Saturday, 26 July 2014

Jill the Reckless. By P.G. Wodehouse

Jill the Reckless

P.G. Wodehouse

Amazon Kindle e-book. First published 1920.

A romantic comedy with Jill, Wally, Derek, Freddie and a few other characters, all of them recognizable from the Wodehouse canon. Jill's uncle, Major Christopher Selby is the only novelty. He is a crook, but amoral, rather than immoral. He is genuinely fond of Jill, and loved by her in turn. That, however does not stop him from gambling away all her money, which he holds in trust. His subsequent crooked machinations to make restoration lead to further complications for Jill and her friends. But through all this, Uncle Chris remains on the side of the angels. 

There are in the book descriptions of the mounting of a musical comedy, how the 'book and lyrics' are written, how they are set to music, how the dances are arranged, how hundreds of rehearsals are held, and how the original play undergoes a large number of changes, sometimes transforming its character from something more serious to something less serious. These descriptions are obviously based on Wodehouse's own experiences as a successful writer of musical comedies. In fact many of his books are just such shows in book form, and vice versa. It could be that 'Jill the Reckless' is itself has gone from being a show to becoming a book.  

Friday, 25 July 2014

Our Mutual Friend. By Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend

Charles Dickens

Kindle e-book. First published 1865.

According to Wikipedia, this is the last novel Dickens completed. It also calls it the 'most sophisticated' of his books. To me the novel is memorable for updating, and making far more likeable, two stock female characters of his novels - the 'lady' heroine, and the working class girl seduced by a 'gentleman'. 

The character of Bella Wilfer recalls to my mind Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett (and Mr. Wilfer, her father, is somewhat like Mr. Bennett). Bella however is not as witty as Elizabeth, and more like Dickens's own Dora, from 'David Copperfield', though not so soppy. Bella starts off spoiled and mercenary in her relationships. But, as the book proceeds, and especially in reaction to the machinations of the Cheeryble-like couple of Mr. and Mrs. Boffins, in conspiracy with their secretary, Mr. Rokesmith, she comes into her own, standing up for what is just and correct, despite the potential damage this could cause to her own financial and social interests. So though in many ways like Dora, Agnes, Kate Nickleby, Little Dorrit, and many such others, Bella reveals strength of mind usually reserved by Dickens for his female villains.

The other prominent female protagonist in the book is Lizzie Hexam, who is not a 'lady' in terms of the Dickensian zeitgeist, but a working class girl, daughter of a boatman who makes his living dredging up drowned bodies from the Thames. Like Em'ly, adopted daughter of the fisherman Peggotty in 'David Copperfield', who attracts the attention of the 'gentleman' Steerforth, and is in turn attracted to him, Lizzie catches the eye of Eugene Wrayburn, a 'gentleman' of independent means. She also becomes an object of intense desire to her pompous younger brother Charles' teacher Bradley Headstone. She keeps her head, however, and though she loves Eugene, she does not have any illusions about their relative positions. She does not elope with him, as Em'ly did with Steerforth, but runs away and hides herself in village far from London. Her pursuit by her two admirers, and the violent resolution of their rivalry forms  a large, intense and thrilling part of the book. Lizzie herself preserves her strong but gentle character right to the end, and suffers no loss of her individuality, so unlike Em'ly.

'Our Mutual Friend' is a large and complicated story with many threads, in the style of 'David Copperfield' rather than, say, 'A Tale of Two Cities'. The key device is the will of a rich man, Joseph Harmon, who has made all his money trading in dust - mainly coal dust (though Dickens mentions bone dust and other types as well), which, in that period of the industrial revolution was generated in most households, was collected and sorted by specialized workmen, and sold as fertilizer or for brick-making. Dust contractors who owned the whole process became wealthy men. Though Harmon appears only 'off-stage', he is depicted as a miserly Scrooge (!), who has driven away his two children in their childhood. When the story opens, his wife and daughter are dead some years, and he himself has just died, leaving all his immense wealth to his son John, provided he marries Bella Wilfer, Mr. Wilfer having been Harmon's accountant. In default the money would go to the Boffins, who had kept house for him. Lizzie Hexam's father dredges up a body which is identified as that of John Harmon, and thus the Boffins suddenly become rich people. The effect of this turn of affairs on Bella, the Boffins themselves, and various sundry characters forms the chief concern of the novel.

