayer meetings where chants from all religions were recited, whispered peace to ears that had been plugged by the shattering noise of violence. And such was his impact. Sample this excerpt from the book:

Interviews conducted in Noakhali in  April and November 2000 (53 years after Gandhi had been there) found residents retaining precise memories of Gandhi...many recalling him spontaneously recited or sang 'Raghupathi Raghav Raja Ram..Ishwar Allah Tere Naam'

Rajmohan Gandhi writes with a neutrality that is incredible for a man writing about his grandfather. His writing is simple, evocative and poignant, quoting from myriad sources, interpreting and drawing parallels with great sensitivity and shedding light on the lesser known aspects of Gandhi's life, such as the troubled relationship that Gandhi had with his sons. Rajmohan captures the legendary sense of humour of the Mahatma, as also his relationship with the men who would go on to govern India. Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire is a masterpiece that every Indian ought to read and I have no hesitation in saying that Bapu would be very proud of his grandson's work.

Incessant tears poured down my cheeks throughout the last pages of the book, the ones dealing with Gandhi's assassination and the world's response to it. In death as in life, Gandhi united Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, both in India and Pakistan. Indians wept in grief and normal life was forgotten, for 'the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere'. Many Pakistanis skipped their meal that night, to mourn the loss of a remarkable human being. Said Pakistani leader Mian Iftikharuddin, "Each one of us who has raised his hand against innocent men, women and children during the past months, who has publicly or secretly entertained sympathy for  such acts, is a collaborator in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi"

If I had to condense the life of Mahatma Gandhi, three words would do it: he loved everyone. That overwhelming, incredible, majestic, ever-flowing love for men, women, children; Harijans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs; Englishmen and women, Germans, Americans, Africans. The world was his family and he couldn't stand a single act of violence that would harm his family. And that reasoning, is possibly why 'generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.'   To all those protesting peacefully in every part of the world for what is right, be it during the recent 'Arab Spring' or under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr, Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela, Gandhi's message is worth remembering: 'My life is my message'. This book is an unforgettable journey to understand that message.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reader, Writer, Reviewer: Mahatma Gandhi

I quite believe in judging people by the books they read. And when it comes to great personalities, understanding their reading tastes and the books that inspired them, goes a long way in helping us understand these men and women.

I'm now reading Rajmohan Gandhi's brilliant biography of Mahatma Gandhi: Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. Of all the many remarkable things about this great man's life, what strikes me is the importance that he gave to books and how much they influenced his life and ideas. Gandhi was a great reader whenever he found the time for it: for instance especially when he was imprisoned (He read thirty books in the three months he was jailed in Pretoria, South Africa)

Mohandas Gandhi's first trip abroad was to study in London and the young man was anxious to understand himself and what he actually believed in, when confronted by those of different cultures and habits. Books helped him immensely in this pursuit. Henry Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism, which Gandhi says he read 'from cover to cover' helped him become a vegetarian by choice. [Remember here that the teenager Gandhi had once believed that the puny, vegetarian Indian couldn't stand up to the meat-eating British man]

A Gandhi toying between atheism and all religions, Hinduism in particular, read Helena Blavatsky's Key to Theosophy, Edwin Arnold's translation of the Bhagavad Gita, The Song Celestial (a book he would recommend all his life as the best English translation of the Gita) and Arnold's book on the Buddha, The Light of Asia. Ever-fascinated to get to know different religions, Gandhi also read the Bible and George Sale's translation of the Quran.

His love and respect for Leo Tolstoy's writings, that would influence him enough to name his 'ashram' in South Africa Tolstoy Farm, began with reading  'The Kingdom of God is Within You' which Gandhi says overwhelmed him.

Sometimes, Gandhi sought refuge in books and great writers to see the arguments against and approval for some of his ideas. His interest in the works of Henry David Thoreau who he called 'one of the greatest and most moral men America has ever produced' is a case in point. Thoreau's statements on civil disobedience seemed to Gandhi to confirm and approve of his belief in satyagraha.

