Saturday, 25 July 2015

A Strange Kind of Paradise. By Sam Miller

A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes

Sam Miller

Hamish Hamilton. First published 2014.

Sam Miller was the BBC correspondent in New Delhi, and now part of the BBC world Service Trust, a 'charitable' organisation. In this book, which is a kind of a light historical travelogue, with large dollops of personal history, his affection for India shines through. The affection appears slightly condescending, but perhaps that's because any European encounter with the country, especially the India of the middle class and the poor, is bound to be asymmetrical. No matter how much an European observer of India, especially a British one, tries to empathize, there is in the background always the understanding that he, the observer, can always retreat to a more materially comfortable life, when such an escape route is not available to the the observed. Furthermore, that comfortable life was, at least in part, made possible by the bad treatment of the ancestors of the observed by his own. The fact that this book transcends those limitations is due to its patently sincere and implicit appreciation of these facts. Thus, Miller is not judgmental at all. His attitude towards India is something like that of Bill Bryson towards USA. 

The book describes a selection of writings and attitudes about India as found in non-Indian sources, beginning with the Greek Megasthenes and his contemporaneous account of Mauryan times, to the recent impressions of Richard Attenborough (Gandhi), Paul Scott (The Jewel in the Crown) and M.M. Kaye (The Far Pavilions). Miller uses quotations or reviews of such writings (and impressions on other media) as points from which to jump off into descriptions of his travels as he visits the places mentioned in those writings. Here the book is often a typical backpacker's travelogue, extracts from the diary of a sun-burned and sweating European in shorts and dirty T-shirt, determinedly 'doing India' in his gap year. And between the chapters Miller gives us interludes where he describes his deeply personal encounters with India - he married an Indian (at least - part Parsi, part Greek, from Goa and Bombay) and had children and separated...

I enjoyed reading the book, and though written in a light-hearted tone, with no attempt at any analyses - political, social or cultural - I learned some little bit of stuff about Indian history from it. As just one example, in the very first chapter Miller narrates his travels to Central India to look for the Greek column erected by Heliodorous in an otherwise empty field near Bhopal as a gift to the local king some 2000 years ago. There are others such titbits, including some details about St. Thomas Mount here in Chennai I was not previously aware of. Altogether, this is a book that cannot be slotted easily into any special genre, except that I have come across more than just a couple of others which are similar in tone, attitude and subject matter - 'The Great Hedge of India', as just one other example. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Shalimar the Clown. By Salman Rushdie

Shalimar the Clown

Salman Rushdie

Vintage Books. First published 2005.

This is an unexpectedly gripping novel, almost a thriller. I am surprised, since the previous two books by Rushdie that I had read, 'Midnight's Children' and 'The Satanic Verses' were both in the 'magic realism' style, a style which is interesting and even absorbing, but hardly thrilling. Most Booker prize-winning novelists are complex and somewhat slow, and require tedious effort to engage and read. Not this book. 

It is set in Los Angeles, Kashmir, and Alsace - delightfully, since I have some personal acquaintance with this last location. Max Ophuls, former American ambassador to India, lives in LA with his daughter India. As the book begins, he is murdered, knifed to death, almost at the doorstep of his palatial Hollywood home, by his driver Shalimar. After this prologue in media res, the story then moves back in time to 1950's Kashmir, where in the village of Pachigam a Hindu girl, Boonyi, and a Muslim boy, Shalimar, fall in lyrical love, amidst the general approbation of the village populace. The life and culture of the people of the two faiths are linked together inextricably, or so one thinks. In the next couple of decades this ideal of Kashmiryat gives way to more fundamentalist interpretations of the religions and the associated cultures. Inevitably this impacts the love affair. But something else tears it apart - the arrival in Kashmir of Max Ophuls, the American ambassador, following the return to the US of John Kenneth Galbraith. 

The story then moves back again, to pre-World War II Alsace, where Max's Jewish parents in Strasbourg fall prey to the depredations of the Nazis. Max uses the Bugatti automobile factory in Molsheim as a base for his operations as a resistance fighter against the Nazis, ultimately fleeing the area in a racing aeroplane designed and built by Ettore Bugatti for his son Jean Bugatti. Max lands in Central France, where he continues his fight against the occupation, ultimately being relocated to London, thence, after the war, to US, and finally in the late 1960s to India, as a diplomat. In a visit to Kashmir he sees a dance performance by Boonyi, and falls for her. For Boonyi, Max represents an avenue of escape to a glamorous world, away from her still beloved, but increasingly stifling Kashmir and its people, not excluding Shalimar. Max installs her as his mistress in New Delhi, where, in a few months she begins to loose her charm, just as the cosmopolitan world begins to loose its charm. After a few years, having grown fat and ugly, Boonyi returns to Pachigam, leaving behind her daughter by Max, to be adopted by the father and his wife, and taken back to the US. Kashmira is Boonyi's name for her, but Max calls her India. In Kashmir, Boonyi is ostracized by the entire community, and sentenced to a living death. In the meantime, in an curious echo of Max's early career, Shalimar has joined the resistance against the 'occupying' Indian army. His struggle for Azaadi is mixed with a deeper yearning for personal vengeance, against the man who destroyed his love and his life. After a period of service in the jihadi forces, with whose methods and ideals he finds himself more and more out of sync, he goes to the US, to Los Angeles, where he traces down Max, first joins his employment as a driver, and then kills him. After the murder, Kashmira learns about her natural mother, Boonyi, and flies to Kashmir to try and find her. She finds that Shalimar has murdered her, too, before he set out for the US. Back in LA, where Shalimar is in trial, she stands as witness for prosecution and ensures that he is convicted. After many years in prison, Shalimar escapes and comes to Kashmira again for the final denouement, only the two of them , 'Kashmira and Shalimar the clown'. 

This is a brilliant book, and this brief summary misses out, as it must, all the nuances and details, and all the lovely writing. A lot of it reads like John Le Carre. Though, of course, the writing style is quite different, not so grey and cold and rainy. Being India, being Kashmir, there is a lot of colour and bright beauty, in the character of Boonyi, especially, but also in Kashmira, Max and even Shalimar. At a superficial level, the story may be interpreted as describing the devastation of Kashmir by India and Pakistan (and most of the rest of the world) and the feeble and futile attempts at revenge by its people. But the book is deeper, and has more nuances. The relationships between Boonyi and Max and Shalimar are treated sensitively, and bring Anna Karenina to mind. All characters are real, three-dimensional, and sympathetic, in the French sense, even Shalimar, and even the minor characters. This is a book I really liked to read, and would read again and again.