Book Post 51 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
25 Nov 2019
Book Post 51 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
25 Nov 2019
Rana Safvi is a writer, blogger and translator. She documents her passion for India’s Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb [ culture] via its food, customs, festivals, monuments and clothes. She has recently published The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, the second book in her Where the Stones Speak trilogy, published by HarperCollins India. I interviewed her via email. Here are edited excerpts.
I was in my teens when my father got posted in Agra and as we lived very close to the Taj Mahal that was the venue for our evening walks. That was the first time I felt the pull of stones and wished they would speak. At that time I had no idea that one day I would end up writing about these very stones or that Delhi would be the place that would beguile me. But they say that childhood passions never go away and I am lucky that I got an opportunity even if very late in life to fulfill those dreams. My trilogy Where Stones Speak is the fulfillment of those dreams of listening to stones and making them speak.
Somewhere along the journey of the first book I became a full time writer and I find it deeply satisfying on a personal note to be able to say all the things, which were, buried inside me somewhere waiting to come out. I’m lucky that I got a chance but I would urge everyone to hang on to his or her dreams. It’s never too late. I started at 55 years of age when my friends were retiring and I enjoy it. Staying busy also keeps me feeling very young.
Apart from this trilogy I have also translated Dastan-e-Ghadar: Tale of a Mutiny (Penguin Random House India) and Tales from the Quran and Hadith ( Juggernaut Books) and by God’s Grace, I have two more translations coming up later in the year.
Delhi was never a destination for me till 2012 as I used it more as a transit point while visiting relatives in UP. At the time I was living in the Gulf.
It was only when my daughter shifted to Delhi that I started staying here for long periods of time. I had visited a few major monuments like Red Fort and Qutub Minar as a student but that was about it. Around the same time, I met the founder of Delhi Karvan, Asif Khan Dehlvi, who conducts heritage walks. I was part of his first walk in November 2013. He told us many stories from Urdu books written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I realized that the books describing Delhi in English were either very dry and dull or written from a very British perspective in aftermath of the Uprising of 1857. There were no books with historical anecdotes and research especially from Urdu sources. As at that time I was relatively free and monuments are something I’m extremely passionate about I decided to write the books.
I have covered the seven medieval cities of Delhi till 1857. The first city was Mehrauli, which was the subject of the first book: Historical Trails in the First City of Delhi, Mehrauli. The second book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi describes the five subsequent cities of Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad and Dinpanah. Since this is a vast area and covers almost all of Delhi, I have added all the other areas which may not strictly have fallen within these cities but were built in that era. I have also included monuments from other cities such as Kilokhari and Mubarakpur Kotla which have been swallowed up by urban development. I have described these 14 cities in detail in the first book. My guide for including the monuments was the Urdu book Waqeat e Dar-ul Hukumat Dehli written in 1919 by Basheeruddin Ahmed from all the Persian, Urdu and English sources available to him at that time. The third and final book will be on the imperial city of Shahjahanabad leading up to the Uprising of 1857.
I do a lot of field work, sometimes visiting a monument a number of times to verify details I find in books. It takes time as I research written material too. It takes me around two years to do fieldwork and research for a book and for Qasim to take the accompanying photographs. It is a combination of research and a bit of detective work on the ground – a time consuming process.
One day I had set off with Syed Mohammad Qasim to take photographs in Vasant Vihar. He mentioned a reference to a 14th century mosque and a dargah in that area that he had heard of. We kept asking the locals and going round the area till we saw huge iron gates in the Aravalli City Forest. We asked to enter but were only permitted to so when we explained we had come as part of our research for a book. To our surprise we saw a huge area beautifully forested and a 14th century dargah of Syed Murad Ali Baba Shah and a khanqah and mosque from same period which had been restored by the Abdul Mannan Academy who run a madarsa here. That we have such a huge green area and a Shahi Masjid (Tughlaq era) was a pleasant surprise for us.
