Catholic Posts

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 9), 15 October 2019

Dear Reader,

There is a sudden deluge of books being released to coincide with the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair, the mecca of publishing and of course, as a run-up to Christmas/ gifts. Some of the big name releases that have happened in recent weeks have been Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning The Dutch House and Jio Talentino’s absorbing collection of essays called Trick Mirror. There have been other books too like Melinda Gates The Moment of Lift, Candace Bushnell’s Is there still sex in the city? Or the absorbing but light biography of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie.

Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is such a beautiful book that it is impossible to describe. I read it weeks ago but could not bring myself to spoil the heartbreakingly fabulous experience of reading it. It is historical fiction for it is set at the time of the second world war in Philadelphia. It is about two siblings –Danny and Maeve– whose father, Cyril Conroy, a landlord, made it supremely rich through sheer hard work and wise investments. As a result he was able to haul his family out of impoverished circumstances to buy a magnificent house with its contents built by Dutch immigrants – the VanHoebeek. It is an unsettling experience for their mother who soon abandons their family to mysteriously vanish from their lives. It is said she left for India. Meanwhile Cyril Conroy marries again. This time a woman with two daughters. The stepmother in true fairy story style banishes the children from the home once Cyril dies unexpectedly. Maeve and Danny learn to fend for themselves. Slowly putting their lives back together. Years later they reflect upon their childhood. As Ann Patchett points out in an interview with The Guardian that we are embarrassed by grief, and The Dutch House is multi-layered because of the varieties of grief it addresses. Every time leaving a large gaping hole even in the reader’s heart but a sense of yearning to read more. It is a stunning novel which will haunt one for a long time to come. It is bound to find a place on the longlist of next year’s Women’s Prize.

New Yorker staff writer Jio Talentino’s Trick Mirror is a collection of her essays published previously. It is a combination of reportage and memoir. It is not easy to read at one sitting for its very thought provoking ideas on feminism, sexual assault, universities, wedding festivities etc. It is such a wide range of subjects that she tackles, always with an incisive feminist outlook, that it becomes immaterial after a point that many of her observations are based on very local and personal experiences. This is the beauty of essay writing that if the ideas discussed in the essay resonate with readers beyond a specific geographic landscape – beyond Trump, UVA in Charlottesville etc– and cut through borders of all kinds to have the desired impact of evaluating and challenging one’s thoughts, then it is extremely powerful writing. There are two excellent reviews of Talentino’s book — “Songs of my Self-Care” by Jacqueline Rose in the New York Review of Books ( 10 October 2019) and “Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino review – on self-delusion” by Lidija Haas ( 2 August 2019).

Billionaire Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift is a curious little book. The Gates couple are known for their philanthropy and have been in the public eye for years. They are very guarded about their private life which is fair. For instance, when their children were enrolled in school it was using their mother’s surname rather than their father’s more famous last name. This strong desire to withhold their personal space from the public eye in the memoir is also fair except that it makes the tenor of the book very bland. There are glimpses of the tussle Melinda Gates may have had with herself in making what are seemingly “simple” decisions such as venturing into the promotion of contraceptives for women. Given her very Catholic upbringing where her mother attends mass five times a week, this could not have been an easy focus area for Melinda to pick for her philanthropy. There are many instances in the book that while it is obvious Melinda Gates has the privilege to access information easily, she remains a reserved individual who does not allow any glimpses than are absolutely necessary into her private space. Justifiably a fair choice except that in a memoir that functions more than just an account of her life but is more like a publicity statement for her magnificent work in women’s healthcare. These barriers to her privacy as well as to the information that she is being shown that can cause complications creating a very insipid book for its statistically rich in data but bland in context. Her ambiguity about expressing herself strongly about her Catholic upbringing with the reality she sees in the poverty stricken parts of the world. Or for that matter her problematic narrative of India which seems very focussed on it being a casteist Hindu society with absolutely no mention whatsoever about the syncretic cultural fabric of this democracy.  Even the heavy sprinkling of anecdotes cannot relieve the boredom, this despite the celebrity buzz with even President Barack Obama releasing videos supporting the book. Having said that there is one incident that Melinda Gates refers to in her book of a little girl child of a scavenger’s community in Kanpur. The child was bold enough to ask the Gates Foundation delegates for a teacher. This is a perfect match to a beautiful wordless picture book called Puu published by Scholastic India.

