historical fiction Posts

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s “Lahore”, part of the Partition Trilogy

…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159

The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.

The publicity blurb states the following:

Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.

Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).

There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.

More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.

Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.

Buy it once it is available.

28 August 2021

PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.

“Moth” by Melody Razak

Delhi, 1946

Ma and Bappu are liberal intellectuals teaching at the local university. Their fourteen-year-old daughter — precocious, headstrong Alma — is soon to be married: Alma is mostly interested in the wedding shoes and in spinning wild stories for her beloved younger sister Roop, a restless child obsessed with death.

Times are bad for girls in India. The long-awaited independence from British rule is heralding a new era of hope, but also of anger and distrust. Political unrest is brewing, threatening to unravel the rich tapestry of Delhi – a city where different cultures, religions and traditions have co-existed for centuries.

When Partition happens and the British Raj is fractured overnight, this wonderful family is violently torn apart, and its members are forced to find increasingly desperate ways to survive.

Moth by debut author, Melody Razak ( Orion Books), has been a surprisingly slow read for me. Usually, I manage to zip through fiction pretty quickly. More so when it is historical fiction as I have a soft spot for this genre. But this one was slow for many reasons. These ranged from false starts in attempting to read it to the many times my mind wandered after reading a section of the story. Let me explain. 

Melody Razak credits Urvashi Butalia’s seminal book The Other Side of Silence for having inspired her debut novel. I can absolutely understand and recognise that sentiment. I worked with Urvashi for many years. I joined her team the day she split from Kali for Women to establish Zubaan. So, I was privy to a lot of Urvashi Butalia’s work for many years and also helped brand Zubaan. I, like Melody, and many others, had been in awe of Urvashi Butalia’s work for years. She did something fundamentally new. Of capturing the oral histories of women and families after the British left India in 1947. We gained our Independence but the people from the newly created nations suffered tremendously. 

Urvashi wrote this book after she volunteered to help the riot victims of 1984. It was a watershed year for many of us living in Delhi at the time. The Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her bodyguards while she was en route to meet filmmaker and actor, Peter Ustinov. It unleashed the most horrific communal violence we had witnessed at that time in newly Independent India. We were still a young nation at that time. (Now, communalism seems to be a way of life.) Many, many folks were horrified at what had occurred in the capital city. It was unheard of. We had curfew imposed. The army conducted flag marches. The silence was unbearable. No one should ever have to experience the silence of living in violent times. It is very still and still very disturbing. In the far distance, we could hear mobs. We could hear sounds. We would see smoke spires in the sky. And one of the most frightening memories was to see the ashes of paper flutter down on our terraces. When my twin brother and I returned to school after those two terrible two weeks, we noticed kids in our bus who were looking dishevelled and reduced to a cloth bag carrying a few books. They had been affected by the riots for being Sikhs and had lost property and family. It was earth shattering. But we were young. It was our first experience of such violence. But for my maternal grandfather it brought back a flood of memories. Stuff we had not realised he had kept suppressed for decades. 

My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was the last ICS officer in India. The Indian Civil Service was the administrative service established by the British. He joined as a very young man and was allocated the Punjab cadre. This was before 1947, so as a government servant he was posted in and around the then undivided Punjab. He later recalled that as a young man, he would sit with the other officers, many of whom were British, dividing the assets of the Punjab state between India and Pakistan. Many times, the lists drawn seemed arbitrary but he would meticulously minute the meetings. I am sure somewhere documents exist with his neat signature. He also used to tell us about the migrant camps that were set up. For many years, the refugees of 1947 were considered to be the largest mass migration ever recorded in human history. It was unprecedented. There were no rules or policies governing or guiding the officers on how to manage this massive influx of people. He used to tell us of how his signature was forged and converted into stamps. These forgeries were then used to stamp documents of the refugees so that they could use them as valid papers to migrate. Some left overseas too. My grandfather was well aware of these forgeries but the administration was so overwhelmed by the number of people that needed looking after that he turned a blind eye. And if you ever knew him, he was such an upright officer that this act upon his part was so unlike him. He and his colleagues worried about the spread of disease. Cholera and typhoid that still plague large refugee settlements were the bane of their existence even in the 1940s. The only difference being that there were no UN forces or other humanitarian aid organisations to help manage the healthcare of the refugees. There was no organised camp. So, the relief of the onset of the monsoon, literally washed the camp, is something that I still recollect in Nana’s voice. He has been gone for more than two decades but his relief, as if it was a God sent gesture, is something I will never forget. So, the descriptions of the refugee camps in Moth brought back memories of these stories. I could not help but think that the perception of the refugee camps of today that are to a fair degree “organised” because of the aid agencies, was not the case at that time. And this was one of the depictions in Moth that bothered me, the pell mell in the settlement. Instead, the description seems to suggest that it is fairly orderly. It was as if the image had been created from the modern images of refugee camps. 