Similarly, I had found a reference to a group of tombs in Zamarudpur called Panj Burja by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his 1846 book, Asar us Sanadid (Vol 1). So I set off in search of them. The first one was easy to spot as it was at the entrance to the colony. This area is lal dora land, which means that it is out of New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) limits and these monuments are delisted so don’t come under Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Finding the next four monuments was a challenge and took me a whole day. The locals tried to chase us off and intimidate us into not taking photographs but I asked them for some orders which prohibited me from doing so and failing that I refused to budge. They eventually gave up and left us. Another young heritage enthusiast Sahil Ahuja was with me and both of us put on out Sherlock Holmes hat. It was with great difficulty that we found them. The other four tombs are hidden within the tenements, used for throwing trash, one was even being given on rent to garbage collectors. The fifth could only be discovered by climbing six flights of steps as it was surrounded by high rises on all sides and so not visible from the ground. Discovering that the Zamarudpur tombs had been badly encroached, were in a badly decaying state and were almost inaccessible to the public was a very unpleasant shock.
With Where Stones Speak I explored Mehrauli initially with Asif Khan Dehlvi, founder of Delhi Karavan, who conducts heritage walks in Delhi and later when Qasim accompanied us to take photographs. The three of us entered the desolate areas to explore the ruins and in the process enjoyed the experience immensely! We work very well as a team, complement each other and are constantly learning from each other too.
Though now I don’t explore places in summer due to the extreme heat but I must confess for the Mehrauli book, Asif and I did make a lot of field trips in May and June. Now I am a little more careful though just as excited and enthusiastic about every trip. Some places that are more frequented by people I do visit alone but if they are very lonely I go with Qasim or some other heritage enthusiast, but a companion I must have!
When I’m describing a monument in words I have a certain facet of it in mind so I convey it to Qasim as well as I want the photograph exactly along the lines of the image I have in mind. Mostly we go together and take decisions on the spot but as I said sometimes both of us go alone if we can’t match our schedules. Qasim took all photos for the book. None of the images in the book are from stock photo collections.
I’m glad you like it. I don’t know whether it was intentional or not but that is how it came naturally to me. I believe in letting words flow and take me with them. I normally edit after that process is over. For me it is a world into which I want my reader to enter with me. Perhaps it’s the effect of going for and conducting heritage walks. I take mental notes and nowadays videos when I visit so that I can cross check details.
Most of the tombs don’t have headstones so we don’t know who is buried there. Locals over the years gave it their own names, which we use even today. Some are very descriptive.
In 1854 Sir Saiyed Ahmad khan wrote Asar-us-Sanadid in which he described 130 monuments of Delhi. So these are identified. For others the books I use as reference are Maulvi Zafar Hasan’s book Monuments of Delhi written in 1919 for the ASI And Basheeruddin Ahmed‘s Waqeat e Darul Hukumat Dehli, also written at the same time. I have copied the names from these books.
That’s an idea! Actually recording oral history is a huge and very essential project. I try to do it whenever I can but don’t know if I can do it as a separate project.
It wasn’t a deliberate omission and wherever I could I have given locations but I will remember to be more exact in the next book.
You know it didn’t strike me to make maps. But yes will definitely consider it now. I do realize maps make it easier to locate and visit.
Yes, I am concerned, very concerned as so many are crumbling right in front of our eyes or being encroached. One purpose of these books is to acquaint people with these monuments and hope that they will come to love them and own responsibility for them. Till we don’t feel some sense of kinship or ownership for these monuments we don’t have hope of their survival. Urban development and rapid commercialization is eating them up.
I have been advocating adoption of nearest monument by schools and colleges and building programmes around it. Whether they are heritage walks, brochures, dynasty timelines, quiz programmes etc.
I met the principal of Vasant Valley School recently and put forward this idea to her. So far ASI has not given them permission to adopt Delhi’s first Islamic tomb, Sultanghari which is the closest to their school. ASI should allow and partner them. It’s only when the children are involved that we can hope to protect our heritage. I think that would be the most effective campaign.
To buy the books mentioned, follow the Amazon links embedded in the book cover images.
9 July 2018
Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zahiruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume. Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”
Dastan-e-Ghadar is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).
Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:
Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “anguishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not induced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).
Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.
Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.
The Surprise Attack
Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.
One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.
When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.
Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores
All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated
These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.
The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’
One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.
They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.
The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.
Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.
It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.
The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.
Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.
A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.
The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.
The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.
At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.
In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.
The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these weapons for two days.
I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.
( Extract from pgs. 119-122)
Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599
Maps of Delhi is a rich collection of historical maps after 1803 till the Master Plan of Delhi 2021. Pilar Maria Guerrieri as a doctoral student of architecture started scouring the National Archives of India and institutions for maps. Studying maps helped her understand the evolution of Delhi as a city while making it possible to “consider the link between empty spaces and built areas as well as the association between agricultural and non-agricultural land. They distinguish public buildings, the disposition of plots, the types of housing, and the density of the urban fabric in addition to interpreting the structures innervating the territory, like watercourses, canals, routes, railroads, and roads, as also the order or constellation of the countryside and the correlation between villages and cities. Effectively and particularly in the illustration of Delhi, these maps delineate, more so demarcate and define, the spread of several urban settlements, planned or organically organised, and provide a pragmatic synopsis of how they are juxtaposed, concurrent or interlaced, with each other”.
In his Foreword to the book, well-known architect, A. G. Krishna Menon says the geneaology of Pilar Maria Guerrieri’s methodology can find its roots in the Italian acdemic tradition of understanding a city by studying its maps and drawings or the so-called “Italian school of planning typology’ which developed theoretical approaches based on analysing ancient cartography of cities as a foundation and core of their design interventions. “These pioneering initiatives established the Italian academic culture of physical planning, which becomes evident in the manner Guerrieri studied Delhi.”
Cartography is an exacting technique through which areas of territory are represented. Maps have always been extremely useful to governments, military commanders, engineers and increasingly civilians. Earlier they were largely representative but with increased knowledge and advanced measurement tools it became possible to create more and more accurate maps.
In the Indian sub-continent for centuries people have relied on the patwaris or the lowest level of state functionary in the revenue collection system to record land use. These individuals are to be found whereever there is habitation and in the older settlements the records stretch back decades, sometimes even centuries. Maps are a repository of a lot of sensitive information as well.
Today maps are used increasingly in real time particularly on digital devices using a complex network of satellites, an extensive network of cables and Internet connectivity. Fewer individuals rely on printed maps, less and less of which are being published too. It may be a convenient tool to access a map on a smartphone but over a period of time it will become evident that a significant way of recording history and land use will be lost forever. For now it is not very clear who is storing this information since there are multiple agencies and individuals recording it. In the future researchers like Guerrieri may find it challenging to seek the information they desire since data will be non-existent or available in formats that newer technologies may be unable to access. At least printed maps such as those included in Maps of Delhi remain available over time. While we are on maps of Delhi here is an interesting one commissioned by Raghu Karnad as editor, Time Out — Literary Map. It was designed by Akila Seshayee.
Interestingly enough even to reproduce the few images for this article required new permission from the National Archives of India. Some of the maps though published in the book cannot be reproduced anywhere else for their sensitive nature and only one-time use has been granted for the book.
Maps of Delhi is a heavily illustrated book in four colour. A scrumptious production worth possessing for the lay reader or the specialist. It makes a wonderful companion to Mapping India also published by Niyogi Books.
The following images from the book are used with permission.
Pilar Maria Guerrieri Maps of Delhi ( Foreword by A.G. Krishna Menon) Niyogi Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Hb. Rs. 4500 / £65 /$85
18 June 2017
On Monday, 4 January 2016, I attended Hindi publisher Rajkamal Prakashan’s book launch for noted journalist and writer, Mrinal Pande’s Dhvaniyon ke aalok mein stree . Mrinal Pande has written a nonfiction book about the vast contribution of professional women musicians (largely tawaifs or courtesans till the mid 20thC) to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music in post-1857 India. Most of whom went unmentioned even by famous musicians and Ustads, whom they had lovingly and selflessly tutored and mentored through their early days of penury. The panel includes journalist Yatendra Mishra, singer Shubha Mudgal, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, Mrinal Pande and publisher Ashok Maheshwari. The event was introduced by editor Satyanand Nirupam.
