sectarian violence Posts

Hilary Mantel and Kate Mosse

Historical fiction is always such a joy to read. If deftly created by an author with an informed imagination, then the pleasure of reading big fat tomes increases manifold. Two of the greatly anticipated books of this year arrived together — Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Kate Mosse’s The City of Tears. While Mantel’s book has already been released to great acclaim, Kate Mosse’s novel is due to be released at the end of May 2020. As expected The Mirror and the Light has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. ( The winner will be announced on 9 Sept 2020.)

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is the last in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. It is also the “fattest” volume of the three and was nearly eight years in the making. During the time Mantel was writing this particular novel, Wolf Hall ( the first in the trilogy) had been adapted for television.

The Mirror and The Light focusses on the final years of Thomas Cromwell. It begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn and concludes with Cromwell’s own execution. Many of these incidents are widely known even beyond the British Isles. It is a story that has gripped peoples imagination for centuries. But it is the manner of telling that is always new. Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of the incidents is entertaining as much has has to be imagined especially the conversations in private. It is a well-known fact that much of Thomas Cromwell’s papers were burnt at his request after his arrest. There are only snatches of correspondence and contemporary accounts that survive in different libraries and private collections. These have survived primarily because they belonged to others at the time of Cromwell’s death. To be historically accurate is a difficult proposition and this is where Hilary Mantel is able to exercise the creative freedom that a writer has to imagine scenarios. It is obvious that the author did spend a lot of time trying to be historically accurate as far as possible in terms of incidents, locations and other contemporary details. She makes a reference to it in this fabulous conversation with Pat Barker. Yet there were many moments while reading the novel that it made a lot of sense to dip in Revd. Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s incredible biography called Thomas Cromwell: A Life ( 2019). As an English historian and academic in Oxford University, specialising in ecclesiastical history and the history of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch spent more than six years researching and putting together details to recreate an astounding biography of Cromwell. So much so that even Mantel endorsed it saying “This is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. For Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell’s role as an ally of Henry VIII who facilitated the split in the church to create the sects of Protestants and Catholics is fundamentally a religious action guided by political motivation. The inextricable link between Church and State cannot be ignored in MacCulloch’s account and it seeps through the telling of the history as well. (Here is a fascinating The British Academy 10-minute talk he gave on Thomas Cromwell.) Mantel too cannot ignore this link as it is the premise upon which Cromwell’s reputation as a powerful statesman and a member of the Royal Court resides. But it is her telling of the story that blurs these lines. Increasingly it seems with every page of this story that Mantel is very aware of two facts — 1) that she is writing this story for a modern secular audience for whom faith is only one aspect of a story and 2) her writing style is heavily influenced by different forms of storytelling. There are incidents in the descriptions of the crowds that gather in the streets for parades, to welcome the newest Queen or to watch a hanging, or in the conversations recounted, that always seem to be one step away from a script ready to be converted for a screen adaptation. Clearly Mantel’s loyalties lie more towards her readers than to the historical characters who have inspired her to write this award-winning trilogy. Her description of Cromwell’s execution is superb but the ghosts in the story make absolutely no sense. Diarmaid MacCulloch admits that Hilary Mantel and he may be writing about the same man but the differences are apparent — primarily because he is a historian and Mantel is a novelist. Even so a renowned critic as Daniel Mendelsohn was moved to say in his New Yorker review of the book that he had “started to wonder—a thought unimaginable during my reading of the first two books—whether this particular historical figure really merits nearly two thousand pages of fiction.” Daniel Mendelsohn “Hubris and Delusion at the end of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor Trilogy” ( 20 March 2020, The New Yorker)

Interestingly the founder of the Women’s Prize, Kate Mosse, has also released a historical fiction novel called The City of Tears. ( It is slated for release on 28 May 2020.) It is the second part of a family saga that is set in France, a little after Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, during the Wars of Religion. Mosse’s historical fiction series is going to be spanning three centuries detailing the lives of the Huguenots (Protestants) and the Royal family (Catholics) in France. According to Mosse it will travel from sixteenth-century France and Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The City of Tears is set at the time of the St. Bartholomew Massacre of 23 August 1572. It is an immensely readable account of the conflict between the two factions. The main characters whose story is narrated in this series are purely fictional but are a means to enter the period and recount the horrific events of the time. Many of the details would resonate with the modern reader for the sectarian violence and the refugees created. As Mosse states in her note that the “characters and families are imagined though inspired by the kind of people who might have lived ordinary men and women, struggling to live, love and survive against a backdrop of religious war and displacement. Then, as now.” It is a pleasure to read The City of Tears for it may be classified as commercial fiction and tells a fantastic tale of a family, love and tears with some swashbuckling action thrown in for good measure but through it all Kate Mosse is very clear that the events detailed are because of religious differences. The violence and the misery it brought in its wake was wholly unnecessary then as it is now. The City of Tears is a gripping tale that can easily be adapted to screen but none of it intrudes in the telling of the story as happens in The Mirror and the Light.