Just as these memories came flooding back for my grandfather, so did it happen with many victims of the 1984 riots. The victims were Sikhs. The community to whom the PM’s assassins belonged. Urvashi too is a Sikh. She too had family in Lahore and in India. In fact, when I went to Lahore in Nov 2003, I went in search of the house that belonged to Urvashi’s family and discovered that it was in the process of being pulled down. So, I brought back pictures of it for her. 

There were many, many reasons why Urvashi was affected by the 1984 riots. But working in the refugee camps of Delhi, listening to stories, being a feminist, she realised the importance of recording these stories. Oral history testimonies were being done in our country even then but not necessarily by individuals at this level. Urvashi’s work is pioneering for many reasons. She explored her family’s history and unearthed many more stories in the process. It has had a huge impact on the way Partition stories are read. 

Melody Razak picks on a few of the stories such as the women jumping into the well, the abduction of girls/women and taking them away to the other side (since then established as a regular form of persecution of women at times of conflict), the problems of documentation etc. I found it particularly interesting that while Melody Razak has been deeply moved by the incidents recounted in The Other Side of Silence and of course, for this novel, may have done some independent research, Melody has been unable to describe the traumatic incidents. I found that curious as that it is often noticed in the victims that they are unable to recount the actual event. There are mechanisms by which they protect themselves, one of them is to talk about the act in the third person or distance themselves in the plot. Melody does exactly that — distancing herself. It indicates how deeply moved she has been by the testimonies/stories of the events of 1947. 

By the way, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi whom Melody mentions, Nathuram Godse, was sentenced to death a few years later by Justice G. D. Khosla. Again, another upright officer who opted to join the judiciary once India became an independent nation. He wrote about the trial of Godse. It is freely available as a booklet online. I met Justice Khosla. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. But by these acts, I feel as if I have been close to history. (Does that statement even make any sense?) 

Melody Razak gets the grief at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi very well. I recall meeting people who remembered that day very clearly. This and later, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Everyone could recall what they were doing at the precise moment that the news broke about these deaths. The collective grief that was felt at Mahatma Gandhi’s death has been brilliantly captured by Melody. 

But the reason why I had so many false starts to the book were because of the tiny historical inaccuracies in the opening pages. I can only recall one at the moment. She refers to Amul chocolates. Well, they did not exist till many decades after Independence. Amul is a dairy cooperative that was set up by Nehru under his modern India plans under the leadership of Mr Verghese Kurien (again, someone whom I have met). The chocolates came much, much later. So, this fact could have been checked. There were also spelling errors that annoyed me such as getting the name of All India Radio wrong and hyphenating “All India” or referring to the hot winds that blow in summer as “Lu” instead of as “loo”. (It is a hot wind similar to khamsin.) 

I can see why Melody Razak has been showered with praise in the media and has been recognised as one of the debut novelists of 2021 by The Observer. She has a great sense of storytelling. Her pace is fantastic. She knows when to slow down her writing tempo or speed it up as per the requirements of the plot. Her characters are so alive. She is able to move freely between the Muslims and the Hindus and describes them well. Alma’s grandmother is particularly vile. To create evil in a person who is mostly ignored by the family, is quite a creative achievement. But alas, she is also so familiar. We have all come across such characters at some point in our lives. Melody also manages to share only that much of the back story of the characters as is relevant to the main plot. Again, an admirable quality as many debut novelists tend to get hijacked by their characters and create unnecessary tangents to the story. Whereas in this case, whether it is the stories of Dilchain, Fatima Begum, Ma, Bappa or even Cookie Aunty/Lakshmi, Melody shares enough to make them rounded rather than flat characters. There is no need to know more about them. 

I had reservations about the extremely feminist angle to the storytelling. It was sort of unbelievable that these narratives could possibly have existed in 1947/8. It seems as if a very modern structure of feeling has been superimposed upon the past. It does not sit well. But then it brings me to the crux of literary fiction. At what point as Salman Rushdie calls it, does fiction “lift off” from the truth and begin a story of its own? Somewhere the writer has to be given the leeway to let their imagination fly. The reader too has to go easy on the writer for letting them tell the story in their own way. Perhaps I found it uncomfortable, even though I more than heartily agree with the feminist sentiments, because of the amount I know about the events of 1947. But the moment I sort of let myself go and just read the story for what it is, I realised it was the only way to “get into” it and enjoy it. Also, having read a lot of historical fiction recently has been doing this — of revisiting past events and imbuing the women characters with a strength and a personality with a very modern touch. It works for modern readers. And if historical fiction is being redefined today as historical events providing only a backdrop to the storytelling, then I suppose we have to make our peace with it. It is fine. 

