Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Chosen. By Chaim Potok

The Chosen

Chaim Potok

First published 1967 by The Random House Publishing Group

Maybe I have read another book by Chaim Potok. It was in 1990, I was temporarily in the guest house at the Department of Botany, I think, of the Louis Pasteur University, Strasbourg, waiting for more permanent accommodation. One of the earlier guests had left behind a book about hasidic Jews in New York. I only vaguely remember it, but the description of their habits and traditions now seems to me like what I just read in 'The Chosen'. One thing I do remember clearly from that long forgotten book is how the hasidim discuss whether turning on the electric switch on Sabbath constitutes a violation of the religious law, which requires a hasid to do no work at all on that day, but only study the Talmud. 'The Chosen' was Potok's first novel, and the title seems somewhat ironical, but maybe I've just layered my own feelings on it. For, the book takes itself seriously enough, describing an encounter between an extreme view of Judaism and a slightly less extreme one, but representing the two as diametrically opposite. The hasidic family is represented by a Rabbi and his brilliant son Danny, who is being trained in a harsh and unforgiving manner to take over from his father as the next Rabbi. The slightly less extreme tradition, Zionist, is represented by a teacher of the Talmud at a Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) and his son Reuven, also brilliant, also being instructed by his father in the Talmud, but less harshly. The training, in both cases consists of endless scholasticism regarding the Talmud and its interpretation. The story takes place in New York at about the time World War II was coming to an end, and Israel was being created. The book is well written, good to read, and opens a few mental windows, but is very insular. The messages and attitudes it conveys cannot really translate into the world outside the Jewish culture. I dislike the way the author assumes that it was right to displace an entire population (the Arabs) simply because, after Hitler and all the centuries of persecution, the European Jews desperately needed a homeland of their own. Wouldn't it have made more sense to carve out such a homeland in Europe itself, or, failing that, in the vast underpopulated regions of the New World (America and/or Australia). The British (and now, the Americans) did what they did (and continue to do it) because they can - not because it is right. I remember the argument (actually shouting match) I had with Osnat Herzberg on this topic when she was in Bangalore for a conference. I think I was stupid then, not for what I said, but how I said it. Anyway, these politics forms a vague background to the story, which is really about how to bring up your children, in particular contrasting a very traditional and harsh way with a more liberal (but only slightly more so) method. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Uncle Dynamite. By P.G. Wodehouse

Uncle Dynamite

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1948 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd.

It must be about 15 years since I last read this book - with the result the story, was new to me, as were many of his 'nifties'. Uncle Fred (Lord Ickenham) is in his usual springtime form, and at the receiving end, besides Pongo Twistleton, are, Sir Alymer Bostock, Bill Oakshott, Constable Potter and Major Brabazon-Plank. The story is the standard complicated one of couples falling apart and reuniting, country houses, odd doings in the night, bonny baby contests, etc. The following memorable joke occurs in it, and is one which I have often used in class to describe the major and minor grooves of DNA, and how they change size in the different forms of the double helix.   
"Lord Ickhenham laughed amusedly.
"Just a slip of the tongue, such as so often occurs. He meant Brabazon-Plank, major. As opposed to my brother, who, being younger than me, is, of course, Brabazon-Plank, minor. I can understand you being confused", said Lord Ickhenham......"And what renders it all the more complex is that as I myself am a mining engineer by profession [and my brother is an army officer], anyone who wants to get straight on the Brabazon-Plank situation has got to keep steadily before him the fact that the minor is a major and the major a miner. I have known strong men to break down on realizing this" 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The People's Train. By Thomas Keneally

The People’s Train

Thomas Keneally

Published in 2009 by Sceptre (Hodder and Stoughton)

Keneally’s best known book is ‘Schindler’s Ark’, but I have also read and liked ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’, about the establishment of the first English colonies in Australia, and ‘Towards Asmara’, about the Eritrean struggle. ‘The People’s Train’ is named for a monorail designed by a Russian exile in Brisbane, Australia, in the first decade of the 20th century, but the title also refers to the Russian communist revolution which forms the main backdrop of the novel. The book follows the revolutionary activities of Artem Samsurov. The story starts in Australia, before moving to Russia. But in chronological order, Samsurov is a worker in Tsarist Russia, a comrade of Vladimir Illich Lenin. He tries to organize the workers in Russia and is sent to a Siberian prison for his pains. After a year or so in prison camp, he escapes, via China and Japan, to Australia, where he takes up work as a labourer in a meat warehouse (reminiscent of Conrad Hensley, the character in Tom Wolfe’s ‘A Man in Full’). Here he organizes the labour, and along with fellow Russian exiles, other ‘English’ Australian workers, and lead by Australian socialist politicos, journalists and lawyers, takes part in a general strike. But the war (WW I) puts paid to his efforts at internationalism – nationalism trumps everything, and it becomes more important to defeat Germany than the capitalist bosses. In the meantime, Artem has a love affair with his lawyer Hope Mockridge. When on a picinic with Hope and other friends, a Russsian blackleg and police informer shoots himself. Artem and couple of others are arrested for murder, but with the help of Hope’s cuckolded lawyer husband and some journalists sympathetic to the cause, Artem and the others are set free. Artem then goes back to Russia, where the revolution is heating up. He takes his Australian journalist friend Paddy Dykes along. The revolution is going through the expected chaotic and confusing stage. The Tsar has been overthrown, but the new administration is not in place. Lenin (and Stalin – who has a ‘walk-on’ role) along with Trotsky and others are organising for the Bolsheviks come to power. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, with an important role, at least in this novel, for Artem. The novel ends inconclusively, the revolution is not as yet over, but clearly the future belongs to the Bolsheviks.