In a prison reading spree that would be a recurrent feature of his reading life, Gandhi read the following books during a two month imprisonment in South Africa: Thomas Carlyle's Lives of Robert Burns, Samuel Johnson and Walter Scott, Francis Bacon's Essays, Plato's Socrates. He later read Edward Carpenter's 'very illuminating' book Civilization: Its Cause and Care and also read Charles Dickens' David Copperfield 'with avidity'.

Perhaps no book captivated him as much as John Ruskin's Unto This Last. He resolved to put to practice the 'social equality and simple life' presented by the book, and bought a farm in Phoenix to reside with his family, friends and other members of the Indian community in South Africa.

Gandhi's own book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), put into words his long-held ideas of self-rule, civilization and how Indian civilisation is embedded with the concept of non-violence. He acknowledges in his preface to the book the inspiration that he received from reading Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau and Emerson. Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi was now corresponding, wrote back having reading Hind Swaraj, that the book was 'of great importance not only for India, but for the whole of humanity.'

In a rather remarkable trial in India (that deserves a post of its own), Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison for 'inciting disaffection towards His Majesty's Government' in 1922 in the aftermath of the tragedy of Chauri Chaura. In Yeravda jail, Gandhi read a brilliantly diverse set of books sent by friends or from the jail library, devoting six hours a day for reading.  

He read Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Kipling's songs of Empire, the Mahabharata, Plato, Jules Verne, Macaulay, Shaw, Walter Scott, Faust, Tagore, Wells, Woodroffe, Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; histories of Scotland, of the Sikhs, of India, of birds, of cities; biographies of Pitt, Columbus, Wilberforce, Paul of Tarsus, Kabir; several Christian, Muslim and Buddhist books and a series of Hindu texts; writings of Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Aurobindo and Tilak.

Writes Rajmohan Gandhi of the Mahatma's varied reading list: 'The Empire's Challenger is thus also, in his mid -fifties, a scholar with an appetite'. Gandhi sometimes also reviewed books for his newspapers, notably Katherine Mayo's controversial book Mother India about India's 'insanitation and other defects' where she claimed 'The drains are India'. Gandhi notes that the book was 'cleverly and powerfully written' and that it is 'a book that every Indian can read with some degree of profit'.

India's 'Father of the Nation' was a reader, writer and a book reviewer too; always open to understanding different, even extreme, opinions and weighing them with his beliefs, never afraid to learn from them. The books he read influenced his ideas, his policies, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say they ended up influencing the nation and the world. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Library Tales - The Incomplete Reader

After the library of which I have been a member for more than 5 years decided they could not only be petty, but also remain unapologetic to a long-time customer regarding a mistake made by their staff, I thought I had had enough.

Libraries are far more personal to me than the 'it's just business, we don't really care about you' staff of my previous library can imagine. Going to the library is a trip I always look forward to, making lists in my mind of what books I should look for, saying a little prayer that the book I had long awaited would finally be there for me to take home. And when people make it an unpleasant interaction, well, it's not worth my money.

"Here is where people, one frequently finds, lower their voices and raise their minds" 
- Richard Armour

Therefore, a new library with a fantastic collection of books was found. An interesting experiment has begun, because I chose a temporary membership for a couple of months. This means I cannot borrow books and take them home, but I can read any book I want at the library, leisurely, all day long.

I, who is so used to snuggling on to the couch, lying on my bed, book in hand, a cup of tea beside me, have had to learn to sit up straight in those sturdy chairs.

I, who is so used to throwing down my book on my sofa and walking a few paces to take in a major plot twist, has had to sit and stare at the book and utter a sigh, at most.

I, who is so used to picking any book, whenever I want, has had to understand the knack of picking smaller books that can be finished in one sitting. Or choosing huge reference books and taking notes from them.

I have also started learning the art of putting a half-finished book in a shelf where I hope none of the full-time members will find it and take it home. Placing the book in the lowest shelf, in the belief that people will be too lazy to bend down, was a big fiasco. It meant that I had read the charming Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, for, well, just a day.

There's something rather adventurous about this temporary membership; a far cry from the safe predictability of reading at home. Sure, it is incredibly annoying when the book you loved reading yesterday is missing today and your reading experiences are more incomplete than ever.