As for the sisters, Alma and Roop, they are incredibly well-created. Although making Roop cut off her hair, roam around naked and wear her father’s trousers whenever she needed to step out seemed a bit farfetched for a five-year-old. But then who are we to argue with the bizarreness of life under conflict. Or for that matter now, during the pandemic. That was another thing that I found so eerily parallel to Moth — our reality of rationing food given the lockdowns and irregular supply of provisions, not sure when to step out (in Moth for fear of communal riots and today, for fear of getting infected by the Covid-19 virus), creating community kitchens (in the novel for refugees and in modern life for migrants who are going home), etc.   

As is fairly evident, Moth has triggered many memories as well as made me respond to the book in a manner that I did not think it would do. So there in itself lies the answer of a good emerging novelist. Moth is an extraordinary immersive experience and I am glad I read the novel. 

3 July 2021

“Still Life” by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s Still Life begins during the Second World War and then the story develops over the next few decades. The cast of characters, more or less, remain the same. It includes a parrot that went dumb during the bombing of London.

Still Life is a large, expansive, slow moving historical fiction. It has the languid pace that one associates with all things Italian. And rightly so as a substantial portion of the novel is set in Italy. Even the sections that are set in England have a very slow pace that is mostly written in the third person. It is an odd literary technique to employ in a novel that could quite easily move crisply if the protagonist Ulysses Temper had had more of a voice. Instead, it’s almost as if he has a very dispassionate connect with the locals. This despite his wife, Peg, and her child, Alys, being part of the community. He is far too accommodating of everyone’s wishes and always does his best to please them. Until, he learns of his Italian inheritance. He has been bequeathed a property by “Arturo” whom he met briefly while stationed as a Private during the war. It is a life changing moment and he moves countries, taking Alys, whom he loves very much.

But Still Life is also about women, women painters, painting, and aspiring to be artists. Their impact upon others lives as Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenerian art historian, has upon Ulysses and later, Alys. Evelyn’s fine talk about aesthetics, artists, beauty ultimately impacts Ulysses life in many ways. This book is about their extraordinary relationship, being kindred spirits who discovered each other during the war and a spark was lit that transcended many social barriers.

Still Life also works as a metaphor in this novel. For its ability to capture a vignette of life as paintings with a “Still Life” theme attempt. Usually still life painting compositions are of the very ordinary elements found in daily life. The intense focus upon these objects by the artist transforms them from the mundane to something exquisite, a precious piece of artwork. This novel is much like this. It is to Sarah Winman’s credit that she takes the very ordinary lives of very common, nondescript folks and through her way with words, turns the novel into a piece of art.

To appreciate this story, the reader needs to zone into that mindset and engage with it; much in the way a painting is appreciated– you stand and gaze upon it, to discover more than the veneer.

At nearly 500 pages, this novel is meant for diehard fans of Sarah Winman. But those who like historical fiction may like it too. Winman has a way of getting the reader hooked from the first page. It works as long as the novel can be read without too many interruptions. Otherwise the large cast of characters can get quite tough to recall.

The book was released on 10 June 2021.

12 June 2021

On Tarana Khan’s “The Begum and the Dastan”

Tarana Khan’s debut novel, The Begum and the Dastan, ( Tranquebar, Westland Books) is historical fiction set in the late nineteenth century. A fictional recreation based on broad facts known about a Nawab’s family, probably Rampur, although the story is set in a fictional township called Sherpur. ( Here is the backstory: https://www.shethepeople.tv/books/tarana-husain-khan-excerpt-raffat-begum/ “Raffat Begum: How a begum’s emergence from the harem changed the lives of Rampur’s women”, 4 March 2021 ) 

The novel begins in the twenty-first century, around 2016, when Ameera asks her grandmother to tell her tales about her grandmother, Feroza Begum. Then the story begins set in 1896. Most of the novel is about Ameera’s great-great-grandmother, Feroza Begum, although in the novel she is referred to inaccurately  as “great-grandmother”. ( Read an excerpt:  https://scroll.in/article/988872/womens-day-fiction-what-a-little-girl-learns-about-her-great-grandmothers-life-in-a-harem) It is about the abduction of a married and pregnant Feroza by the young nawab — Nawab Yunus Ali Khan. The nawab was known for his roving eye and Feroza was known for her beauty. But when the sawani festival organised by the Nawab, Feroza threw a hissy fit insisting she be allowed to join other women in the zenana. Her father gave in to her demands despite his misgivings about the Nawab. He insisted on Feroza being chaperoned by her stepmother and her maids but man proposes, God disposes. The nawab sighted a beautiful Feroza on his grounds and had her whisked away to his harem. 

The Begum and the Dastan is about Feroza, her husband giving her talak/ divorce under the impression that she wanted it when it was actually the manipulative Nawab who had set it all up. There are many, many more details. Feroza is initially set up as this headstrong, obstinate, demanding firstborn. A trait that she exhibits even in the Nawab’s harem except that after a while the forces of patriarchy take over. It is demeaning, humiliating and slowly breaks her, although the fire within her continues to smoulder. The novel extends itself by narrating a little more about the next generation and the crumbling of this dynasty. 