The other big ticket release recently has been the unauthorised biography of the Mountbattens – Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India who oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan—one of the many prestigious positions of authority he held. He was also Prince Philip’s cousin and instrumental in insisting that the British Royal family taken on the name “House of Windsor”. The Mountbattens is written by Andrew Lownie and based on extensive research, interviews with family members as well as those who knew the Mountbattens well. Lownie even acknowledges Queen Elizabeth II for granting access to her archives as part of his research. So for the first time there are accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s career, his mistakes and successes as well as of bisexuality (denied by the family). The “detailed” account of Lady Mountbatten as the poor little rich girl, who was the richest heiress of her generation when she married Lord Mountbatten is equally focused on her promiscuity as it is with all other details of her life. There are photographs, an extensive bibliography, footnotes and a detailed index. The book has plenty of anecdotes that make for a rollicking good read except that it all falls apart towards the end when Lownie acknowledges that the Mountbatten’s myth is managed by exercising control at the archives in Broadlands or closed under Ministerial Directive at the Hartley Library. All said and done it is a book that makes for an interesting read and will probably be optioned for a film or a TV miniseries very soon for its got all the razzmatazz that will go down well with a global audience of a period drama.

In a similar vein is the memoir that Candace Bushnell has written after crossing sixty — Is there still sex in the city? It is a light and superficial read about a woman worrying about money and life even though she and her girlfriends can afford to own homes at the Hamptons, New York. Privileged women can offer quite a bit through their memoirs as they are privileged not just in financial security but have easy access to information, data, statistics — which increasingly have a price barrier to them. Thus offering a broader perspective on issues that preoccupy women as they become older. Issues like marital relationships, separations, losing dear friends, how to come to terms with old age, healthcare, having the energy to be with family and friends, increasing loneliness, managing busyness of life etc. Of course there will be vast degrees of differences between those in different points of the socio-economic scale but certain learnings are the same. Oh well! It is an opportunity lost with Candace Bushnell’s memoir.

More later,

JAYA  

15 October 2019

“Where No Daffodils Grow” by Sandeep Raina

On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.

Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.

Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.

Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.

Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.

His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.

****

Men in tall black hats and flowing black robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and some had long beards.  It was a summer afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people, why the costumes?

“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since the 40s.”

Why were they dressed in such a pronounced manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in London. It didn’t make sense.

We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan josh, yakhni and matsch. I had met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table, reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.

“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah.”  

Until then I had thought Diwali was the only festival of lights.

 “Everybody in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And they are very nice people.”

The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic, the other English and Jewish.

“There are other interesting things that we do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a light.”

“Why?” I said.

He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed the moon’s wax and wane.  Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.

 “We are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.

My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar, a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.

Years went by. In which my grandfather died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.

It was the Persian new year, on spring equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt, a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.

“We do something similar on Navroz, and we call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.

I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.

“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.

I didn’t know either, when growing up in Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather. I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.

Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit, when he did his puja every morning, with lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.

I told Paymon all this in the office canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.

My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over low flame for three hours.  My wife wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian, Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.

“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon, looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.

“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and write Kashmiri.

Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.

When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English: Thank you for enlightening me about Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go but I wish you all the best.”

I think Paymon said something about those Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.

The card remained unread for years. Later, I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in 15 official languages, each in its own script.

“Dah ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls, whirls, and dots.

“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,” said my mother.

“What’s the difference?”

“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh, because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And Muslims bury their dead.”  

My mother also told me that the ancient script for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.

Pandits and Muslims had other differences too.  I was aware of some. My pheran, the long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.

Many differences, all small. Until someone powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit? Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid, his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the tremble in my fingers.

Not much later, a powerless young boy, just out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.

It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous guilt.

Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook, on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.

“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.

On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.

I had read a book long ago about the revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.

I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go? Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?

I am sure the Jews had said this too.

I thought about Iran. I remembered my conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be read.

I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon, asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like a broken promise.

I asked an English friend to help me. He sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law. A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox. Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:

Yari keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist

Dar maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist

Ma ra gham e on yar che bayad khordan

Koo ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist

(Rumi)

“A friend who sees no difference between a flower and a thorn,

In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are the same,

Why should we worry about him?

As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse are the same.”

Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.

Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend, he knew me more than I knew myself.

A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.

That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were dressed like that.

What they were holding on to.

Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.

Note: Names changed to protect identity

17 August 2019

“A Crackerjack Life” by Rajiv Tyagi

Ex-fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Rajiv Tyagi has built a formidable reputation on social media for his forthright opinions on contemporary politics. Apart from his posts being very informative, his is an influential and sane voice on social media where fake news goes viral rapidly. It is no wonder then that he has accrued more than 50,000 followers on Facebook alone.