But having people immersed in books around you, jotting down notes furiously, lips moving silently with a book of Keats' poetry in hand, is a rather wonderful thing to see. I'm ever fascinated to see what everyone around me is reading (which is one of the reasons I love book blogging and Goodreads). Sometimes, seeing a wide smile on a person's face as their eyes drink in the pages of a book, is as lovely as reading a good book myself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Common Man and Partition

Fikr Taunsvi writes of Lahore in the traumatic months leading to Partition. A chilling account of what the common man went through, while life-changing decisions were made in Delhi and London:

'The washerman who lived on the ground floor...had become the father of a tiny baby at three in the morning and..was worried that the bazaars were shut. The sweet-seller who sold milk had locked his shop from inside and was hiding there. He had received no supply today because all milk-vendors are Muslim and this being a Hindu locality, they couldn't step into it. Hospitals were not functioning, neither were doctors, nurses and medicines, and both the mother and the infant were crying. The children were asking, 'Will the curfew never be lifted? Shall we never get milk?'...I wish you had the strength to ask great brains like Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah and other statement and maulvis to wear the guise of this unlettered washerman for a moment. Then you may go request the British to give you freedom. Then demand Pakistan and Hindustan'

These are the real voices of Partition, voices that tell the story of their times, of an event that changed their lives and that of their country, voices that lived through the traumatic possibility of becoming aliens in their own home. It's time we stopped reading only the political and diplomatic version of Partition. The real story of the birth of India and Pakistan lies with the people.

{Taunsvi's quotes are excerpted  from Yasmin Khan's brilliant book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan}

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell

Rating: 9/10

For long I've heard Elizabeth Gaskell mentioned in the same hall of fame as Jane Austen: female writers with an uncanny ability to bring to life the society of their times. Now that I have finally experienced the delight of a Gaskell novel, I can see why. At 60 chapters and 650 odd pages, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is a sprawling read written with seemingly effortless ease. A little patience is always mandatory while reading big fat books and Gaskell rewards patience with some of the most unforgettable characters I've read in a while.

First published in eighteen monthly parts in the Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866, Wives and Daughters is an unfinished novel; Gaskell died before adding the final touches to her masterpiece. The story of the charming community of Hollingford, with its gossiping ladies, snobby yet revered Lords and Ladies and most importantly, our sensible, warm-hearted, loving protagonist Molly Gibson and her father, the much respected doctor.

Mr.Gibson decides to remarry and seventeen year old Molly is faced with a new stepmother and a stepsister Cynthia, who is charming, unpredictable and eternally irresistible to the menfolk. Molly's beautiful relationship with the Hamley family, her love for Squire Hamley and his wonderful wife, and the friendship between her and the two sons of the family - Osborne and Roger, form the crux of the book. 

Like all great novels, Wives and Daughters is very memorable because of a cast of characters, each of whom are masterfully crafted. The new Mrs.Gibson is an absolute delight of a character that Jane Austen would be proud of. Silly, vain, shockingly and embarrassingly insensitive, determined to remove herself from the stereotype of the evil stepmother, Mrs.Gibson and her comic proclamations are bound to keep you entertained. Indeed in an alternate literary universe, I do wish Mrs. Bennet would meet Mrs. Gibson and they would discuss about their daughters.

Mr.Gibson is a loving father and a sarcastic foil to his new wife. Molly is too straight forward a character, but some of the passages where she confronts her feelings about the man she might love, are beautifully written. Cynthia, on the other hand, is such a brilliantly complex character. Many a time you intend to hate her, her ego and vanity, her 'inconstancy' too, but she more than redeems herself through the affection she shows towards those she loves.

The Hamley brothers are fascinating, and I'd say it is hard not to fall in love with Roger Hamley. He is a literary character who is strong, sensible, kind, intelligent, passionate, with a habit of talking of books and recommending the right ones to to the right people, which, needless to say, I find very charming. 