“The dastan” or the story is narrated by Mirza Ameeruddin Dastango, nicknamed ‘Kallam Mirza’. He is the storyteller whose job is to narrate stories, to the best of his abilities, despite being in an opiate stupor. His brother had been appointed the court dastango upon the demise of their father. But it was Kallam Mirza’s tales spun beautifully twice a week that had the audiences mesmerised. 

Kallan’s narrative style, drawing on the witticism and idioms of the Sherpur gullies, had endeared him to his audience who came from all classes, cared little for the Persianised Urdu couplets of his contemporaries, loved his passionate romancing, his tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat oblique irony. His narrative was the tilism, the magic. While his famous brother, Mirza Aleemuddin, had succeeded his father as the court dastango, Kallan, unlettered was of the masses. Most listeners paid any amount depending on their station in life, keeping the annas and paisas at a predetermined place, generally in a taaq or alcove in the wall. The nobleman-host paid much more. 

The women folk, prohibited from attending the opium-riddled mehfils, were his invisible audience, peering from behind half-opened doors of darkened rooms, their eyes fixed on the expressions and gestures of the dastango, stifling giggles and sighs. 

The story he spun was of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam,where women are confined in underground basements. Slowly Kallan Mirza’s tale intertwines with the one that the dadi narrates to her granddaughter. Lovely premise, to a potentially lovely story. In many parts of the story it is evocative of a particular style of living that is still elusive. Little is known about it. More so, because Tarana Khan attempts to tell the story from the zenana. It is the women’s quarters, a part of the household that is not easily accessed by men and certainly not by the public. It is a perspective that can be easily exploited to share much more than the court settings and the hustle-bustle outside. There is so much potential to enrich a story, particularly historical fiction, via the women’s conversations, the gossip, the manner of running a household, the internal mechanisms and of course the gupshup over cooking or while selecting fabric to make the prettiest of dresses.  

The literary device of having three narrative threads — Feroza Begum’s life, Kallan Mirza’s dastango and Ameera listening to her Dadi narrating Feroza Begum’s story — requires a dexterity that is not always evident in The Begum and the Dastan. As a plot it is an enticing thought but its execution needs to be crisp and sharp. A reader should be able to discern from the dialogue that this specific section belongs to the dastan or to Feroza Begum or Ameera. There has to be a shift in the tenor, in the details, in the mannerisms etc. Instead it all seems to blur into one monotonal narrative. There are no variations in the rhythm of storytelling. 

Tarana Khan has established her writerly credentials on food history. Her writing style is exquisite for its detailing. Her articles are fabulously absorbing to read for they are a sophisticated blend of the past, her insight, a generous dollop of storytelling, followed by an old recipe, redone for a modern audience. With this expectation in mind, The Begum and the Dastan, has been eagerly awaited for a very long time. It has been whispered about in Indian literary circles for a while now. Tarana’s regular writing shows her acute awareness of the modern sensibilities but it is missing in the patchwork of a novel. There are parts of the novel that are beautifully told but then there are others that are hastily written. The women could be a little more nuanced. The characters built well. The relationships. They are thin. They lack the oomph one associates with well-written historical fiction — richly told, detailed with multiple layers. As for food descriptions, they barely exist! (More on that later.) 

Historical fiction is a specialised literary art form. It is not the mere placement of a story in the past that makes it historical fiction. Salman Rushdie speaking to Paul Holdengraber in March 2021 about historical fiction. He said, “history is alway partially legendary, plenty of room for the fabulous imagination to work. What I have always believed about historical novels is that they end up being as much about our time as they are about their own time. We are looking at them with the interests and concerns of our time. and those interests and concerns find their expression in the past. We see them in the past. So to write about the past is also to write about the present.” To a degree this is echoed by Alexander Chee in his interview with Edward Carey where he says, “I think of historical fiction as being an argument with history, and with culture.”

