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.


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