Nevertheless it has been a pleasure to read both the novels in quick succession. And I am glad I did!

3 May 2020

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019

Tabish Khair’s “Night of Happiness”

I was trying to hide behind stories, to construct fictions, instead of facing facts. I asked myself: how are facts faced? I knew the answer: facts are faced with evidence, with data, with numbers. Fiction cannot be outnumbered; it cannot be proved. But facts, yes, I have known all my working life, I have built my business on it — facts can be proved. 

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness is about Anil Mehrotra, a businessman, and his right hand man, Ahmed. Anil Mehrotra relies completely on Ahmed irrespective of whether it was day or night or a holiday. The added advantage for Anil was that Ahmed was a polyglot and the astute businessman Anil knew “People are generous when you speak to them in their language. They are nicer, happier; ‘Their hearts unlock a room for you in their distant homes.’ ” This was an asset in the import/export business.

Night of Happiness is about Anil trying to find out more about Ahmed’s past life particularly after one stormy night of working late in the office Anil had offered to drop Ahmed home. Ahmed invites Anil to have tea and maida ka halwa ( a sweet dish made out of flour and sugar), a special dish made on Shaab-e-baraat or “Night of Happiness”– a day when the departed souls are remembered by Muslims, much like other faiths too set aside a similar period of time to honour their dead such as All Souls Day for the Christians or the period of Shraadh for the Hindus or Dia de los Muertos ( Day of the Dead) as is observed in Mexico. Anil has an unnerving experience at Ahmed’s home and decides to investigate further. He hires a private detective to dig up facts about Ahmed’s past. During the course of investigation a string of details emerge that Ahmed had never hinted at in all the years he worked with Anil Mehrotra.

The story itself is crafted in a manner that distances the author from the sentiments being expressed in the story as the narrator says he found the manuscript in a hotel drawer and proceeds to read it. Be that as it may the first person narrative of the makes the plot very powerful and the pace sharp. Ostensibly it is a story about Anil trying to ferret out facts about his trusted colleague and yet it is thinly veiled fiction about a dialogue between Hindus and Muslims calling out the popular held myths about a Muslim. It rings so true because it can very well be a real conversation. Both the Hindu narrator of the manuscript, Anil Mehrotra, and Ahmed, a Muslim, are portrayed sensitively. While  the investigator works like the chorus of a Sophoclean drama supplying the necessary information to the main action while gently rebutting Mehrotra’s assumptions of Ahmed’s life.

When Ahmed served Anil at his home, he insisted he had offered halwa prepared lovingly by his wife, Roshni, who never makes an appearance. Anil is perplexed since there is no halwa on the plate and Ahmed seems to be relishing an imaginary dish. Tabish Khair neatly introduces the element of madness in the novella with this simple act. Witnessing Ahmed’s odd behaviour at home prompts Anil to hire the private investigator. It is then the personal history of Ahmed comes tumbling out—the time he spent as a guide of Buddhist monuments in Bihar to earn a little extra income to support his widowed mother and himself, meeting his wife Roshni, their shift to Surat, the Gujarat riots of 2002, and his final move to Mumbai.   So Ahmed’s mental turmoil viewed as madness by his employer or the mental agitation of Anil himself may be interpreted in many ways. It can be very real while being a comment on the horrifically disturbing times we live in leading one to ask existential questions like “Who is actually mad? What is madness?”

The further distancing of the authorial voice by presenting facts from the investigator’s report further lulls the reader into accepting the “make-believe world” of the “literary thriller”. Whereas Night of Happiness is much more than that! For one it is using fiction to remind people of the pogrom orchestrated in living memory and how its long shadow is still cast upon modern India.  It’s within this century and less than a generation old but sufficiently long for many people, particularly the young and the diaspora,  to have conveniently forgotten about it. More likely been brought up in an ahistorical environment  so these dastardly facts have no impact.

Tabish Khair is a well-known novelist but is also increasingly known for his opinion pieces published regularly in the Indian newspaper Hindu. These are well-argued, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking commentaries on socio-political events playing out in different parts of the world. It is quite possible that much of the preliminary work involved for these articles laid the bedrock of Night of Happiness. Certainly the publication of Night of Happiness close on the heels of the widely acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamid Exit West raises the bar of literary fiction by many notches as both novels are able to focus on the horrific sectarian violence sweeping through the world. It is as if lessons from history were never learned. Both the authors, Tabish Khair and Mohsin Hamid, are writers of subcontinent origin who are also widely respected on the global literary stage. So when such powerful literary icons raise disturbing questions of a socio-political nature through their art, they must be heard.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness begs the question if it is really “Art for Art’s Sake”? Whatever the reasons for the existence of Night of Happiness, it is unputdownable.

Read it. Share it.

Tabish Khair Night of Happiness Picador India, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. Rs. 450 

18 April 2018