Among these characters are the swindling pair of Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, who first marry for each other's non-existent money. Upon their mutual discovery of the truth, they combine to try and con various other characters. 'Fascination' Fledgeby, a vindictive money-lender is another peripheral. Riah, the Jew, who fronts for Fledgeby, is treated sympathetically, though there is always the suggestion that he is not 'one of us'. Jenny Wren is one of those grotesques who people Dickens' books so liberally. She is handicapped by a twisted back, probably a hunchback, and earns her living dressing up dolls. A character that recalls Smike, the simple-minded boy of 'Nicholas Nickleby', but not so pathetic, is Sloop. Mortimer Lightwood is Eugene Wrayburn's friend, a good and steady man. Wrayburn himself, is like Steerforth, rich and idle, but a good man, and unlike Steerforth, he does no actual harm to Lizzie or her reputation, and redeems himself in the end.

There are a few villains, two from the 'lower' orders - Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg - and two from among the 'gentlemen' - Fledgeby and Headstone. And while sometimes they cooperate when their interests run parallel, they also prey on each other when it is opportune.   

And there are various 'pillars' of London society, who are savagely treated by Dickens. He is at his sarcastic best when he describes them, their dresses, their homes, their concerns, their parties, their servants, their gossip, their business and their professions. There are long, witty passages when the foibles of these people are mercilessly parodied. There is a description of an election campaign, in which the candidate spends all his time visiting the houses of the rich and influential in order to successfully get elected. These chapters - there are at least three of them - deal with universal and perennial issues. 

So, this is a good book, with a couple of excellent female characters, memorable not for their comic effects. There is more wit and invention in the writing than in some of his other books. And the social comment while as savage as elsewhere in his writings, is not thrust upon the reader. It is always a problem to rank the books of a prolific writer. I have tried this with Dickens elsewhere in this blog, where I put 'David Copperfield' at the top. I will retain that rank for that book, though 'Our Mutual Friend' comes close. 

- 'It is one of the easiest achievements in life to offend your family when your family wants to get rid of you.'
- 'The incompetent servant, by whomsoever employed, is always against his employer.'
- 'Then the train rattled among the house-tops, and among the ragged sides of houses torn down to make way for it, and over the swarming streets, and under the fruitful earth, until it shot across the river: bursting over the quiet surface like a bombshell, and gone again as if it had exploded in a rush of smoke and steam and glare. A little more, and again it roared across the river, a great rocket: spurning the watery turnings and doublings with ineffable contempt, and going straight to its end, like Father Time goes to his.'

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate. By Abraham Eraly

The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate.

Abraham Eraly

Penguin/Viking. First published 2014.

In the very first page of the book, Eraly relates a brief personal story of how he recently suddenly renewed a friendship that had fallen into disuse four decades ago. He describes the friend as a 'phenomenally successful businesswoman in a faraway country' whom he first befriended when he was in college. Considering that he studied and taught - philosophy, I think - at MCC in the early 70s, this friend could be Indra Nooyi, the President, or whatever, at Pepsico. If this is true, the rest of the story has a false ring to it. In response to Eraly retailing the desire of Ibn Batuta (one of the greatest travellers and historians of medieval India) for a simple life, his friend's eyes well up with tears as she contemplates the 'sacrifices' she has made to get to where she is. And what might these be? This is not described, but I guess it would the usual stuff about not finding enough time for the real things of life - family, flowers, butterflies, fresh air, sunshine, meditative walks, books, music.... If she really felt that way, she could have stopped at an early moment in her self-centred career making hundreds of millions of dollars selling 'coloured sugar water', and lobbying for a Padma Bushan - the latter I suspect in order to fool her conscience into thinking that her achievements mean something more than just material comfort, and power that rivals that of Roman emperors. Anyway, Eraly is impressed by his friend's 'wit and wisdom' and dedicates the book to her.