With historical fiction, the author has the creative license to do whatever they please, but within the parameters of historical accuracy to important details. Within the framework, the author can then take leaps of imagination to do whatever they like. It is permissible. But I shake my head in disbelief when I begin to find a slip such as the use of an oxygen mask in 1911 whereas the mask as we know it today was not invented till 1919 and put into medical use till 1941. It is true that Haldane had by 1919 developed a prototype and by the late nineteenth century nasal catheters were being used to administer oxygen, but masks were certainly out of the question. One slip like this and I begin to doubt the entire edifice despite the innumerable footnotes ( a distraction) in the novel. Then there is the acute disappointment at not being entertained by descriptions of food especially when reading fiction by a food writer. Instead to make things worse, food served to Feroza is described as bland that is spiced up by her maid by adding powdered red or yellow chillies. I expected more. I expected richer, sensuous descriptions of food, that added a dimension to the myriad relationships depicted in the pages — British/Indian/Mughlai; Nawab and his wives /harem; the various levels of women who existed and were served food from the court kitchens; the food served to courtiers/ guests; the banquets at celebrations; food served at naming ceremonies of the babies etc. And of course juxtaposed with the food conversations of Ameera and her dadi in the present age. Or the food descriptions of the dastango. None of this exists. Food and food ceremonies are an essential part of our life. To ignore this aspect of life is an inexplicable oversight. Read Jahanara Habibullah’s memoir, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State during the Raj that is also set in Rampur and has terrific descriptions of food.

I continue to have mixed feelings about The Begum and the Dastan even though it has been more than two months since I read the book. The possibilities in this story are immense but fall short of one’s expectations knowing how talented Tarana Khan is as a writer. I look forward to her next novel. 

3 May 2021

Digonta Bordoloi’s “Second World War Sandwich”

Elsewhere, the blacksmith of the village busied himself with a small glob of brass, shaping it into the form of a head. Each head a warrior claimed was rewarded with a small brass replica, worn as a pendent on a red beaded necklace.

Digonta Bordoloi’s second novel, Second World War Sandwich is set against the backdrop of the Kohima War. It took place in stages from 4 April to 22 June 1944 in and around Kohima in northeast India. Later, in independent India, Kohima became the capital city of Nagaland. The battle was fought between the British forces and the advancing Japanese troops. It was a fierce battle fought over the hilly terrain for Kohima’s strategic importance in the wider 1944 Japanese Chindwin offensive lay in that it was the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India. During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. Against this the Japanese had lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives. ( Source: Wikipedia)

Second World War Sandwich revolves around Captain Timothy Hastings, a former tea-estate manager; his wife, Sandra, a nurse, who too had grown up on a tea-estate in India; Raan, who is far happier being a cook, carrying pots and pans, rather than wielding a gun; Chetri, a Gorkha, brave as any legend about the Gorkhas is; and Mongseng, a Konyak, a prince, heir to his father’s throne, the ang of his village, Poilung. They are thrown headlong into battle with the Japanese and are a motley troop. Everyone is wary of Mongseng at first but after a certain turn of events, they discover that this naked, tattooed, “savage”, whose only weapon is an extremely lethal dao/machette, does not intend them any harm. Also, lo and behold, Mongseng speaks a smattering of English, taught to him by the Padre in their village.

Now therein lies the extremely fascinating history of the Christian missionaries who visited north east India from the nineteenth century onwards. In Nagaland, they were mostly American Baptists who would roam around, although in the novel, the Padre is an Italian. His denomination is never made clear even when constructing the church in the village. The description exists but no more. Mongseng is a Konyak — one of the many Naga tribes but they are unique as in they used to be headhunters. This was the only way of life that they knew. Their village was constructed and still exists like this — with wooden huts, thatched roofs, intricate carvings on their door posts, carcasses of kill drying in their “verandahs”, with the kitchen being the centre of their homes. The hearth or the embers upon which the food is cooked is in the centre of the room. Above it hangs these large metal plates upon which the meats are slow cooked. And tea remains a constant offering. Something that Mongseng compares too when offered a rather watered down version of tea by Raan. He yearns for his freshly roasted tea leaves, bitter morning brew. The ang, or tribal elder/king, presides over the village and rules in a just and fair manner. At the centre of the village is the morung, or the male dormitory, where the unmarried men congregate and spend their time. It is also the place in the novel where the village elders gather for a chit-chat and more often than not to drink the addictively bittersweet brew that the Padre plies them with. It turns out to be rum. In fact, if you visit any of the Konyak village cemetries as I did with my father ( Romesh Bhattacharji) in the late 1990s, the headstones very proudly bear the inscription that the recently deceased scalped so many individuals but also was a Christian. A dichotomy if there was ever one! In fact, the brass necklace in the picture was gifted to me by a minister in the state government when he discovered I had completed my post-graduation. He was so impressed that I had achieved so many degrees whereas he had only cleared his eighth grade that the following morning as we were departing he put a parcel wrapped in newspaper in my hands saying this is for you. In it were a bunch of necklaces that I treasure decades later. We were all staying in the same guest house as dad was an Election observer and the minister was on the campaign trail. The villages we covered on this tour were those of the Konyaks — Chenmoho, Chenwenyu and Chenwengtu. So when I came across the description of these brass heads being fashioned in the village when Mongseng made his first kill, I realised the signficance of this brass necklace that I have had for many years.