Keneally is always good to read. Like the other books mentioned above, he has based this novel on the true story of a Russian exile, though the true information he has is apparently mainly to do with the Australian part, the part narrated in the first person by Artem. The Russian part is supposed to be written by Paddy, and, maybe deliberately, it’s an outsider’s view. Perhaps because of that, it’s somewhat less convincing. The writing, as on critic on the blurb says is ‘remarkably uninformed by hindsight’, meaning, probably, that though the novel  was written in 2009, there is no criticism even implied of communism, Soviet Russia, Lenin and, of course, Stalin. The critic may have meant to snidely disparage Keneally, but the novel is as honest as possible and as neutral as possible, though, of course, any fair-minded reader of history would have to support the Bolsheviks at that point of time in Russia. Keneally, to his great credit, doesn’t try to establish his neutrality by going the other way to point out to the futility of what happened, but he doesn’t overdo the idealism, either. On the whole a very good book, though it drags a bit towards the end. I must read more books by Keneally.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

China - A History. By John Keay

China - A History

John Keay

Harper Press, 2009.

This is my introduction to a 'complete' history of China - beginning from prehistory and ending up in the 1970s, with a final brief nod to current events. The history is written in Keay's apparently usual style (see his 'India') - which means lighthearted use of the language, going through the facts at great speed, but trying to be as comprehensive as possible, a great many references and some analyses. Aa an introduction, the book is good, I suppose. But I don't think a China scholar would think much of it. I don't know why I think so, perhaps it is because of the writing style. The narrative appears unbiased - well, maybe there is a slight anti-western bias. But Keay does not shy away from the great cruelties Chinese inflicted on each other and on others. He is particularly condemnatory in discussing female foot-binding and talks highly of the communists for doing away with this practice. 

Before I sketch out the historical story line let me mention, as Keay explains in the first few chapters, that 'China', through most of its history, meant the middle eastern part of the present-day land area, essentially the area encompassing the two great rivers - the Yangtse (or Yanzi in the present day script) in the south and the Yellow river in the north. Thus Tibet, Mongolia, much of northern Manchuria, the western desert or steppe lands of Xinjiang (adjoining the 'stans' of central Asia) and even parts of the southern country, just north of Vietnam, were considered to be 'fringe' areas, either occupied by, or paying tribute to the central kingdom. Chinese history, at least according to Keay, is thus a list of kings, emperors and dynasties holding sway chiefly over this large and productive piece of land, called the 'middle kingdom' or Zhongguo in Chinese (which is also the present-day official Chinese name for itself), but not necessarily the fringe areas.  Here, then, is the list of dynasties. Mythologically there were five great emperors, one after the other, who are credited with the early origins of Chinese civilization. These and later empires and emperors were conferred legitimacy by establishing that they, and no one else, had 'Heaven's mandate' to rule 'All under Heaven'. The conferment of the mandate was indicated by the absence of natural disasters during their reign, and the presence of ‘good’ omens, as much as the loss of the mandate was indicated by the occurrence of such disasters, and ‘bad’ omens. (I suppose the mandate was assumed by the Emperor analogous to the way the ‘taking of silk’ was assumed at a specific time by lawyers in Victorian England.) The first of the more historical dynasties (kings now, rather than emperors) starts at about 2000 BC with Xia, followed by Shang and then the Zhou dynasties. The last one is most notable for a 'General Zhou' who put in a place a perfect administration in around 1000 - 250 BC, much admired by Confucius (ca 500 BC). These dynasties were during the bronze age, and China reached great technological heights in working bronze - presumably other stuff as well. The latter part of the Zhou dynasty overlapped with a period of confusion called the 'spring and autumn' period, followed by a period of the 'warring states'. At this time, there was no king clearly superior to the numerous dukes and other lesser nobles who ruled bits and pieces of the land. This period was followed by the first known imperial dynasty, the Qin dynasty, ruling a large portion of the middle kingdom. The first historically recognized emperor was Zheng Shi Huangdi (246 to 210 BC) who actually called himself 'the first emperor' expecting to be followed by the second, the third and so on. In the event he was followed by just two more. Huangdi has been credited with building the great wall of China, but the archaeological evidence says he built a small portion of it, at a location not identical to the present site, and using stamped mud as the building material, rather than the stone structure seen today. But the chambers of the 'terracotta army' (which has been identified as the tomb of Huangdi) discovered recently, and not yet fully explored or analysed, points to a sophisticated technology (armor made of jade stones!) and advanced administrative systems (e.g. a common examination in the classics - the writings of 'General Zhou' and Confucius, the 'I Ching'.... all of which literature is reliably dated to the first millenium BC or even earlier - for admission to the Emperor's administrative service, much like the ICS or IAS exams). The Qin empire suffered a period of decline and was reconstituted as the Han empire which lasted about 400 years until about 220 AD. The Han Empire is the first of the five great empires that define Chinese history. Thus, even today, the Han Chinese are the 'real' Chinese - others are minority ethnic groups  such as Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians, Uighurs, etc., etc. This period of great cultural and technological advances (carts, paper, printing, astronomy, bronze and iron working, irrigation, canal building) was followed by the so-called 'period of the three kingdoms' (Wei, Shu and Wu, each contending for supremacy, and the subject of a popular later - 17th century -  novel called 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms') followed in turn by a 'period of disunion' for about four hundred years during which 16 - 20 dynasties held and contended for portions of the middle kingdom, against each other and local chieftains.The second great empire, the Tang empire, followed from 550 to 907 AD, and was once again a period of great cultural and technological advances, especially in administrative structures, tax reforms, etc. The period is also notable for the reign, during a large part of it, by the Dowager Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled as regent in the name of her son, nephew and grandson. Buddhism also became more firmly established during this time, presumably the time Bodhidharma travelled from Kanchipuram (?) to the Shao Lin temple (?). From being the ‘greatest power in Asia’ during the early days, the Tang empire fell into bad times from around 750 AD. In the mid tenth century there was the usual period of confusion with five dynasties and/or ten kingdoms contending to be top gun. Among these were some from Manchuria and Mongolia (Jurchen, Jin) and the Song. This last named was considered the most representative of the lot and this period is identified with it. The period is counted as the ‘Golden Age’ of China, culturally and, again, technologically and administratively. This confusion yielded to rule by the Mongols. While Chengis Khan and his earlier successors were content to invade China (and other parts of Eurasia) and return to their homeland, the later sucessors overthrew the Song dynasty in about 1280 AD and established the Yuan dynasty, with Kubhlai Khan as its most notable Emperor. This dynasty was followed by the indigenous Ming dynasty from about 1375 AD. The Ming period is associated with the voyages as far afield as Africa of Admiral Zheng He, with the increase in trade between China and not just Asia but also Europe, the articles traded being now, more and more, tea and porcelain, rather than just silk, and again great technological advances, including sailing and navigation. The Great Wall worked on in bits and pieces over the years by various Kings and Emperors, was given its final shape in stone during this period. The great canal connecting the Yangxi and the Yellow rivers, was also rebuild, renewed and opened to a great deal of traffic and trade. The Ming period ended in about 1650, when the Manchus (from Manchuria) conquered China and started their own Qing dynasty. The kingdom was consolidated during this period, and slowly opened up to foreign trade, specifically European and American. It was in the Qing period that the British expanded their empire also into China, pushing opium into the country, as described by Amitav Ghosh in ‘River of Smoke’. Other powers were not far behind in humiliating and overpowering the remanants of the Qing dynasty. The dynasty lingered on until the early 20th century with the ‘Last Emperor’ Pu Yi memorialized in the Hollywood movie of the same name. The mandarins (‘IAS’ officials) did much of the actual ruling – Commissioner Li (described in ‘River of Smoke’ being one of them). China was parceled out between the Europeans, the Americans, the Japanese and a huge number of warlords, each a King or the ruler of his piece of land, and constantly bickering with the neighbours. This went on until the Nationalists under Sun Yat Sen and, later, Chiang Kai Shek united large portions of the empire to form a republic. The Communist party was slowly building up its strength under Mao, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and others. After first joining the Nationalists to push out the foreigners,a nd in particular the Japanese, they took over the country after the famous ‘Long March’ and established the People’s Republic of China, still called the ‘Middle Kingdom’ - Zhongguo - in Chinese.