Now that I've got that irritating stuff out of the way, I must say that the rest of the book belies these shallow opening thoughts. It is a well-written history of Book I of 'muslim' India, from the violent incursions of Mahmud Ghazni in the eleventh century, up to Babur's invasion in the early sixteenth. [Book II, of course, is the Mughal Empire]. The invasion signalled, for some time, the end of Delhi as the most powerful state in India, until the Mughals revived its importance about 50-100 years later. But even as the Delhi sultanate fell, in the Deccan the Bahmani sultans and the Vijayanagar rajas still held sway, until the empire rolled over them some decades later. These later Deccan kingdoms are also included by Eraly in the Age of Wrath. 

Eraly concentrates on the political power in Delhi, ignoring for most part the kings and the queens, and their political games in the rest of the country. It turns out that only two of the tens of Delhi sultans of this period could be said to rule over territory that encompassed a substantial majority of the subcontinent - Ala-ud-din Khalji and Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq. For the rest of the time during those four centuries, the subcontinent was a patchwork of kingdoms, that kept appearing and disappearing, and changing shape and size, like rival bacterial colonies fighting it out on a petri dish. [It would a fascinating project for some coder to write an app to illustrate this. Though maybe just Windows Movie-maker would be enough].

So a timeline of this period would go like this. First there were the devastating raids by the Turk Mahmud Ghanzi, starting in 1175 mainly in search of plunder, though the fact that it was non-Muslims he was plundering from probably made the task so much more palatable to himself and to any Islamic ethicists he may have consulted. Some decades passed, and then the Rajput kings, who for most part controlled much of Northern India during this period, succumbed to the raids of Muhammed Ghori, also a Turk from what is now Afghanistan. He went back, but his slaves were now nobility in India, and one of them, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, founded the so-called slave dynasty (1206). Some of the other prominent sultans of this dynasty were Iltutmish (1211), his daughter Raziya, (1236, one of five or six female sultans ever, anywhere, and the only female Muslim ruler of India), and Balban.

This period was followed by the rule of the Khaljis, of whom Jalal-ud-din (1290) was the first, and Ala-ud-din (1296) was the 'greatest'. It was during the later's reign that almost all of the subcontinent came under one ruler for the first time since the Maurya empire. Malik Kafur was an eunuch and a general in Ala-ud-din's service, who swept down the peninsula and conquered territories as far away as Rameswaram (1311), subjugating kingdoms as ancient as that of the Pandyas of Madurai. Ala-ud-din also set new standards for governance in the country, creating institutions and administrative structures that went beyond merely squeezing of the blood of revenue from the stone of the poor farmers. When Ala-ud-din died, there was chaos. The Khalji dynasty did not produce any notable or long-lived successor. Finally, in 1320, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, formerly the governor of Punjab under Ala-ud-din, became the sultan and founded the Tughlaq dynasty.

The most prominent of this dynasty was, of course, Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq (1325), Ghiyas-ud-din's son. His reign, while it once again encompassed vast areas of the subcontinent, was noted for its idiosyncratic sadism, its chaotic idiocies, and its sometimes well-meaning but arbitrary, futile, and therefore foolish 'reforms'. So much so, his name has become a by-word for random and stupid tyranny. His son and successor, Firuz (1351), was much more the model ruler, and one of the few that come out well in this history, though he too was not above a massacre or two of the Hindu population. Among his many sensitive and praise-worthy deeds was the transport of the Ashoka Pillar from near Ambala in Punjab and its safe re-installation in Delhi. The death of Firuz in 1388 signalled the descent into familiar murderous chaos, and the eventual fall in a few decades of the Tughlaqs. This last period had one notable sultan, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Shah. He, too, was notable mainly because it was during his ragged reign that Timur 'the lame' swept through and devastated Northern India, much like Ghanzi and Ghori three centuries previously. After occupying Delhi for a few days, he went back whence he came, having altogether spent six months in India, from mid 1398 to early 1399.    

