Friday, 18 May 2018

Do and Die

Do and Die. The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Manini Chatterjee

Picador. First published in 1999

In the early 1930s, in the coastal hill district of Chittagong, in what is now Bangladesh, a small band of fiercely motivated young men and women banded together and carried out a series of raids on various authorities of the colonial British government. They were lead chiefly by the young teacher Surjya Sen, who was known respectfully and affectionately as 'Masterda'. Apart from the ongoing Independence struggle lead by Mahatma Gandhi, they were inspired by the Irish revolutionary movements against the British. They planned an armed uprising against the government in their district hoping to be able to take charge of the administration for at least a few months, and thus demonstrating the possibilities of such uprisings all across the country. They recruited a small army of volunteers, numbering about a hundred. After months of planning and preparation, which included the gathering of firearms and uniforms for disguise, the men split into four groups and simultaneously attacked the Telegraph Office, the barracks of the British volunteer armed force, the Police Armoury and the European Club. The first three attacks were successful and the revolutionaries were able to easily overcome any resistance they encountered. However, the attack on the Club did not happen. Even the advantages arising from the first three successes were not driven home. The attacking force did not take away the arms and ammunition that were available at the barracks and at the Armoury. Also many mistakes of communication were made, with the result that the British Police were able to mount a counter attack and drive the revolutionaries away into the hills. Lacking food and water, the revolutionaries survived on watermelons and biscuits for a few days, until the British reinforcements arrived and laid siege to their position atop the hills of nearby Jalalabad. Here the back of the uprising was broken. Many of the revolutionaries were killed. Many others escaped into the hills and forests, living to fight another day. A few were arrested, tried and sentenced to death or imprisonment. 

The revolutionaries who escaped, including Masterda himself and some of their other leaders, carried out a few guerrilla raids, and planned another major uprising in Chittagong, this time attempting to involve the general populace. After a year or two of this, they were all  hunted down and captured one by one. Many of the revolutionaries survived and rejoined civilian life.

This minor, but intense, war of independence was hardly noticed by the mainstream freedom movement lead by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Though the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted tactics which were far different from the methods of Satyagraha, they were motivated by the same fierce desire to overthrow the yoke of colonialism. The leaders of the revolutionaries were almost all of them upper-middle class Hindu youth, but their outlook was secular, their politics were socialist, with some of them joining the Indian communist movements later on in life. It was perhaps these two facts, more than anything else, that account for the failure of the rest of India, the media and the other leaders of the Independence movement to accord sufficient attention and admiration to the heroic exploits of the these young men and women. For perhaps similar reasons, a recent (2010) Hindi movie with top stars and based on the uprising, failed to excite the audience as much as it should have.

Manini Chatterjee's book is a gripping one. It is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief survey of the conditions and precedents that engendered the uprising. Part II is a detailed description of the entire uprising, from the initial planning and secret gathering of strength by the movement, to the actual battles, to the final arrest, imprisonment and punishment of many of the key revolutionaries. The final part is again brief, an analysis and a retrospect. The facts appear well-researched and they are presented almost in the form of a novel. The book never descends, however, to any form of fictionalisation, such as for example, inventing any dialogue. Thus it remains a scholarly work, though nonetheless very readable. The title is a deliberate counterpoint to Gandhiji's famous call to 'Do or Die'. 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage

Zane Grey

Dover Publications. First published 1912.

Though this book has probably served as a kind of model for numerous writers of Western novels, including Oliver Strange and Max Brand, it differs in one key respect from all of them. It has a woman at the centre of the story, and the male characters all either help her or hinder her in her efforts to save and keep the family ranch. Jane Withersteen is the young (and of course beautiful) heroine who is left all alone to manage her father's ranch. She has a small bunch of loyal cowboys, younger than even her, who can be trusted to do as she bids, but who cannot be relied upon to face down the advances of the local chieftain, a Mormon 'Elder' called Tull. Tull wants to add Jane to his religiously sanctioned harem, and her farm to his already extensive property. Then Lassiter rides in. He is a gunman, initally disdained as an immoral criminal by Jane and her men, and indeed also by Tull and his men. But he stands up to the depredations of Tull and thereby gains Jane's respect, and eventually her love. In the end, she has to flee the country in his company, leaving the ranch behind for the powerful Mormon church to annexe, though Tull and all his men are killed.