I enjoyed the event immensely. Two hours went by so swiftly. I could have heard the conversations some more.
I liked the narrative which emerged from the evening’s chat. Women musicians were a phenomenal influence and in many cases taught men who were to later earn quite a name for themselves. But the focus was not necessarily on the women musicians who have been profiled in the book but many like Shubha Mudgal’s Nani ( maternal grandmother) who yearned to learn music but was not allowed by her father. Instead he insisted she learn the piano. To fulfil her desire of learning Hindustani music Nani had herself photographed holding various Indian musical instruments in the garden. (I am curious though how did the Nani get access to those musical instruments with which she was photographed in the garden?) Or the many rich wives of Bombay boxwallahs or the corporates who were taught music to while their time. It served another purpose too – the male musicians social ambitions of being seeing in the right circles. But the true preservers, inheritors and practitioners of music, were the Hindu and Muslim tawaifs, who kept Hindustani musical traditions alive by performing every night gave music a lease of life. Equally significantly they kept local languages and dialects or “bolis” alive in the Hindi that was commonly known and spoken. They were not averse to borrowing, blending, improvising and creating fresh interpretations as long as music was heard. This for Mrinal Pande is a crucial aspect of the womens musicians contribution to language and musical traditions. Her analysis of Hindi being kept alive since it had not as yet been politicised and hijacked depriving it of its backbone, ie the various bolis some of which were integral to the gharanas. So these remained in the social consciousness. I found this gem fascinating.
Another one was that of women singers graduating from anonymity to establishing their name to a recording. The idea that after the 3.5 minutes of 78 rpm had been cut by the German engineers the women to ensure the correct singer was given due credit said her name at the tail end of the song. It is incredible what technology and different kinds of publishing can do for the identity and self-worth of an individual.
The Union Home Ministry note issued in 1946 when Govind Vallabh Pant who was a minister in the provisional government debarring women singers who had a pesha or were tawaifs from singing. Later Mr Keskar, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, post independence, nullified the government note banning,”women whose personal lives are a public scandal”, in 1952. Suddenly it all made sense to my mind…once again the notion of identity of the women along with the patriarchal tyranny which was implicit in the 1946 order. But when Mr Keskar overturned the order he insisted the religion of singer be evident. All muslim singers were to add the prefix “Begum” and hindu singers had to add the suffix, “Devi”. Now that too is a curious move…identification along religious lines. Not unheard of. It could be considered at par with the star all Jews had to stitch on their coats in Nazi Germany.
I liked the story about Mrinal Pande’s mother, the popular Hindi novelist, “Shivani”, taking her husband’s permission to write and then adopting a pen name. Ironically it is Shivani who now remains alive in people’s minds. I enjoyed Shubha Mudgal’s response about her son being cared for by the extended clan while she was on tour and the astonishment expressed by the Indian diaspora who could not fathom how this was possible — “Had she taken permission from her husband to do so?” Having said that I know these women continue to be rare examples and not necessarily the norm.
Even Yatindra Mishra’s tale about his Dadi (paternal grandmother) not being permitted to sing since it would be frowned upon by society especially now that the family had lost their princely status. Given the context that women musicians were mostly tawaifs this would have really complicated matters for the family. So her father did not allow her to sing saying, “What will people say? They will think we have fallen on such hard times that now the daughter of the house is singing to earn!” Funny how far Indian society has now come with children being encouraged to sing and perform publicly in the hope they can become professional singers, preferably in Bollywood.
I liked how gracefully and tactfully Shubha Mudgal and Mrinal Pande dealt with the comment about “deterioration” of Indian classical musicians performing mobile ring tones and snatches of popular Hollywood musicals. It was fascinating to observe the arguments playing out between the purists and those who were arguing for the evolution of musical traditions such as the examples noted by Ashok Vajpayee. He said sometimes he can identify bits of Gwalior or Bhopal gharanas in modern renditions. Interesting.