Gaskell's writing is deceptively simple, filled with vivid and witty observations and an eye for irony that doesn't mind mocking societal norms and follies. Some of the several quotes I loved:

'It is odd enough to see how the entrance of a person of the opposite sex into an assemblage of either men or women calms down the little discordances and the disturbance of mood'

"Your husband this morning! Mine tonight! What do you take him for?' 
'A man' smiled Cynthia. 'And therefore, if you won't let me call him changeable, I'll coin a word and call him consolable." 

The text is peppered with several cultural and historical references that would be lost to a reader if not for helpful notes (provided in my excellent Penguin Classics edition). Gaskell's greatest strength is her ability to captivate the reader and transport them to the world of Hollingford, making them emotionally bonded to the characters. Indeed it is quite magical that just at the moment I told myself it was getting dreary without Mr.Roger Hamley appearing often, two characters in the book say the same thing!

The world Gaskell creates is one which any reader can relate to, brilliantly realistic in its depiction of timeless themes such as friendship, tragedy, debts and money, marriage, love, mother-daughter relationships. That is probably why there is more than a twinge of sadness that Mrs.Gaskell did not live to tie the ends and provide a fitting finale that would satisfy readers. But that, in no way, takes away the fact that Gaskell has given the world a classic that captures human nature in a witty, poignant fashion.

It has to be a special book if after being treated to 650 pages of the story, one still wishes it would go on. If you're an Austen fan and love books set in 19th century England, you are almost certain to enjoy reading Wives and Daughters. There are a lot of characters, relationships and themes that are worth discussing, making this book a great choice for readalongs or book clubs. 

There is also the pleasure of knowing that a BBC adaptation is awaiting the reader who has just finished a classic. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Memories of a Booklover

Musty books, worn out covers, brown pages that act as remnants of reading and rereading, a blot of ink here, a careless scribble there: the cast of characters at a second-hand bookstore. The dust in the air is overwhelming and I sneeze. Covering my nose with a handkerchief, I prowl around looking for the books I want to take home. It's a lot like a treasure hunt, except, the clues are hazier and there really is no surety of what I would find.

The best discoveries are truly accidental and so it was when I picked Ketaki Kushari Dyson's translation of Rabindranath Tagore's poems: I Won't Let You Go. An unflattering yellow cover with bright red text; not at all the dainty poetry collection you'd like to display on your shelf. I was hardly a lover of poetry then: I was either confused by it or found it pretentious or was just too thick to understand some celebrated poets. But I knew I had to read Tagore, at least to understand why he was revered as a national treasure.

Discovering Tagore is one of the best things that have ever happened to my life. And that memory of haphazard rows of books, dusty and waiting to fall at the slightest inadvertent nudge, has always stayed with me.


That day began very early. I joined the crowd as people waited for their turn to get into the book shop. Faces: smiling as they stifled the early morning yawn, excited and unafraid of jumping to show it, jokes flying in the air, people who previously had no idea of each other's existence exchanging grins as they marched in to get their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Killjoys who came out with the book, proceeded to open the last page and read from it, immediately leading to angry swear words from the crowd, people shutting their ears to avoid hearing if Harry died or if Ron and Hermione finally got together.

That was the end of a literary experience like no other. Quite remarkable that waiting in a queue is one of the most wonderful bookish memories I have.


And then of course comes what is probably the most annoying habit a booklover is guilty of: Remembering people by the books they read and the books they recommend. The teacher who gifted me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes because she knew I'd love it. The friend who let me read Heidi first and waited till I'm done with the book after which she could get it from the school library. The librarian who gave me a phonecall to let me know that the book I had been waiting for a long time - Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger - was finally available. Bloggers who helped me discover some of my all-time favourite books: The Group, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Agatha Christie book, Death in the Clouds, that my Aunt borrowed from me to help her from being bored, immediately after giving birth. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, gifted by my best friends on my birthday. 

Remembering the prodigious collection of books at Grandpa's house and feeling a little envious. Picking the right book for Mum when she says she needs a feel-good read. Never forgetting all the books Dad recommends when I tell him about a topic, with so much variety and relevance as though he's an automated Goodreads archive. That sinking feeling when I dislike a book he recommended or find it too complicated.