In brief: Five Mythical Emperors – Xia, Shang, Zhou – the first empire Qin (Huangdi) – Han – the three kingdoms – Tang – Song – Ming – Qing – Europe – PRC. 

Perhaps I looked forward to too much, but the book fails to explain or give some rational lead up to China’s current status as a poor, developing country, albeit developing very fast. With India, firstly there was never such high technological development, secondly our history of being a colony, and thirdly  the sub-continent was never, or only very rarely, one integrated nation, fourthly the caste system, and fifthly the existence of tens of different important language groups and hundreds of different languages, many with their own literature and mostly with their own culture – these may be used to plausibly explain the state of our economy and our polity. None of these factors apply to China. Technology was far in advanced of the Europeans hundreds of years before them, as was their culture, and most importantly they had in place a terrific administrative system a couple of millenia before such things were thought of elsewhere. They have had a continuous ‘Chinese’ culture extending back 4000 years to the second millennium BC. And yet, and yet…..For example they knew gunpowder, they knew bronze and iron working – why did they not make cannons and guns? They knew shipbuilding, they knew navigation, they had adventurers – why did they not cross the Pacific? They knew bureaucracy, administration, accounting – why did not not build colonies? Why did they not colonize even their neighbours Japan and Korea, let alone India, Europe, America, Africa? My reading of this book raises these questions in my mind, but I do not find any answers to them in it. Except one. Both India and China did not have western democracy (communism is after all a post-feudal democratic order, also imported from the west) until recent times. Maybe that is what kept both of the peoples behind.

Before I read the book, I thought Chinese history would more or less parallel India’s, and there are indications in the book that Keay thinks so, even after all his research. However, I think there are real differences. I think China has been, as a civilisation, far in advance of the rest of the world. At least that is the sense I get from this book, though Keay himself seems to notice nothing particularly remarkable. So even though the book itself narrates the history as one king after another, and one dynasty after another, the meta message I got is the one I have stated above. However reading the book again would probably be a bore.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

River of Smoke. By Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2011

This is the second part of the triology, following Sea of Poppies. As I have said many times to my friends in describing these two books, and also as said in some of the reviews, this is more history than fiction, kind of fictionalized history. The individual characters and their stories are fiction, but the major events and the background are historical. The first book, Sea of Poppies, brought together at its end a diverse set of characters all going away from British Calcutta around 1835 in a ship which meets up with a severe storm. The characters include a lady fleeing from sati, the lower caste lover who rescued her, a former zamindar who has been cheated by the British govt. (actually the East India Company govt.) of his wealth, a half-French half-Indian young girl, and so on. In the confusion caused by the storm, some of them escape. The present book starts more or less after the storm, and traces the careers of some of these characters. One of the main protagonists of River of Smoke is Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, who sails to Canton with a ship load of his merchandise. Also coming to Canton is a botanist from London,  in search of rare flower, and who is accompanied by the half-French girl. Most of the action takes place in Canton. The underlying history is that of the opium wars that the British conducted against China. The two-fold horrors perpetrated on both India and China is what Ghosh wants to expose, apparently. The British forced Indian farmers to grow poppy in the fields in Bihar and Western UP, instead of food crops, and then bought that crop at a pittance, thus driving the farmers into wretched poverty. The poppy seeds were processed in Calcutta into opium, and shipped to China to be sold there. When the Chinese government, fearing the wholesale corruption of their entire population, acted to ban the sale of opium there, the British brought on their warships and forced the Chinese to revoke the ban. Obviously, this is reminiscent of what happens even now - Pepsi, various drugs, GM seeds, SUVs and so on, though Ghosh does not even faintly indicate the parallels. 