Dhvaniyon ke aalok mein stree has been published by Rajkamal Prakashan. It is available in hardback and paperback.
6 January 2016
“…she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things which make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being an expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. What a poet of her times once called ‘those years and years of world without event’ made up her drama. So, as well as her life being that of her own times, as must be the case of a monarch in her position, her life was also that of the inner woman, of whom — from the letters and the journals — we have a vivid sense.”
A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria: A Life, is the first authorised biography of the Queen. This has been written with permission granted to A. N. Wilson by Queen Elizabeth II to access documents, journals, letters, etc related to Queen Victoria. It is a detailed account of Queen Victoria, with a fine balance achieved between giving a personal history combined with the socio-political events of the time. With a historian, novelist and a fine scholar of the Victorian period such as A.N. Wilson writing this account, it is fascinating. For instance when discussing Queen Victoria’s journals, he says: “She began her journals, when aged thirteen, in the momentous year of the Reform Bill becoming law; she makes no allusion to it, any more than Jane Austen, in her novels, alluded to the Napoleonic Wars.” ( p.63)
Queen Victoria straddles a period in history that was a watershed moment for science, technology, social reform, literature, and politics. Her grandfather’s reign was synonymous with the loss of the colonies in America, but by the time she died in 1901, the British Empire was said to be so vast that the sun never set on it and had been crowned Empress of India. When the queen was attending her first Drawing Room, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, headed towards the Galapagos Islands. For her coronation, 28 June 1838, “the crowds were huge. Railways had brought an unprecedented numbers into the capital.” (p.86) During her reign, her husband, Prince Albert organised the Great Exhibition in London ( 1851). –“the largest the world had ever seen, as demonstration of industrial design and expertise”. A fabulous description of the planning involved and range of exhibits at the fair– exhibits from India, snowshoes from Canada, gas fittings, brass bedsteads, buttons, needles and agricultural machinery from a new English countryside, photography, iron works, statues and ceramics, steam engines, globes and clocks, French silks, a model of the Niagara Falls and a mass of zinc from America weighing 16,400 pounds, four decorated rooms from Vienna and a fountain which spurted eau-de-cologne… . “By the time the cheaper rates had been fixed only 200,000 people had attended, but the multitudes soon came – some 6 million visitors before the Exhibiton closed.” And a profit of £200,000 had been made. ( A friend on Facebook told me when I posted this information as a status, her great grandmother went from India by ship to attend it!)
For the first time there is insight on the Prince Consort, Prince Albert and the influence he wielded in court, over Victoria, in politics, science, and as a patron of the Arts. “When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up of the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College… And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.” (p.218-9) Throughout the book there are details of Prince Albert’s meticulous planning, sharp political moves, his active participation in England and yet, for most of his life he was perceived as a foreigner, who had come from Germany just as the other two notable Germans now living in England — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Prince Albert’s sense that the social and economic injustices of the industrial towns of ‘England’ would lead to communism, meanwhile were shared by two young German exiles who arrived in England during the same year — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the three Germans — Albert, Marx and Engels — were in a better position to get a perspective on the British Isles than some of its longer-standing inhabitants. ( p.146)
Queen Victoria has been the longest serving monarch in England ( 63 years and 7 months), mother of nine children and grandmother of forty-two and matriarch of Royal Europe, through the marriages of her children.When an authorised biography of a queen has been commissioned during the reign of another monarch, it is impossible not to compare the life written about with the present queen and her experiences. The fact that such a book has been published, allowing personal accounts of the royal family to be made public, making a realistic portrait as far as possible, including references to the scandal-prone Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the queen’s grandson. For instance, A. N. Wilson writes, “There was never any firm evidence that Eddy was bisexual, let alone homosexual, but he was the sort of man to whom scandalous stories stuck like burrs. ( In 1962, upon no evidence whatsoever, it was even claimed that he was Jack the Ripper.)” (p.488) Reporting such incidents of indiscretion amongst the members of the Royal family would have previously been unheard of, more so in a commissioned project such as this. Yet the inclusion of these episodes is also a reflection of the transformation the British monarchy has had to experience in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Dwelling upon Queen Victoria’s relationship with John Brown and her Munshi, would probably not have been permissible earlier. But now ample space, well-documented and researched, has been allotted to the significant presence these men had in the queen’s life.