Demanding a friend who is moving to another city to sign the book she is giving me as a farewell gift. Finding Mahatma Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth in Mum's bookshelf and pocketing it for myself to read. Convincing Mum that even though it looks worn out and jaded, Integration of the Indian States by VP Menon is a remarkable treasure of a book that is worth buying. Buying books that I've always wanted to, like Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, thanks to a book voucher gift from my parents. 

That friend who is a Snape fan. The friend who always argues that Charlotte Bronte is better than Jane Austen. The friend who told me with remarkable honesty that she couldn't finish Emma and found it quite boring. The friend who would not let me walk past unless I guessed 'Caput Draconis' or 'Pinefresh'. 

Indeed, almost every book one reads or buys has perhaps an inconsequential or precious story attached to it; remarkable memories for a booklover. Reminisce about your bookish memories and share them!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan - Yasmin Khan

Rating: 9/10

For long, most of us have thought we know about partition. The story that our textbooks taught us was a simple one: Pakistan was carved out of India as a land for many Muslims and a partition occurred, one of the largest human displacements ever, and there was a lot of violence in which a lot of people died. We mourned those who died in the violence of partition for a sentence, not even a paragraph. And quickly moved on to celebrate our Tryst With Destiny, often forgetting that we kept our date with destiny after immense pain, bloodshed and hatred.

If only things were that convenient or simple to the people who lived through the traumatic violent months that were the ominous precursors to India and Pakistan's birth. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan is a stunning book, precisely because it shatters the convenient myths that India, Pakistan and Britain have maintained as history. Yasmin Khan brings to light the confusion and chaos that prevailed during the 'transfer of power' from the British Raj to the Indian and Pakistani governments. 

Words that in retrospect have been inscribed with clarity and meaning - like 'Pakistan', 'independence' - were vague words, the meaning of which differed from person to person in that era! Some questions rang in the hearts and minds of people: 'What exactly was Pakistan going to be? Where would its borders be?' 'Who is a Pakistani? Who is an Indian?' 'What would independence really mean to the poor?' And before they could understand the magnitude of answering these questions, religious violence and ethnic cleansing broke out, partition happened. India and Pakistan were born, leaving behind thousands dead and thousands confused.

Yasmin Khan chronicles the months and events that lead to partition, the terror and trauma that men, women and children went through before two countries came into existence. Dr.Khan analyses with impressive neutrality and encourages the reader to grapple with cold facts and form opinions on what partition actually was. Some incidents that she quotes in her book made my heart beat fast and brought tears to my eyes. For instance:

Urdu journalist Shorish Kashmiri writes: ‘Some young people, whose parents had been butchered and whose sisters and daughters had been left in Pakistan, surrounded Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru). One young man lost his temper and gave Panditji a resounding slap; a slap on the face of the Prime Minister of India. But Panditji said nothing to him. He just placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. The young man shouted: ‘Give my mother back to me! Bring my sisters to me!’ Panditji’s eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Your anger is justified, but, be it Pakistan or India, the calamity that has overtaken us is all the same. We have both to pass through it.’

Understanding partition in just an academic point of view is impossible without confronting the emotions that come your way when you read of months of madness and slaughter. Neighbours slaughtering each other, people who once differed with each other on their political beliefs - Congress or the Muslim League - suddenly seeing each other as Hindu or Muslim 'enemies', women, almost 83000 of them 'abducted' on both sides of the border, rape being used as an instrument of war against communities, some politicians and parties aiding and abetting violence, British troops abdicating duty  and simply watching as people died, in a land which they had exploited for more than 200 years and hastily declared independent.

Yet there were also those who at great danger to their lives, saved the lives of friends from other communities. There are inspiring stories of the many social workers and volunteers who set out to heal wounds, wipe tears, rebuild lives, even when their own lives had been torn apart by partition.