When Mahmud Shah died in 1412, thus bringing the reign of the Tuglaqs to an end, the sultanate was much reduced in size and strength. The succeeding dynasties ruled over a rump of the one time vast empire. The Sayyids, who immediately followed the Tughlaqs, did nothing notable except hold on to the throne at Delhi. The last of them, Alam Shah ruled from 'Delhi to Palam'. In 1451, he was overthrown by Buhlul, the first of the Lodi dynasty. He was followed by Sikander Lodi and then Ibrahim Lodi. Finally in 1526 Babur, the first of the Moghuls, defeated Ibrahim at the first battle of Panipat. And thus ended the Delhi Sultanate.

As a kind of appendix to the sultanate, Eraly adds the two kingdoms of the Deccan - the Bahmani and the Vijayanagar kingdoms, both which overlapped with the last decades of the Delhi sultanate, and kept warring with each other and their other neighbours. He mentions several other kingdoms that existed at this time, in Sind, Multan, Orissa, Bengal, and so on. He does not describe their 'dreary' histories in detail, since they were 'small and transient'. And he does even not mention what was happening in the rest of the country - the deep South, and the Northeast. But perhaps that would amount to extending the Age of Wrath too far beyond its natural boundaries.

The story he relates is one that is almost unrelievedly sordid. It is of course mainly about the kings, and their homicidal personal concerns. And it is similar to the history of England during the same period, for example. So, during this period of about 500 years, there is almost no cultural, social, administrative, scientific or technological progress. Towards the end of the period, battlefield technology changes to the extent of including firearms and cannons, but obviously only as fancy stuff, the icing on a cake, the chief ingredients of which was mainly the usual infantry and cavalry, unchanged almost since the time of King Porus and Alexander. There is almost no change in social institutions, such as the police, or the judiciary or an educational system, etc. Nobody seems to have had the time even to think about these things. And while there were certainly some forward movement in Hindu philosophy, this was mainly inward seeking, totally unconcerned with what was happening in the real world. Eraly himself remarks more than once the absence of any sort of reference in the then extant languages of India, Sanskrit and so on, to the intrusion into India of a totally alien cultural system, based on a religion, Islam, which till then, was known only in the Western coastal towns, and that thanks to Arab traders. Almost all of Eraly's original sources are Muslim texts - history written by the victors. Some of the Muslim rulers made attempts to understand the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and to try and accommodate their beliefs. But most were hostile to it, and saw the difference only as an excuse to differentiate among the people, keep them divided, and extract even more wealth to finance their own profligate ways. According to Eraly, the formal administrative and cultural structures of Muslim Kingdoms and their mainly Hindu populations were like oil and water, they did not mix. And as far as the populace themselves were concerned, the religion of their rulers, their internecine quarrels, and their dirty intrigues, did not matter to them, since both types were equally extractive and equally burdensome, and both were equally murderous and sadistic. In any case, the people themselves were highly divided in terms of castes, sects, and geographical units - they had no sense of nationhood. There were, of course some exceptional rulers - Ala-ud-din Khalji, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, Krishna Deva Raya, and some of the less well-known kings both Hindu and Muslim. Their periods of rule were finally responsible for whatever progress in architecture, art and culture that did take place in this time. 

Eraly writes easily, though sometimes I got the feeling that I was reading a PhD thesis, with the same information repeated in a preface and at various other sections of the book. There is, for example, the story of the king who regularly fed on poison, which is repeated at least thrice. Eraly modestly keeps well within himself, and does not attempt any analyses, except what I have mentioned above. He only briefly mentions some of the possible causes for the almost comical lack of resistance by the existing Hindu rulers to the Muslim invasions. These, however seem facile points of view assimilated and regurgitated from elsewhere. I wish I could have concluded this review with a statement of the new points of view I derived from reading this book, but I didn't get any. So while it was nice reading the book, I come away from it with less of a sense of accomplishment than when I finished, for example, Keay's history of India.