Second World War Sandwich begins incredibly grippingly with a fine description of the landscape and an introduction to Timothy and his team. Mongseng drops into their lives. The establishment of the relationship between the four men, the varying degrees of masculinity that shines through the text is absolutely fascinating to read. It is as if the author has spent hours working upon the details and trying to get the tenor right. The battle outside makes it presence felt often enough in the narrative with falling mortar, wounded crowding the makeshift hospitals, the dead piling up, the horrific mix of the raw and trained soldiers who are battling against a very sophisticated enemy etc. The immense knowledge and experience that Mongseng brings is dealt with respectfully and at par with the white man. It is interesting to see this equilibrium being set by Digonta Bordoloi even if it is a tad hard to believe that there would be so much trust between a white man and a native in British India. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting read.

After a rollicking good start, the plot begins to drag. The extremely long backstories about every main character while interesting by themselves are so unnecessary beyond a point as they are distracting about the battle itself. The inter-personal relationships can easily flourish under the brutal conditions of warfare. These long-winded descriptions needed to be worked out elsewhere and then only significant portions used in the main narrative. Having said that if the backstories are read as short stories, they are lovely digressions. The particularly sensitively drawn one is that for Mongseng. It makes sense when the author acknowledges the wangra ( village chief) of Hamphui and his fellow village elder-men — Nagaland’s last surviving headhunters. The fine descriptions of the Konyak lifestyle are worth reading. But then the second half of the book dissolves into a chaotic mess where the frenzy of battle overtakes the characters but it also makes the author lose his grip on storytelling. It is as if he is getting pulled into the personalities of each character more and more while at the same time very eager to get his facts right about battle strategies. There are neat illustrations accompanying the story marking out the terrain and the peaks that were crucial in the real battle. But sadly, they do not help retrieve a potentially good novel. Maybe if the possibility of narrating the past by a dying Mongseng to his grandson, Angsen, had been pursued a little more aggressively, the structure of the plot would have fallen into place, much as it did for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It allowed for the possibility of there being lapses into modern day and thereby offered a perspective on historical events.

Perhaps those with a greater in-depth understanding of the battle may appreciate the book. But for now, there is confusion between “Second World War Sandwich” being a literary fiction, commercial fiction, historical fiction, war novel or rescuing the history of the Konyaks. Having said that this is a book worth recommending as it puts the spotlight on a part of India’s history that is little known about. The last time a stupendous novel on this very same subject was written was by Siddhartha Sharma, “The Grasshopper’s Run”. It won the Crossword Prize 2009 and in 2011 was shortlisted for the Sahitya Bal Puraskar. Hopefully, Digonta Bordoloi will be recognised to a certain degree for his strong writing and he will be on some literary prize lists. This book deserves to have a long life. Meanwhile, it is crying to be optioned for a limited television series.

Read it.

19 April 2021

Kristin Hannah’s “The Four Winds”

Mega-selling, lawyer-turned-writer Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds is set at the time of the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl era.It is about Elsa Martinelli née Wolcott. Elsa was poorly as a child and had been kept more or less confined to her room by her parents. Even when at the age of twenty-five, she was way past the acceptable marriageable age and her two younger sisters had tied the knot, Elsa continued to remain indoors, reading books and creating her trousseau. She was a voracious reader who began to see her life through stories. She yearned for her knight in shining armour and discovered eighteen-year-old Rafe Martinelli, an “Ee-talian” immigrant as her father would pronounce. Ultimately, Rafe and Elsa had to have a shotgun wedding. She readily converted to Catholicism and began to learn the ways of living off the land. A woman who till her marriage had been considered sick with a weak heart and who despite having parents who did not particularly love her, Elsa had been well provided for. But her mother-in-law, Rose, soon taught Elsa how to live off the farm. Elsa thrived. She had a couple of children more and buried one too. She learned to adjust to the ways of the marital family. But then the Great Depression occurred and everyone began migrating in search of food and better economic conditions. One day, her husband Rafe also disappeared. Finally, Elsa with her children, decided to follow and seek him out.

Bulk of the 450+ page book is an account of this journey that Elsa makes with her kids. It is a fast-paced, easy narrative that one zips through, but gives the reader sufficient markers regarding historical events. It is certainly not literary fiction where the writer’s talent would be at display at so many levels. Yet, this kind of popular fiction works very well too. In some ways it is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Goudge and Sinclair Lewis. It works for me. Vast expansive canvas to work within, the literary references in the early part of the book are readily forgotten and not pursued, but it does not really matter to the storytelling. Elsa assumes a proportion and strength in the plot that is gripping and it becomes very evident why so many readers worldwide are avid fans of Kristin Hannah’s books — humongous stories that are told in an easy going style about women facing adversity in harsh environments but emerging stronger. The stories are filled with hope not necessarily by the goals the protagonist achieves but in inspiring future generations, as Elsa does for her daughter, Loreda. As Elsa’s gravestone puts it simply “Mother. Daughter. Warrior.” This is what Kristin Hannah achieves for millions of her readers, she speaks calmly, frankly and directly to them, but focuses on ordinary lives that also have magnificently inspiring stories to tell.