Entrusting a historian with the task of writing a biography implies that there is attention paid to historical details. For instance in the references to the uprising of 1857, A. N. Wilson in his description brings together various lines of thought about how the incident is perceived — a mutiny or an uprising or “as the first rumblings of Indian nationalism, or merely localized expressions of outrage”. (p.213). As for Queen Victoria read the accounts with mounting disgust. There are plenty of examples of such historical accuracy throughout the book — Crimean War, Africa, Afghanistan, etc. Sure there are moments of hagiographical genuflections towards Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. While describing the portrait made of the couple by Brocky when they were twenty-two years old and had already started to have children, A. N. Wilson says “Brocky …immortalizes a couple who are mythological progenitors, like Abraham, the father of many nations”. (p.100) It presents the life of a queen as an twenty-first century reader would expect — a history, personal anecdotes contextualized by socio-historical events, with a strong focus on the queen as a woman too. It scorches rumours for instance of Queen Victoria’s paternity and how she came to be a carrier of Haemophilia. It introduces the Victorian Era to a modern reader, but at the same time forms an informed backdrop to an account of a formidable woman, who was much more than the dumpy woman, usually portrayed in her widow’s garb of a black dress and the white cap.
This is a biography worth reading. It raises the bar of how biographies should be written, with plenty of detail, without making it turgid to read.
Update ( 16 Oct 2014)
The manuscript was read by a representative of the palace and commented upon. And the publishers had to have their permission to use all of the material which is subject to Royal Copyright.
A. N. Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 580. Rs. 999 ( Distributed by Penguin Books India)
School textbook market is the bread and butter of many publishing businesses. If a book get adopted by a school board or a bunch of schools, then the title has an assured market for many years to come. It is a market that is not easily broken into. It has a cycle of publishing that is very different to trade publishing–it is a specialist market. Most importantly, the content being created needs to be vetted or written by specialists. Yet of late trade publishers, at least in India, have been making attempts to step into the school textbook market by creating books I would like to term as “hybrid books” — books that somewhat fit on the lists of a trade publisher but with the hope of being adopted by the school market.
The three examples of recently published books that I wish to discuss are — Indiapedia: The All India Factfinder, Hachette: School Handbook, and India:A to Z. These are a cross between easy reference books for school students and encyclopaedic in their content, with a bit of trivia thrown in, suitable for young quizzers. Save for India:A to Z written by Veena Seshadri and Vidya Mani, the other two books seem to have been put together by a content creator or a team. For instance Indiapedialists Christmas as one of the top 10 festivals in India ( all though it does not include Christianity as one of the religions in India). The entry on p.187 is:
The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is carried out with great pomp and fervour in India. Christians and non-Christians alike attend Mass in churches and partake of Christmas cake. Midnight Mass at St. Paul’s Church in Kolkata is a favourite spot for tourists to attend at this time. Christmas trees are decorated and hymns are sung–this is perhaps one of the most favourable reminders of the British Rule in India.
Even in India:A to Z the reference on p.43 to the “Fab things freedom fighters did!”, to only focus on the events of 1857, referring to it as a “revolt” or mentioning Veer Savarkar’s book terming the “The Indian War of Independence” needs to be reviewed. Historians prefer to refer to it as “Uprising”, taking into account all perspectives.
This is careless writing and irresponsible publishing. All three books mentioned here need to be vetted by educationists and academics for the information that they include. If these hybrid books get the stamp of approval from specialists, the chances of these books being adopted by schools and selling well, will increase substantially. A point to be considered rather than releasing mediocre books that in all likelihood will sink.
Hachette School Handbook Hachette India, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs. 195
Veena Seshadri and Vidya Mani India: A to Z An Alphabetical Tour of Incredible India Puffin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 160. Rs. 325
Hachette Indiapedia: The All-India Factfinder Hachette India, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 175