Recently he published a collection of essays/stories that recalled incidents from his experience as an Air Force Officer and more. A Crackerjack Life is a memoir with a difference as it is not a straightforward narrative but a series of short pieces strung together, more or less chronologically, to chart the fascinating life Rajiv Tyagi has led. From being a little child who was travelling alone from Indonesia to his grandparents in Meerut so that he could then be sent on to boarding school in Mussorie, his passion for high altitude trekking, to later his absolutely fascinating accounts of serving in the IAF in various border postings, witnessing some incredible encounters that if he had not seen for himself would be relegated to modern myth making such as the convoys of Red Army and Blue Army suddenly finding themselves in together rather than on opposite sides but no one dared say or do anything but quietly parted ways. There are many more incidents some very personal and heartwarming such as the one about his classmate Virender whose leg had to be amputated after being diagnosed with cancer and how he was received by his classmates at school. Having said that the stories and experiences shared do to a large extent quell the annoying presence of editing mistakes but not necessarily overcome it. Perhaps the next edition of the book will be better edited. For now the brisk sales of this book since its release a few weeks ago are a testimony to Rajiv Tyagi’s passionate storytelling with a great eye for detail.

A Crackerjack Life is a delightful collection of memorably evocative stories. The stories are significant too for highlighting the richly diverse, secular, tolerant and democratic space that was newly independent India and hopefully will forever be.

With the author’s permission the following extract from the book is being published here.

****

PERSUASION

Thanks to an egalitarian, agnostic father and the Armed Forces, I did not know what a gotra was, till I reached my late twenties. Hindus assert that every single one of them, Chitra, Pappu and Manoj, are descended from an ascetic saint. My paternal line is said to descend from a Rishi Gautam. My gotra therefore is Gautam.

My father did his schooling in the Gurukul Kangri school and then college, in Hardwar in the 1940s. They wore dhotis and langot, spoke Sanskrit fluently, and wore wooden khadaaon (wooden slippers) on their feet. The day began at 4 AM, with a swim in the Ganga canal outside the college, followed with a bath, change and havan (Hindu congregational prayer), before breakfast and classes. Except for the discipline, which he maintained for himself all his life, despite failing miserably to instil any of it in his children, he found little to commend for his life in the Gurukul. For when he reached Germany to study Medicine at Munich University in 1950, he found his knowledge of Science and the world around him severely lacking in comparison to other students who had studied in Germany or in Anglo Indian schools in India. His edge over others, in conversational Sanskrit and his facility at reciting Vedic shlokas from memory, he found useful only as curiosities. He had to work extra hours to catch up on what he had missed of human knowledge, while he was learning what turned out to be mere trivia, useful only to regale the Sanskrit and Vedic illiterate.

A strapping, tall, athletic and handsome man, he exuded, on his occasional outings in churidaar-achkan and turban, the aura of an Oriental prince. He and his friends cultivated the image to the hilt, telling their German friends how shocked they were to see a poor nation like theirs, where everyone re-used crockery instead of throwing it away after use. The suggestion from a fellow Indian student, that they might be exaggerating just a wee bit, was met with the query how he would describe a ‘mitti ka shakora’! And if that would not constitute Indian crockery? And did he in his home, wash a shakora to re-use it?

He lived as a paying guest, in a room rented from a widow he called Mutter (Mother), dining with the family at their table; the family comprising his land lady and a pretty daughter, who Mutter was eager to marry off to this young man who would soon be Herr Doktor.

After graduating, on Mutter’s suggestion that he convert to Christianity, Herr Doktor escaped from pretty daughter and Germany, learned Italian while interning in a hospital in Italy, befriended some Catholic priests, who taught him enough Latin to show off to other Europeans and made his way back by ship to India, taking up his first job as a resident, at the Bhowali Sanatorium, in what is now Uttarakhand.

My Mother, Sharmaji ki chhoti beti (the younger daughter of Mr. Sharma), then an 18 year old beauty with impossibly thick tresses woven into two plaits, lived a few lanes away from my grand parents’ home in Meerut. It was a match made in heaven, said the astrologers from both families. Whereupon my father was summoned by means of telegram, to hurry home forthwith, as he was to be married to a girl they had chosen for him.

In my grand parents’ home, food was dropped from a height into the outstretched palms of the woman who came to clean the toilets and who they called the bhangan. In my parents’ home, infused with the liberal egalitarianism of a Western culture, the driver and maids used the same crockery and cutlery as we did. This dichotomy did not escape me, though I did not question it. My mother would tell us stories in Hindi, from the Ramayan and my father from the Mahabharat, interspersed now and then with long passages in Sanskrit, from some obscure version of the grand epic. But at no time do I remember being taught to pray, even though my Mother was a practising Hindu and a temple goer. She did tell us which god was which and how to recognize them.

My connect with prayer came only after I was admitted to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns in Mussoorie, in Class 2. Visits to the chapel and the whole atmosphere of religiosity were annoying to me. This improved when I moved to St. George’s College, inasmuch as there was never an air of religiosity within its environment. By Class 4, I had found a treasure trove of Greek mythology in the school library, along with some fascinating books for children, on magnetism and electricity. I consumed them voraciously, some even during Miss Dhillon’s classes! Sometime towards the end of Class 5, after a heavy diet of Greek mythology, magnetism and electricity, I experienced an epiphany – that religions are a collective and organized scam, propagated through stories that were pure fairy tales and fantasy. That was the beginning of my life as a rationalist, a humanist and an atheist.