There is no doubt about the great tragedy that Partition was. And yes, it ought to be capitalized, just as the Holocaust is. Understanding Partition is crucial for anyone who wants to understand India, Pakistan and indeed their relationship with each other. It saddens me that Partition is used only as a one-word, one-sentence reference, as though it was an event that ought to be remembered, but only as a small axis point. It shouldn't. Partition and its many victims, perpetrators need to be fully understood in the context of the situation in the subcontinent at that time. We need to make our peace with the truths of that turbulent time. 

The Great Partition is mandatory reading for anyone interested in India, Pakistan or the British Raj. It doesn't deal just with the politics of Partition from the elite Delhi perspective, but delves into the heart of the common man, from Lahore to Noakhali to East Bengal, who paid the biggest price for Partition. The book is not written in a racy, fiction-style format and therefore might not be the easiest of reads, but it is a wonderful, thought-provoking academic work that I highly recommend.

I hope to post more excerpts from Dr.Khan's book in the coming weeks, as part of A Passage to the British Raj. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Welcome to the British Raj

 "In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England."

With this brilliant line begins Alex Von Tunzelmann's wonderful  Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, a book I highly recommend for its great depiction of the final days of the Raj. The above quote though, is so fitting for the start of our journey, for it gives an idea of what England and India were, before they became Ruler and Ruled. 

The symbol of the  East India company

It all began with the East India company, the predecessor of the British Raj, which initially dealt with trade in India. It was not long before trade became military and administrative control of many parts of India and the East India Company was soon acting as an 'agent of British imperialism in India' till the Great Revolt of 1857* (dismissed by the British as just a 'Sepoy Mutiny' and referred to by several Indian historians as 'The First War of Indian Independence.' The truth, as in most cases, probably lies somewhere between those two descriptions )

The 1857 Revolt shocked the East India Company since it succeeded far more than they thought it would. It was time for a change and the era of the British Raj (British Reign) ruled directly by the Crown, was heralded. It lasted from 1858 to 1947, when Partition tore apart two nations born out of bloodshed and trauma - India and Pakistan. 

The British Raj was an exercise of imperial control over the masses of India, to tap into India's immense wealth, raw material and take advantage of warring rulers of Princely states to establish the might of the British. The Raj was also an exercise where two different civilizations and peoples with little in common, found themselves at a place where they needed to interact with each other.

These interactions fascinate me tremendously, because not only do they showcase the contact between people of different cultures but also serve as a remarkable source of insight into the minds of the people who lived through the Raj and reaped its benefits and disadvantages. 

Unlikely friendships were made, alliances were forged, Englishmen served in India with pride (it wasn't for nothing that India was referred to as the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the British Empire), some became Indophiles, many were born and brought up in India and felt alien only when they went to England. Indians, meanwhile, went to England to be educated and many became Macaulay's Children. It was, in a sense, a wonderful exchange of ideas and cultures. The East met the West, not on equal footing, but it was still a remarkable meeting .

So while rich Indian boys were sent to the best English boarding schools and Universities and Indian children were taught by English governesses, several thousand Englishmen and women began to discover India. And with their help, we discover the British Raj.

Here are the contents of a rather amusing (to me) booklet given to Philip Gallop, a new member of the Royal Air Force stationed in Bombay. With thanks to Genevieve and the BBC:

Welcome to Bombay
Bombay’s citizens are very anxious to ensure that you enjoy yourselves, so that when you move on you will have the happiest memories of their city.
Exposure of your head to sun before 4pm, eating over-ripe fruit or fruits not protected by skin, drinking water from a street fountain, walking bare-footed, drinking intoxicating drinks during the day - especially spirits or soft-drinks from marbled-stoppered bottles, patronising beggars, medicants, fortune-tellers and curio dealers.
Service Organisations:
Freemasonry: Headquarters:
Gallop was also provided a map of Bombay, with specifically marked 'Out of Bounds' areas:
Next week we see what the women, English and Indian, made of each other and the Raj. 
Many thanks to Mel U of The Reading Life for joining in with A Passage to the British Raj. His post featuring stories written during the British Raj from what is now Bangladesh is definitely worth reading.

* For a fictionalised, Bollywoodised take on the Great Revolt of 1857,  watch Mangal Pandey: The Rising starring Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens.


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