The book is written in a scholarly fashion. It is rather emotionless, perhaps deliberately so, for one can nevertheless sense the underlying rage against the depredations of colonialism. Some portions seem laboured. The opening sequence, for example, is apparently intended to be a kind of introduction, based on the previous book, to what happened in the story till then. However, even for those, like me, who read the previous book, it is somewhat confusing. But the book picks up after that. It chiefly follows the doings of Modi, mainly in Canton, up to his  ultimate downfall, upon which the books ends. It also tells the story of Paulette, the half-French girl, and her attempts to get a sample of a rare orchid; and of several other characters. One of the ideas behind this book and the the previous one is to explore the different forms the English language assumes in different circumstances. In Sea of Poppies, we are introduced at great length to English as spoken by the Englishmen who have spent almost all their lives in India (i.e. it is full of Hindi and Bengali words and usages). We are also shown the English spoken by the shipboard lascars, who come from a variety of different countries and end up communicating with each other in their own version of the language of their bosses. In the present book we are made familiar with the pidgin English spoken by and between all those involved in the opium trade in Canton.

Despite the lack of emotion (or perhaps because of it) this is a good book to read, as a novel, as fiction. It is gripping, except, as I said, for the introductory sequence. The language, of course, is marvelous. The next and perhaps last book of the series promises to be even more like a history textbook. Most of the stories of the characters from the first book have been  completed in the second one. It is hard to see how Ghosh can continue from here. Maybe he will go back to the end of the first book, and follow the lives of some of the characters from there who are not mentioned in detail here. That is, the trilogy will not be linear, 1,2 and 3, but will split into 2 and 3 at the end of 1. We may have to wait a few years to find out.  

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

David Copperfield. By Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

Oxford University Press. This edition published 1981.
First published in monthly serialized parts between 1849 and 1850.

My favourite Dickens. Actually one of my favourite books. This is the fourth time I'm reading it (and 'I'm lovin' it'!). It is a semi-autobiographical story of David Copperfield, orphaned at an early age and put to work in a factory. He runs away, is adopted by his kindly but fearsome and eccentric aunt, and grows up to become a successful author. The autobiographical parts are: the being put to labour in a factory; the character of Mr. Micawber (among the greatest inventions in English literature, I think, and so do many others) based on the character of Dickens' father; and of course the bit about growing up to be successful writer. I do not know how much of the other bits are based on his own life.  

Apart from David's own story, the novel weaves together two other major stories, and several smaller ones. One of the major stories is that of Steerforth, Emily and the Peggotty family. The other is the story of Mr. Wickfield, Agnes Wickfield, Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber. The smaller stories include those of (Clara) Peggotty and Barkis ('Barkis is willing'); the Micawber family before they meet Uriah Heep; Tommy Traddles; David's aunt Betsey Trotwood, her husband, and her protege Mr. Dick; Doctor Strong and Mrs Strong; and Dora and Mr. Spenlow. The last may actually qualify as a major story line, except that it is intense, and runs over a smaller portion of the novel than the others.

This novel like all of Dickens' novels, emphasizes that love, goodness and decency are better treasures than all the money and prestige in the world. The most admirable character is presented as that of Mr. Peggotty, the fisherman, who has an immensely generous heart, and spends a good part of his life (and money) going in search of his adopted daughter Emily, who has become a 'fallen women' acceptable to no one else in society. His actions and statements, both before he makes his resolve, and especially after he does so, provide some of the most moving moments of the novel. Equally moving are the scenes where the young wife of the old Dr. Strong explains her attitudes and feelings towards elderly husband and her marriage to him. There are many other such passages, in fact the novel is full of them, with almost every page readable many times over. Below are brief sketches of some of the characters.

Mr. Murdstone and his sister ('the murdering woman'): A nasty pair, they  preyed on widowed or single women (at least two of them in the novel), bending them to their rigid ways. They do this to David's widowed young mother, driving her to her grave. To quote : 'Firmness was the grand quality on which both Mr. and Miss Murdstone took their was another name for tyranny and for a certain gloomy, arrogant, devil's humour that was in them both. The creed...was this. Mr. Murdstone was firm; nobody in his world was to be so firm as Mr. Murdstone; nobody else in his world was to be firm at all, for everybody was to be bent to his firmness'. Reminds me rather of Athan.

Steerforth: A spoilt son of a rich doting mother, he is handsome, intelligent, very easy with his friends, obnoxious to those he doesn't like, capable of learning and doing almost anything he wants, confident, and a man of the world. But there is a moral vacuum in him which makes him do what is comfortable, or even maybe just momentarily convenient rather than what is right. He is responsible for some of the nastiest behaviour in the novel, but there are some slight redeeming features in him, and David loves him to the end, though he can never forgive him for what he did. 

Miss Mowcher: A good natured, seedy, slightly shady, but ultimately moral, dwarf, she plays a significant, though minor, role in the denouement of one of the story lines.