When she began writing this historical fiction, Kristin Hannah was focusing on Elsa and the Great Depression but when she finished writing it in May 2020, the unmistakable parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic did not miss her. Hannah remarks on the unsettling coincidence. This is what she says:

Three years ago, I began writing this novel about hard times in America: the worst environmental disaster in our history; the collapse of the economy; the effect of massive unemployment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Great Depression would become so relevant in our modern lives, that I would see so many people out or work, in need, frightened for the future.

As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced by others.

We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit. In tbe end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another — what we have in common — that will save us now.

Novels like The Four Winds are easily read in a day or two. They are also easily adapted to the TV or movie screen like the current Netflix adaptation of another Kristin Hannah book, The Firefly Lane. These stories perform a useful function of helping readers combat their anxiety due to the pandemic but at the same time are fulfilling stories that are not easily forgotten. Isn’t that what you want from good storytelling?

Read it.

22 Feb 2021

“The Girl Who Said No to the Nazis: Sophie Scholl and the Plot Against Hitler” by Haydn Kaye

Selective telling of histories to children serves multiple purposes. Not least in reminding newer generations of the atrocities of the past. Mostly these are written in the hope that histories are not repeated in this cruel manner. Historical fiction is rapidly becoming a popular genre for children’s literature as it straddles that space between reading-for-lesiire and edutainment. The Girl Who Said No to the Nazis ( Pushkin Press) falls into this category as it puts the spotlight on the brave Sophie Scholl who was ultimately executed for standing up to the Nazis. Today, she and her brother, Hans, are celebrated as heroes of WW2, but at that time their well-meant bravado of creating the White Rose group cost them their lives. They were in their twenties. Sophie was 21.

Creating these stories in lands where there is political and social stability makes sense as reading these stories don’t rock one’s world. There is that comfort of knowing these incidents happened way back in the past. But this kind of a book while understandably is essential reading, is too close to comfort for many other countries. It is horribly disconcerting and worrying. It makes one ask the question — how necessary is it to share such books with the young? How much should they aware of the horrific events of the pasting? At what age is it appropriate to introduce this literature for a healthy discussion? How worrying is it for some that in their lifetime they may see some of these “historical events” actually happen in their countries, exactly as described. Or should they be kept in ignorance for a little while longer? How important are these books to trigger conversations and understand the devilish nature of a bunch of individuals that can wreak havoc upon society and unleash communal violence and pogroms, all in the name of creating a clean and pure society?

Personally I feel children should be exposed to such books but the adults immediately in their vicinity must be fully informed/equipped to have these conversations as well. Tough balancing act since it is not easy for all adults to discuss such topics clinically without letting their own biases trickle through. Or perhaps it is, since it is events in the past, but can they connect the dots to the present?

Much to think about.

27 Jan 2021

“The Narrow Land” by Christine Dwyer Hickey

His wife, when she’s with him, will point something out.
‘Doesn’t it make you feel proud?’ she will ask.
‘Not particularly.’
‘It will hang forever on a wall, your signature beneath it — something you have created that nobody else could have created. And it doesn’t make you –? I mean, how could it not?’
‘I guess, I don’t see things the way you do.’
‘You don’t love it? Maybe it’s just as well we didn’t have children. I mean you create something and yet you don’t even love it?’
‘It? What do you mean by it exactly?’
‘You know — that barn, this farm, that house–now immortalised.’
‘Then I guess no, I don’t love it.’
He doesn’t tell her that when he finds it at first, then, yes, all right, he feels it. When he carries it in his head and silently waits for it to take form. When he shyly glances at the sketches he’s made and feels the urge inside him. When it’s there in his head coming out of the dusk. Then it’s love all right. More love than he has ever felt for her, or any other woman.

***
The Narrow Land ( Atlantic Books) by  Christine Dwyer Hickey is about ten-year-old Michael, survivor of German concentration camps, and his incredible friendship with the artists Jo and  Edward Hopper.

It is an elegant novel that does one of the toughest acts — inserts itself in a marriage, to understand the couple at the heart of this relationship and their creativity. At the same time it creates these unexpected inter-generational alliances, creating spaces for the young and the old to become strong personalities in their own right and not necesarily to be judged from the outside by observers. It is an incredible feeling as a reader to be exposed to the chatter of others, building up the personalities of the protagonists, only to suddenly discover oneself in an intimate space with them, be privy to their thoughts and emotions and the remarkably ordinary universe they inhabit. As if the writer is goading the reader to look beyond the obvious in the story, just as any artist would delve deep within themselves to discover their creativity.

Stupendous writing!

11 Jan 2021

Interview with Gitanjali Kolanad

Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Her short story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.

Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’

Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.

Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story? 

The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.

Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.

Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion? 

Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.

Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow? 

You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.

Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.

Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression. 

I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to  know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.

Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel? 

I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?

Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story? 

When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.

Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?

I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.

I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done.  And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.

Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote? 

The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.

In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.

Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop? 

It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.

Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you? 

The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.

I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.

I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.

Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?

Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.

Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.

Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance? 

Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.

The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered  story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.

11 August 2020

Tim Pears’s The West Country Trilogy

Lockdown reading is a way of keeping one’s sanity. Long, satisfying reads are definitely a pleasaurable way to while one’s time. Tim Pears’s The West Country Trilogy consisting of The Horseman, The Wanderer and The Redeemed. It is historical fiction at its best. Mesmerising. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, around the time of World War I. It is about Leo, whose father works in the stables of Lord Prideaux and the peer’s daughter, Charlotte or Lottie. Spanning a few years, from when the children were of school going age to when they are adults — Leo, a war veteran and Lottie, a qualified veterinarian with an independent practice on her father’s estates.

The Horseman is about Leo and Lottie as children. It is about their very different lifestyles governed by a strict class structures. The children share a love for horses. A love that transcends anything known to mortal man. It is a kind of love that is compassionate and all-encompassing, an energy that many humans, even those working in the stables, are genuinely unable to comprehend. In today’s age the children may have even been referred to as horse whisperers but the bond that they display with their animals is beautifully drawn out by Tim Parks. At first The Horseman is a little tedious to read for its very “horsey” descriptions and technical details. Soon it becomes second nature and the story becomes much easier to read. The story that emerges is the one of Leo helping to look after the horses, even grooms of other stables recognise his special gift of being with horses, his schoolteachers encouraging him to do what his heart desires and his slow realisation of Lottie’s presence. Their first “encounter” is when he sees her riding a new horse on the grounds. It is a stunning description. Later the very same horse is injured and Lottie refuses to have it shot. Instead she wishes to tend to it. She is quietly and ably assisted by Leo. It is an unusual story that begins to develop as it cuts across the severely demarcated social lines. Within the confines of the stable, perhaps the presence of a stable boy while the daughter of the peer is also present is not questioned, especially when a sick horse needs looking after, but the same kind interaction is more than frowned upon outside. Unfortunately that is exactly what happens and due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Leo and his family are thrown out of the estate as Leo is seen with Lottie, unchaperoned. There is something quite remarkable about The Horseman as it immediately takes the reader into a pastoral landscape of the rigid society but the chinks in it are becoming apparent. While many in the first part of the trilogy hang on dearly to the old way of life, the two children — Leo and Lottie — begin to show the future way of life. For now it causes a catastrophic disruption in the personal and social lives of the characters but life moves on.

The Wanderer is the long journey that Leo makes wandering through through the countryside. It involves meeting gypsies and working as a labourer on a farm among other responsibilites. Leo’s personality comes across as a quiet, reticent but an equally stubborn, free-spirited individual who cannot be tethered for too long against his wishes at a task. He has to be able to exercise his free will. His self-respect is critical to his self-preservation. For Lottie too, her individuality and self-expression is very important and she insists on studying to be a veterinarian. The idea of a lord’s daughter being a professional was an act till then was unheard of and to opt for being a veterinarian would imply that her work would necessitate her being in the presence of many men too. Yet Lottie gets her way.

The Redeemed is the last part of the trilogy. It focuses for a large part on Leo participating in the Battle of Jutland — in it and later as a deep sea diver in the salvage yard that an enterprising businessman had set up to dredge the waters for the sunken German warships and sell the valuable scrap metal. It is a fascinating account particularly the description of bringing a massive ship to surface before breaking it apart. Offering a detailed view of the work involved is beautifully done. For instance, the conversations about trying to straighten the sunken ship and sail it to the dock for dismantling. It is a Thomas Hardy-like landscape and as absorbing to read. The focus on working people and their trade. Even Lottie is a qualified veterinarian who has broken the rules governing her class and sought a career for herself. For women especially of the upper class to actively seek a career was unheard of but to qualify as a veterinarian and choose to practise on her father’s estates is extraordinary. Yet, Lottie does just that and is accepted by everyone as a fine vet. Leo’s relationship with Lottie resumes though it is no longer the central preoccupation of this novel, but when it does make an appearance, it is ever so satisfying. It is no wonder then that The Redeemed is on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2020.

This is historical fiction at its best. Ideally the trilogy should be read in quick succession. It is the only way to relish this fabulous bildungsroman of Leo and Lottie and the transition of society from a rigid class structure to a modern society. The Biblical underpinnings of the trilogy are unmistakable as is the imagery represented by the short titles selected for each book but these books are fascinating whether one is aware of the allusions or not. Read the trilogy.

19 May 2020

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