To buy the book: Paperback and Kindle

13 July 2018

Ian Caldwell, “The Fifth Gospel”

the-fifth-gospel-9781451694147_hrNever had I seen a book made that way. Like a prehistoric creature found living at the bottom of the sea, it bore only the faintest resemblance to its modern cousins. The manuscript’s cover was made with a sheet of skin hanging off like a satchel flap, designed to wrap around the pages again and again, to protect them. A leather tail dangled from it, beltlike, looping around the book to cinch it closed. 

I undid the straps as carefully as if I were arranging hairs on a baby’s head. Inside, the pages were gray and soft. Flowing letters were penned in long, smooth strokes with no rounded edges: Syriac. Beside them. inked right there on the page, was a Latin index written by some long-dead Vatican librarian. 

Formerly Book VIII among the Nitrian Syriac collection.

And then, very clearly:

Gospel Harmony of Tatian (Diatessaron).

A shudder went through me. Here in my hands was the creature invented by one of the giants of early Christianity. The canonical life of Jesus of Nazareth in a single book. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fused together to form the super-gospel of the ancient Syrian church. 

( p.60-1)

Ian Caldwell’s second novel, The Fifth Gospel is a Vatican thriller which took more than a decade to write. The story revolves around the Vatican hosting an exhibition in the hope of earning some revenue. It promises to be an exciting one since it is about one of the oldest relics in Christianity — the Turin Shroud. It also involves the possibility of exhibiting the Diatessaron, discovered in the library. But a week before the exhibition is to open, the curator, Ugo Nogara, is found dead on the grounds of  Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace. The body is discovered by his friend the Roman Catholic priest Simon Andreou, who is soon joined by his younger brother, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest. Thus begins the murder investigation, implicating Father Simon Andreou. He is to be tried by a Vatican court. Meanwhile Father Alex Andreou is determined to get to the truth. Unfortunately there are moments when not only does he expose himself, but also his five-year-old son Peter, to danger, but the little fellow is made of  quite stern stuff. ( Father Alex Andreou being a Greek Catholic priest is allowed to marry unlike his brother who remains a celibate.)

The Fifth Gospel is a fascinating account of life within the Vatican, a murder mystery, duplicity of the Vatican, the complexity of theology, the fascination with relics, and of course, the importance of family — related by blood or the banding together of the priests to create a sense of family. It is a stunning book. The details of daily life at the Vatican and the intricate and rich backdrop to the plot are mesmerising to read about. The reading experience is enriched by the deft characterisation — many of them such as Simon, Peter, Alex, Uncle Lucio, his secretary Diego, and even minor characters such as Alex’s friend Swiss Guard Leo, Alex’s wife Mona and Alex’s childhood friend Gianni Nardi remain memorable. They exist with you even after the novel is finished.

The twelve years spent by Ian Caldwell in research and writing show in the details of the literary landscape and the court scenes all though the murder mystery plot is basic. Yet it does not make the story any less gripping. What makes it even more astounding is that Ian Caldwell has never visited the Vatican. As he says in the KLTA5 interview, he has a young family and it would have been impossible to leave them for long periods to do his research in Italy. He was required at home. So he did the next best thing. He interviewed, met, spoke and discussed  with many priests, canonists, professors, seminary instructors, Church lawyers, and prominent Catholic scholars who answered all his questions in detail “but sometimes spoke openly about their experiences at the Vatican”. (p.430) It is an interesting coincidence that within a week of this novel being released, and its focus on the acrimony and hostility that Christian relics can create within the church, the New York Times publishes an article on 4 April 2015, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones”. It is about two ancient artifacts that have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate. At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/world/middleeast/findings-reignite-debate-on-claim-of-jesus-bones.html?_r=0 ) Timely perhaps, blurring the lines between the worlds of reality and fiction.

Despite having a convenient and a satisfactory conclusion it is a novel worth spending time with. The Fifth Gospel may be written in a similar vein to a Dan Brown mystery, but it is far superior.

Buy it.

Some links worth browsing through:

A Q&A With Ian Caldwell, Author of March’s #1 Indie Next List Pick By Sydney Jarrard on Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015 http://www.bookweb.org/news/qa-ian-caldwell-author-march%E2%80%99s-1-indie-next-list-pick

KTLA5: New Book Reveals Vatican Life POSTED 9:24 AM, MARCH 26, 2015, BY NANCY CRUZ http://ktla.com/2015/03/26/new-book-reveals-vatican-life/

Ian Caldwell at the House of SpeakEasy on March 9, 2015, at New York’s City Winery. https://vimeo.com/122093010

7 March 2015

Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 450 £12.99