Uriah Heep: A truly evil character, he is always claiming to be 'umble', while constantly planning nasty and crooked things. There is a explanation and extenuation of sorts of his actions when he explains how he has been taught from childhood to be humble in the presence of his 'betters'. This particular explanation raises questions about the novel that I shall have more to say about a little later. Uriah is the real villain of the whole novel

Peggotty: She is David's nurse, a loyal and sweet lady servant, and till the end  is happy to be with David, and serve him as much as she can. David in return treats her well, as does Dickens himself.

Emily: A rather colourless silly girl, her undoing is brought about by her desire to become a 'lady'.

Littimer: Steerforth's manservant, he is, like Jeeves, a 'gentleman's personal gentleman'. Also like Jeeves he is always dignified, respectable and competent. Especially, he doesn't walk, but floats silently from place to place, always appearing where he is required, and only when he's required. Maybe Wodehouse got his model for Jeeves from Littimer. Except that Littimer is an ultimately evil man, who encourages and helps his master Steerforth in his designs on Emily.

There are huge number of other memorable characters, minor and major, and I don't want to list them all. Instead I shall address, in the rest of this entry, a major point about this novel (and other novels by Dickens) that strikes me. It is the following. In this novel David (and other similar characters in the other Dickens novels) frequently bemoans having had a hard childhood, because he is put to work in a factory rather than being sent to school. He presents this as something truly evil that is done to him, something he does not 'deserve'. We note though that he has no such sympathies about his fellow child workers in the factory, but actually resents the fact that he, a 'gentleman', should be put in the such low company. Throughout the book, in fact, there is this peculiar distinction between 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' on the one hand, and the 'common people' on the other. We are not told what exactly distinguishes one set of people from the other. It is not money, for gentlemen remain gentlemen even when they loose all their money, and common folk never attain 'gentle' status no matter how much money they get. A classic case of such an attitude is Emily, who is attracted by a chance to become a Lady and deserts her well-off and faithful fiance, who is not a gentleman, but 'only' a successful and prosperous fisherman. It may be that Emily is actually attracted by the handsomeness, competence and confidence of Steerforth, but this is not what Dickens tells us. So I am puzzled. What defines a gentleman? It cannot be just the family into which one is born, but may be related to the attitude towards 'blood', that Dickens describes in a hilarious sequence. To quote: 'Other things are all very well in their way, but give me Blood.' Also 'There are some that would prefer to bow low down before idols. Positively Idols! Before services, intellect and so on. But these are intangible points. Blood is not so. We see Blood in the nose, and we know it.' Dickens is making fun of the attitude of looking up to Aristocracy (or 'Blood'), but is, I think, guilty of similar, if milder, attitude towards what he calls 'gentlemen'. Maybe it only means that in these matters, Dickens could not, understandably, rise too far above the social attitudes of his time.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Wodehouse At The Wicket. Edited by Murray Hedgecock

Wodehouse At The Wicket: A Cricketing Anthology

Sir P.G. Wodehouse

Edited by Murray Hedgecock

Published by Arrow Books, 2011.

    A collection of 'pieces' ('as we journalists call them' !), extracts, short stories, essays, and a few 'nifties', all related to cricket, taken from the extensive opus of PGW. Some of these are great to read (again, in many cases). These include the magnificent description of the school cricket match at Sedleigh's where Mike Jackson first showed the school what a great cricketer he was. The short stories, which I read for the first time, are not really very good. The other extracts are varied - good to boring. It's pity PGW didn't write as much about cricket as he did about golf. It would have been good to have had a 'PGW Cricket Omnibus'. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

India. By John Keay

A history: From the earliest civilisations to the boom of the twenty-first century.

John Keay

First published 2000. This edition 2010, Harper Press.

Well written, readable, apparently unbiased history. In broad outline, the narrative does not change very much from previous histories I've read - Romila Thapar, Nehru, Percival Spear, A.L. Basham, Ramachandra Guha, etc. There are of course differences. Differences of narrative, differences of emphasis, and differences of interpretation. But not too much. Keay does try to balance the tales of kings and emperors with some descriptions and tales of anonymous lives, and these efforts, though sporadic, are well integrated into the main narrative. In matters of emphasis Keay takes off on a slightly different path from the other histories. The British Raj is treated rather less harshly, and the Muslim 'period' somewhat more so, than in the other books. South India, as usual, is not given too much attention, except for a couple of the Chola kings. Nothing about the Pandyas, who apparently, co-existed with the Mauryas. But the book does not really seem to be tendentious of any particular view. 

First, a timeline - Indus Valley; vedic period; the epic age; some of kingdoms of the Gangetic plains; Buddha; the Mauryas; Ashoka (about whom Keay positively gushes - calls him the first King and administrator to actually codify decent and ethical principles - what about Hammurabi?); the Shatvahanas and the Kushans, Kanishka; Guptas; Rudradaman, Harshavaradana; Chalukyas and Pallavas; the Arabs (Sind), the Rashtrakutas (Deccan), the Palas (Bengal), and  the Gurjara-Prathiharas (Rajasthan, Gujarat); Ghanzi; Cholas; Prithiviraj Chauhan, Rajputs, Allaudin Khilji, Malik Kafur; Tughlaq; the Mughals, Bhamani Sultans, Shivaji and Marathas; British Raj; Independence. All these are standard Indian History regulars. As with all such histories, and due the nature and quantity of the knowledge available, the narrative becomes more and more detailed as we approach recent times. Thus time moves in millennia in the  first few chapters, then a few centuries at a time, then in centuries, and finally in decades. This again is standard. There are however some matters of emphasis on which Keay differs from others, and which were new for me. 

