A Passage to India

I studied this book by E.M. Forster for A Level.  Exams, especially in literature, are designed to drain all interest from what might otherwise have been a good novel. So, my views on this book have always been clouded somewhat by the background knowledge that I spent hours trying to deconstruct the meaning rather than enjoy it.

Nearly forty years later and I think sufficient time has passed to read it again and this time as a reader rather than as a pupil.  I was surprised by how much I appreciated the story, especially the way the narrative had been constructed.  Another casualty of the ‘set book syndrome’ is that you end up moving backwards and forwards across the text to identify themes or gather quotes to support an essay statement. Quite soon, the idea that the book has an arc and that the deeper meaning is layered across the plot is lost.

I remember having a soft spot for both Aziz and Fielding as Forster himself must have done.  The Indian doctor and the British headteacher have a friendship not reflected elsewhere in the society in which they lived.  The visitors, Mrs Moore and Miss Quested, while central to the drama have an outsiders view of relations between the races in the Raj.  Their connection to the ‘real’ India is one of observation of the exotic.  Fielding’s answer that they should try seeing Indians if they want to see India is at the heart of Forster’s message.

I was glad to return to this novel so many years later.  I sourced the version I used in a classroom in the 70s; I needed the same cover, size of book and feel of the pages. It worked for me.

‘A Passage to India’ by E. M. Forster is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Gravitation

This is the first manga series I read!  Inspired by an article in the New Statesman magazine, I searched out the first volume and then read through to the twelfth and last.  Written and illustrated by Maki Murakami, it tells the story of Shuichi Shindo and his band as they rise to stardom.  Shuichi is in love with the romance novelist Eiri Yuki.  The two men form a relationship which is odd since the aloof Yuki is hard to like.  Their first meeting came when Shuichi’s lyrics blew out of his hand in a park and were picked up by the writer.  His response that the work was rubbish hurt the aspiring singer but the enigmatic figure intrigued him enough for him to pursue him, a decision that led to their relationship.

The story of the ups and downs of living together is told across the twelve volumes along with the complementary plot of the success of the band which Shuichi formed with his best friend Hiroshi Nakano.  As with most of the manga and anime that feature late teenagers, the parental presence is reduced so that decisions about moving in with a famous romance novelist can be made without reference to parents.

The manga was a lot of fun, especially in the early episodes.  Later stories stretched the patience somewhat but, having started, I was determined to finish.  ‘Gravitation’ led me to explore other manga series and anime so it has a special place in my hinterland as the starting point for the further discoveries.

 

The Jewel in the Crown

I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party!  I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published.  I am glad I did!

The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family.  Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide.  There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.

Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews.  There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack.  The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.

The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need?  Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.

With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

 

The Power

This novel by Naomi Alderman is one to set the mind racing.  It was such a good conceit that I had to keep reading as I could not see how it could be concluded in a satisfactory way.  The fact that the ending worked so well shows what an amazing novelist Naomi Alderman is.

In a world where it is girls rather than boys who have the power, the relationships and attitudes of the genders is explored through several key characters from different parts of the world whose lives intersect.  It starts with teenage girls who discover an ability to transmit a sort of electric current through their finger tips.  As the young women reach an age when they are finding a place in the world, it becomes an interesting idea that these girls flex their metaphorical and literal muscles.  Some are kind and some are not.

What works best of all in this novel is that we are not immersed in an alternative reality but see the awakening of something new.  Therefore, it is not a case of genders having switched places but rather a genuine power- play between males and females, with the females seeming to come out on top.  In the small details is a larger picture revealed: boys educated in single sex schools for their own safety; some boys dressing as

Naomi Alderman encourages us to reflect on the imbalance of power between men and women but also explores deeper themes of morality of those who hold power, whatever their gender.  The resulting novel takes us through several years of shifting ground until we reach a point where it is clear that boys and men will grow up as the weaker sex; the character of Tunde perfectly illustrates the change for young men who thought their world of entitlement was a birth right.

‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

 

Saigon Calling

The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading.  This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant.  It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era.  It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese.  His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.

Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story.  Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found.  In some senses, this is the story of every family.  ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest.  So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle.  It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign.  His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.

As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam.  When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.

This memoir has a parallel story, though.  It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder.  The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.

‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?BlogSaigonCalling

The Shadow Lines

BlogShadowLinesThis is a book that I picked up because of its cover.  The story takes place over two countries and several decades, focusing on the inter- relation of two families, one Indian and one British as various members meet and depart over the years.

There is a central act that affects them all but the nature of the incident is not revealed until the end.  However, the sense that we are heading towards this one essential event pervades the book.  Amitav Ghosh keeps the reader with him since we want to know what glue kept these families together but why is there a gulf between them (to mix the metaphors!).

The novel is in two parts: Going Away and Coming Home.  The narrator starts as a young boy in Calcutta trying to work out the adults around him.  He hero worships Tridib, his worldly uncle, who seems to negotiate the world with ease.  Tridib has lived in London as well as India and it is here that the link with the British family, the Prices, is established.  The son of the family is in love with Ila, the narrator’s cousin, and the daughter is in love with Tridib.

We know from early on that May, the daughter, is not ‘with’ Tridib even though she travelled to India and then Bangladesh to be near him.  The reason why becomes clear and the meetings of the narrator with May in London in the 60s become meaningful when the gaps in the families’ histories are filled.

What could be a complex novel is skilfully handled by Ghosh.  The narrator’s feelings for and about the members of both families change over time and, just as in most families, the narrative is never straight forward.  In the end, though, the adult narrator comes to an accommodation with his younger self and realises that family secrets are rarely helpful or healthy.

‘The Shadow Lines’ by Amitav Ghosh is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Mersey Sound

BlogMerseySoundThe Penguin poetry collection called ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published 50 years ago this year.   That is staggering news since the poetry of all three is alive and relevant right now.  Although it first appeared in 1967, I became aware of it in the 70s when I reached my teens and turned away from the poetry of school and towards poetry I found for myself.  Obviously, I thought I was something of a pioneer when I discovered this volume and was nonplussed when an English teacher knew more about it than I did!  He didn’t bring these poems to class.

I first heard Roger McGough live and in person in Oxford when I was a student and I have heard him in several other places since.  It may be true that poetry is like rock n roll since I have found myself in the audience just hoping he will read my favourites.  He has packed many venues.  When I last heard him, the audience in Bath was terrific.  But that first time, back in Oxford, there were only a few of us.  I know tickets have to be sold, but this was the reading I remember most fondly.

I heard Brian Patten many years later in Bath at the literature festival.  He, too, was fantastic and I would love to hear him again.

I also have a story about Adrian Henri!  He gave a reading at the festival in Bath and I had a ticket.  But I was ill!  I decided to give the evening a miss with the thought that I could always hear him some other time.  Oh, the ifs of history.

‘The Mersey Sound’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?