There are extensive descriptions of the pastureland (overgrown with purple sage bushes) on which the action takes place, and much of the Wild West way of life described here is familiar to me from books and movies, all produced later, and probably leading off from this one. Even some of the specific locations and the actions connected with them are familiar. There is, for example, a hidden valley, accessible by only a narrow, hidden path over the mountain, with a small gold mine in the middle, where a couple of the lesser characters, Bess and Venters, spend a season, resting from illness and injuries and hoarding up the little gold that the mine yields. This scene invokes deja vu - 'Mackenna's Gold' and one of the 'Sudden' novels come to mind. Likewise, a large rock, balancing at the edge of a cliff, plays a crucial role in the final denouement, again a feature that has appeared in many books and movies - including the 2015 movie 'Mad Max: Fury Road'. 

But compared to the later Wild West books and movies, the action is slow, and the gunfights barely worthy of that name. There is none of the business of two strong men coming face to face on Main Street to match their gun-play skills at high noon. But it deserves its status of a minor classic, being, probably, among the very first books of the genre of the 'Western'.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In Xanadu

In Xanadu. A Quest

William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury. First published 1990.

In 1986 William Dalrymple, now a well-known interpreter of modern India to the West and to Westernised Indians, and the organiser of the glitzy annual Jaipur Literary Festival, was a student at the University of Cambridge, UK, when he applied for and obtained a scholarship to travel along the route taken all those centuries ago by Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu in China (then Mongolia). The book is an easy-to-read backpacking travelogue, narrating Dalrymple's more or less open-minded encounters with a variety of cultures and situations, all of which he approaches with an easy patronizing attitude typical of such travellers and such books. The fact that these encounters are mainly with ancient civilisations recently freed from the colonial burden lends an additional asymmetrical dimension to them, missing from the travel books of, say, Bill Bryson. One may argue that Dalrymple was a callow youth, a product of the late (or post) hippy environment that sent droves of white youth out East to gain 'mystic knowledge' and 'wisdom'. However, Dalrymple himself acknowledges no such motivation. He simply wants to travel, and to seek distraction from the mundaneness of his University curriculum. And therefore there is in the book a lack of any kind of self-consciousness, or any obvious expression of being conscious about the asymmetry. As Dalrymple notes in the 'Acknowledgements', which he wrote 26 years later, the book 'records the impressions, prejudices and enthusiasms of a very young, naive and deeply Anglocentic undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self - bumptious, cocky and self-confident, quick to judge and embarassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations - is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of;...'

Be that as it may, if we filter out all the bumptiousness and suppress our resentment at the white man, a relatively poor or middle-class white man, being able to so easily go where he pleases all across the globe, the book is an extremely interesting, though narrow and impressionistic view of the countries he travels through - Israel, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and China. He ultimately reaches Xanadu, to the north of Beijing, only to be disappointed by the lack of any remaining hints of the past grandeur described by Marco Polo. All-in-all a very readable, light book.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Museum of Innocence. By Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk
Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely

Faber and Faber. First published 2009

Kamal is a wealthy young man in Istanbul in the 1970s, about to be engaged to be married to Sibel, a girl from his own class. About two months before the grand engagement party, he goes to a shop to buy a handbag for her, and suddenly falls in love with the shop girl, Fusun. Fusun is distantly related 'poor cousin', whom he has known from childhood and vaguely met on and off since then, but her beauty strikes him with full force only now. He has no trouble seducing her, and from then on, for the next couple of months, they meet regularly in a flat his parents have set apart for him, for some his most divine moments of sex. The rest of the book tells of what happens over the next couple of years as Kamal breaks his engagement to Sibel, and slowly gains the acceptance of Fusun's orthodox family, in the process neglecting his business. The story ends in tragedy, as all 'great' love stories must. Fusun dies in a car accident, and Kamal is left to pick up the pieces of their life together, almost literally, and arrange them in a 'Museum of Innocence'. 

I am writing this a couple of years after I had read the book, and realise that I have forgotten most of the details. What stays is with me is Pamuk's description of Istanbul upper-middle class and middle class life in the 1960s and early 70s. It is much as I imagine such life would have been in Bombay or Calcutta at about the same time, though this I gather only from some little personal experience on the fringes of that kind of society, and some reading. Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' and Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy' illustrate comparable lifestyles. Also what stays with me about the book is the description of the Museum that Kamal has made by collecting bits and pieces of his life with Fusun - a lost earring, movie tickets, some pieces of furniture with special connotations for him, and so on. The narrator, Kamal, connects each item with some specific incident in the romance, and builds the story as a kind of a tour through the Museum. The writing is leisurely, slow even, actually a bit too slow for my tastes. I did not find the book especially noteworthy. It is more than 700 pages long, and requires an investment of time and effort which is not repaid, neither in terms of stimulating thought, nor in terms of reading pleasure.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? By Mindy Kaling.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling

Three Rivers Press. First published 2011

Mindy Kaling is a very successful and famous writer/actor in American TV. She is born in US, I think, to Indian parents, and her second name is an abbreviation of Chokalingam, her father's name, who happens to be distantly related to me. So that, in fact, is my real interest in this book, which is addressed to American young-adult women, and not to Indian old men. Mindy is not physically a stereotypical stage, TV or movie heroine, and would be difficult to think of as a natural for her chosen career. But with her immense writing and acting talent, and her confident personality she has defined an attractive role for herself, one which does not require her to, presumably, change her physique or her personality. (This can happen only in America, I think. It would have been impossible in India. M. S. Subbalakshmi is a case in point. Despite her terrific musical talent, she had to completely suppress her personality and her background in order to be successful.)  

This book is vaguely biographical, and something in the nature of PGW's 'Bring on the Girls'. There are less anecdotes, however, and there things like the list of her favourite moments in TV comedy - things that would be interesting or funny only to a young American audience. Her writing is breezy and never very deep, but one can always sense the clarity and firmness of purpose with which she went about achieving her success. But except for this meta-story the book does not have much substance. It's not even very funny. 

Cities of Salt. By Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt

Abdelrehman Munif
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux 

Vintage International. First published in Arabic in 1984.

This is a brilliant epic narration of the effect of the discovery of oil in the sands of Arabia on the pre-modern tribes that lived there. The story begins in a Wadi, an oasis, where exists a bucolic and pastoral lifestyle in harmony with the changing seasons, the availability of water and the regular arrival and departure of transiting caravans. The village social hierarchies are rigidly set, as they have been for centuries, comfortable, even if inequitable. The first faint inclination that everything is about to change comes from reports of foreigners, Americans, going from place to place in the desert, making mysterious measurements. A small bunch of these men also lands up in the Wadi, but soon departs. Their departure does not entirely soothe the dark fears that some of the elders have of what is portended. Their representations to the Emir, the local representative of the sultan, are met with only soothing platitudes. Soon the Americans return, and start setting up the oil extraction facilities. In the process they destroy the social system and the ecology of the place, displace hundreds of Bedouin tribesman from their ancestral lands, and annihilate a whole way of life. They find use for the skills of some of the tribesmen, who now become their servants and recruiting agents, inducting many of their fellow-tribesmen into unskilled, poorly paid labour on what was formerly their own land. A new hierarchy arises, and those who were once at the top are now with the rest at the bottom. Some rebel, and vanish into the desert to live nomadic slightly unlawful lives. Others migrate to the nearest towns and cities as refugees of an onrushing modernity. New forms of marginal employment arise. A port city is newly built, to serve as an oil trans-shipment facility. This necessitates the construction of plush quarters for the American, complete with air conditioned club houses and swimming pools. And not far away, but on a distant point in space-time, workers quarters are built - hot, airless sheds with tin roofs and cramped beds. A town grows up to serve the port, and some Western-educated Arabs start medical, legal and other professional services, leading to another point of contention and friction between the old and the new. The Emir, meanwhile, totally neglects his responsibilities to his people. He is well and thoroughly bribed, not just with money and services, but also with modern gadgets - a radio, a telescope, a camera. The story concludes at about this point, when one by one, the hold-outs of the old civilization pass away, and their way of life ends with them.

The book tells a tale that is full of echoes from around the world and from all times, that of a new civilization, a new way of life, not necessarily a better one, replacing the old. The story fits what is happening even now, for example in the hills and forests of Orissa or in Kudankulam. An ironic version of a part of the story is seen in the present day happenings in the Arabian Gulf countries - the Arabs are the new Americans, and Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians are cast in the role of the exploited Bedouins. 

The writing is observant and fluid, as is the translation. There is some humour, especially in the confrontations of the Emir with modernity. The emotions are generally underplayed, and the rage and the depression that probably agitated the writer are not displayed. Though the narration is quite powerful for all that, it is difficult to understand why this book, and others by this writer, are banned (as noted in the blurb) in various Arabian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.    

Monday, 12 September 2016

Sparkling Cyanide. By Agatha Christie

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie

St. Martin's Paperbacks. First published 1944.

A nicely told mystery about a young woman who apparently took her own life, rather bizarrely in the course of a dinner party. The story begins about a year later when there are premonitions of a similar repeat killing. Turns out, obviously, that the first death was murder, and the second is prevented. But how this happens, and how it is detected, is cleverly and charmingly related. The detective is not any of Christie's usuals - not Poirot or Marple, or even Tommy Tuppence. I doubt if the rather staid and colourless Chief Inspector Kemp appears in any other of her stories.