Keay makes a point of trying to establish and analyse the fact that between about 3500 BC and about 500 BC two civilisations apparently overlapped in time and space - the Indus valley civilisation about which there is a lot of archaeological evidence, but no narrative, written or otherwise; and the Vedic civilisation, about which the reverse is true, plenty of narrative, but no archaeology. And no cross reference of one civilisation to the other, i.e. nothing in the Harrappan archaeology about the Vedic and nothing in the Vedic   narrative about Harrappa. The maximum parsimony inference would be that these two civilisations are about the same, that one gave rise to the other. But that is probably shot down by the fact that horses, so important in Vedic times, are completely absent in the Harrappan artefacts, and also that the Indus valley seals are clearly not Sanskrit or anything similar, at least not according to research so far. Keay considers an origin for the Vedic people ('Aryans') in the Indo-Gangetic plains, but there is simply not enough evidence to support that. Most of the available evidence, including some recent stuff not explicitly considered by Keay, such as language, and genetic, points to a Western, roughly Central Asian origin for the Vedic people. Keay does not subscribe to an 'Aryan invasion' but neither, of course, do any of the serious historians I have read. The mystery remains. Perhaps careful genetic and linguistic analysis will actually tell us more, and maybe more archaeology in remote places or those currently urban and built up. Maybe, but I don't think so. I think the mystery will continue.

There are other interesting things in Keay I learnt with a sense of learning something for the first time - the existence and significance of Rudradaman;  the importance and antiquity of the excursions of Malik Kafur as far south as Madurai; the highly likely lack of religious motivations in many Kings, Emperors and conquerors (such as Shivaji, and many Rajputs); the interesting character  of the British in early times, as just another set of 'Kings'; the mandala theory of politics, where enemies and allies spread out in alternate concentric 'circles' from every kingdom, which was current up to about the 18th century; the fact that when the Sultans came in or again when the British came in, India was not a 'highly  developed country in an advanced state of decay' (as described by Shashi Tharoor in 'The Great Indian Novel'); and some recent history of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which I know, some of it, from the newspapers, but not as a 'history'. 

Keay, writes well, some times almost flippantly. An example is his repeated quotation of a copper plate charter from the sixth century which describes  the charter-giver as a king who 'cleft the temples of the rutting elephants of his foes' and whose 'toenails emitted rays as dazzling as the jewels'. Another is his characterisation of British Raj as never really 'pax Britannica' (there was always some war or the other going on) but more 'tax Britannica' and later 'axe Britannica' (for cutting down so much of the forests). He occasionally does slip in some specious interpretation unobstrusively through the book, but is more blatant about it when he describes recent (1980s to 2010) political events in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Also the fact of his being 'balanced and unbiased' is suspect now and then. But I guess no history can ever be uninformed by the prejudices and predilections of the historian. See for example Kurosowa's 'Roshomon'. 

However, all in all, a good book, well worth another couple of reads.           

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Hornblower in the West Indies - and an Overview of the Series. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower in the West Indies

C. S. Forester (1958)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Rear admiral Lord Hornblower is Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels in the West Indies.  The novel consists of five stories. In the first, Hornblower tells what he thinks is a great big lie (thus losing honour) in order to save England and Europe from another series of Napoleonic wars, only to find that what he said was true after all. In the second story, he conceives a plan to chase a much faster slave ship by fitting a ‘drogue’ – a large conical sail below the bows – to it while it is a neutral harbour – New Orleans, USA – so that he could free the slaves on the high seas when the ship is no longer protected by USA. He succeeds, but keeps various big egos happy by pretending he did not originate the plan. In the third story, largely inland on the island of Jamaica, Hornblower is captured by pirates, and is then set free to negotiate, but instead takes a ship around to near the pirates’ hideout and blows them out with mortars. The fourth story is about Hornblower unwittingly helping the cause of Simon Bolivar’s revolution in what later is Bolivia. His sympathies lie with the revolutionaries, but since England is not at war with Spain, he cannot help overtly. The final story brings Barbara out to the West Indies, where, as is afterwards discovered she helps a convict escape.  Hornblower hands over charge to his successor, and sets sail for England. Their ship is caught is terrible hurricane and the entire crew is nearly lost, but Hornblower ties himself and Barbara and a few others to the mast and they survive, but just about. 

Overview of the Series

It is obviously a series I like very much. Not Nobel-prize winning literature, but excellently written. The first time I read most, but not all the series, was when I borrowed the books from the British Council library, sometime in the late 80s. The first book in the series I read was 'The Happy Return' which also happens to be the first book in the series to be published. This was suggested to me by Jayavardhan Pandit, my junior in IISc, who was surprised I had not heard about the series before. I liked the book immediately, and later when I came to Chennai, I started issuing the books from the library, and I found I liked the books more and more. The characters are mostly well fashioned, especially Hornblower, Bush, Barbara and a few others. However many others are stereotypical, e.g. Maria. What I liked best of course was the historical context, which is fairly authentic, I think, and hugely detailed descriptions of the life in the British Navy in that period. The sailing scenes and the sea battles are thrillingly described. Even such episodes as chasing an enemy ship or escaping from one over a period of several hours or even days of sailing is excitingly told. Of course, I do not know if the descriptions are technically sound, but I think they must be, or else the websites would have been full of criticism. A great set of books, perhaps to be read again after a few years. However I should try and get the printed versions - reading e-books is not the same. 

Afterword: There are couple of short stories, at least, that I remember reading long years ago, but which I don't find in the current set of downloads.There was one in which Hornblower, in retirement in his country estate, encounters a young refugee Napoleon III, who, history tells us, was later to be President of France and then its Emperor, around about 1845-1850. Hornblower must have been about 70 years old when the encounter takes place.     

Lord Hornblower. By C.S. Forester

Lord Hornblower

C. S. Forester (1946)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower (still Sir Hornblower when the book opens) is sent to put down a mutiny by a ship  which is anchored of the coast of France, threating to defect unless their demands are met. Hornblower successfully puts down the mutiny, at the same time destroying some French shipping and capturing a few others, thus making him and his crew richer by the ‘prize money’.  He is offered a deal for the surrender (or ‘declaration for King Louis’) by the port town of Le Havre in exchange for special trading rights for a powerful company there. He accepts this. Captain Bush and the Nonsuch, and a couple of other ships join his fleet, bringing along a complement of soldiers. Hornblower goes ashore with these soldiers, takes over the town, accepts the declarations of the Mayor and the big shots of the town, and starts governing. One of the princes of the French court is sent to Le Havre to take it over in the name of the King. Hornblower recieves him while all the while thinking about the news he recieves about a massive siege train sent by Napoleon from Paris to Le Havre, under the generalship of Quiot, another historical figure. He sends a trop of soldiers and seamen in the command of Bush, up the river Seine, to take the seige train by surprise and destroy it. This operation is successfully carried out, but Bush loses his life, the greatest personal loss suffered by Hornblower in the entire series, except for Maria and the two children. Barbara comes out to Le Havre to join him, and Hornblower finds himself growing a bit distant from her, her presence while he performs his duties being irksome to him. They receive news that Napoleon has been captured and is interned on the island of St. Helena. They go to Paris, where he learns that he has been made a Peer, Lord Hornblower of Smallbridge. At a reception, they meet Marie and her father-in-law, with whom Hornblower spent a few months on escaping from French custody some years previously. Barbara elects to go to the conference in Vienna, where she will serve as hostess for her brother. Hornblower returns to Smallbridge. But bored there, he makes a trip to France, now under the Bourbon King, to stay sometime with Marie and her father-in-law. While there they learn that Napoleon has escaped, gathered together a large contingent of troops and has marched once again on Paris. Hornblower, Marie and the nobleman lead a small guerrilla resistance, but eventually the nobleman and Marie are killed, and Hornblower is captured and about to be shot the next day, when news comes of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Hornblower is reprieved at the last moment.

The Commodore. By C.S. Forester

The Commodore

C. S. Forester (1945)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Sir Hornblower is now the Squire of the village of Smallbridge, a property that he has purchased with his prize money and made a home for himself, his wife Barbara and his son Richard. He is appointed Commodore aboard the Nonsuch with Captain Bush (with a wooden leg) in command of the ship, and sent to the Baltic sea to keep an eye on the goings on between Sweden, Russia and France.  He has a political adviser on board by name of Braun, who fled Finland on its conquest by Russia. They pass through the narrow straits between Denmark (in French hands) and Sweden (neutral), are fired upon by batteries at Amager on the southern tip of the strait on the Danish side, but get through with some damage. The British fleet tries to blockade all shipping helpful to France. It hunts down a French privateer that seeks refuge in a harbour beyond the reach of the Nonsuch’s guns. However the fleet has a couple of ‘bomb’ vessels, i.e. ships carrying mortars and land guns, and these are used to destroy the French ship. He then escorts a British emissary from Sweden to the Russian court at St. Petersburg in an attempt to force Tsar Alexander to declare war on France. There he prevents an attempt by Braun to assassinate the Tsar, and has a brief affair with one of the ladies of the Russian court.  Later a landing party destroys much of the coastal shipping off the coast of Konigsberg. Russia declares war on France, and Hornblower and his fleet go to Riga to help the besieged town. There are descriptions of land battles here, directed by Clausewitz, then a Prussian general in Russian service. Hornblower meets him, discusses battle tactics with him, and takes part in some of the battles, and helps in the eventual rout of the French army from Riga, at the same time as Napolean’s main force is in retreat from the Russian winter. At the end of the book he collapses, and the reader may believe he dies, but in the next book we are told this was the effect of typhus, from which he duly recovers on his return to England. Many of the events in this book, especially the events in war between Russia and France, are familiar from ‘War and Peace’ and the biography of Napoleon.

Flying Colours. By C.S. Forester

Flying Colours

C. S. Forester (1938)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The book begins with Hornblower in captivity in Rosas. Soon, in midwinter, he and and an injured Bush and a ‘coxwain’ Brown are sent to Paris for show trial. The charge is that he sailed under false colours (he once used the French flag on the Sutherland to pull off a trick) and therefore is a spy, likely to be shot. On the way all three escape from the carriage in which they are travelling, and find shelter in the chateau of a local nobelman on the banks of the Loire. The nobelman is a royalist with sympathies for the ‘ancien regime’. In the next six or eight months Hornblower falls in love with the nobelman’s widowed daughter-in-law Marie, Bush recovers and learns to use a wooden leg, and they all build a shallow boat. On this boat the three of them sail down the Loire, dressed as fisherman, and reach the sea port of Nantes. Here, dressed as customs officials, they steal a French ship and sail it to England with ‘flying colours’. He is formally arrested for his role in letting the Sutherland sink, but in the ensuing court martial is honourably cleared. He learns that Sir Percy Leighton died in the action in Rosas, and also that his wife Maria died in childbirth, though the child was safe, and now in the care of Lady Barbara. He is knighted, goes to meet his son at Lady Barbara’s and find that she still loves him and wants him.

A Ship of the Line. By C.S. Forester

A Ship of the Line

C. S. Forester (1938)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower takes command of the Sutherland, a much larger ‘ship of the line’. War has been long declared with the French. Barbara has married Sir Percy Leighton who is his commodore when he joins escort duty for a convoy of East Indiamen to the Mediterranean. In the course of this trip the Sutherland singlehandedly keeps away a couple of pirate ships who see easy prey in the merchant ships. For this he is rewarded by the convoy, but not satisfied with the money from them, he also ‘kidnaps’ a few hundred seamen from the merchant ships, much to their helpless consternation.  He rejoins his fleet, only to find that Sir Percy and his ship have not rejoined. Under orders from the senior captain he has a few adventures off the Spanish coast destroying shipping and some chore batteries. After an unsuccessful attempt by the fleet to go into the harbour and bomb it out, (not advised or planned by Hornblower) he is asked to lead a landing party of mixed Spanish and English soldiers to capture the fort. he is promised help from the Spanish land army which does not materialize, and Hornblower has to retreat in short order. Again he is ordered into action, alone against four French ships, and the Sutherland is badly shot before he surrenders and is arrested along with his crew and imprisoned in the fortress of Rosas.

The Happy Return. By C.S. Forester

The Happy Return

C. S. Forester (1937)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The first Hornblower book that I read, given to me in 1982 by Jayavaradan Pandit. Also maybe the earliest book in the series written by Forester. Hornblower is captain of the Lydia and is sent to the Pacific, round Cape Horn. After eleven weeks of sailing on the high seas he makes a perfect landfall in the Gulf of Fonseca on the west coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. There he meets a local chieftian, El Supremo, who is a detestable despot (seemingly modelled on Conrad’s Kurtz), but who is in rebellion against the Spanish. Therefore Hornblower helps him by capturing and then handing over to his nascent navy, the Natividad, a much larger Spanish war ship. Soon thereafter he learns that the Spanish are now friends with the English and against El Supremo, and this was so even as he captured the Natividad. He is afraid of being discredited for helping the newly created enemy, even though this happened because he followed his orders perfectly, i.e. he did not communciate at any time with anyone until he made landfall. In Nicaragua he takes on board Lady Barbara Wellesley, thus beginning of their love affair. He again meets the Natividad and fights her and sinks her despite her superior firepowere, sustaining the while fearsome injuries to his own ship. He refits, and returns to his command cntre, the Caribbean island of St. Helena. On the long (and largely uneventful) trip there, again around Cape Horn, the love affair between Hornblower and Barbara develops a full head of steam, but Hornblower is conscious not only of Maria, but the fact that his background does not match Barbara’s blue blood, she being the sister of both Richard, the Marquis of Wellesley, sometime Governor General of the East India Company in India, and of Arthur Wellesley later Lord Wellington, who fought in India.  ["Humph," said Lady Wheeler. The name of Wellesley was still anathema to a certain section of Anglo-Indians. "This Lady Barbara is a good deal younger than he is, I fancy? I remember her as quite a child in Madras."]. The book ends with Hornblower abruptly breaking off their contact on reaching St. Helena. He is then sent back to England to assume a new command.

Hornblower and the Atropos. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Atropos

C. S. Forester (1953)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower and family travel by a canal barge from Gloucester  to London along the Thames and the Severn. In London Hornblower takes charge of the Atropos. His first duty is not connected with the ship, but is to conduct the water-borne part of the funeral procession for Lord Nelson who has only recently been killed during his signal victory at Trafalgar. After this, Maria gives birth to a baby girl, and Hornblower has to leave his family of three behind to take the Atropos to the Mediterranean. He has with him in his ship a young german ‘king’ recently deposed by Napoleon, as a midshipman in training. Hornblower goes to Turkish waters, on way picking up a team of three Ceylonese pearl fishermen and their English overseer, to recover treasure from a sunken English ship. This they manage to do almost completely before they relealize they are trapped by the Turkish guns positioned at the mouth of the bay. But some brilliant night seamanship in shallow waters gets the Atropos out safely and on to Gibraltar, where the treasure is deposited. He is ordered to Sicily, where he arrives after an adventure on the way. In Sicily he is asked to hand over his command to the Sicilian King, as Britain is gifting the ship to the latter to enable him to start a Navy. He does so and returns to England only to find both his children very sick of smallpox. (They die of it, as we learn in the next book).

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel

C. S. Forester (1967)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The book was left unfinished by Forester when he died.  On his promotion to ‘post rank’ Hornblower returns on a Waterhoy (a ship supplying water to the blockading fleet) to Plymouth to await his new command. On the way they are first pursued by a French ship, but succeed in getting aboard and destroying it. In Plymouth he is summoned to London and asked to become a spy in Spain. Here the novel ends, but the gist of the rest of it is reported by the editor. ‘Forged letters are delivered to Villeneuve which prompts the Frenchman to come out and fight. This is what Nelson wants. It leads to the victory at Trafalgar. The course of history is changed.’

Hornblower and the Hotspur. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Hotspur

C. S. Forester (1962)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower marries Maria and almost immediately sets out to sea on the Hotspur, with Bush as his lieutenant to start observing the French port of Brest. The Napoleonic wars have begun, and the British Navy is charged with keeping the ‘First Consul’ out of Britain. Hornblower goes up and down outside the French port, observing, gathering information by bribing fishermen, and being chased by a larger French frigate, after war with the French is declared, but yet, by Hornblower’s brilliant seamanship, being able to so badly damage it that the French ship gives up chase. There are other such adventures, battles with various ships, the capture of a few of them, Hornblower’s stoic calm in the face of not being able to participate in any prize money captures, and glimpses of his domestic life when he puts in to port for refitting. In the end, he is promoted to Captain.