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?
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?
Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed. In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother. Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront. It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories. It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.
Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London. His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh. He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition. On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing. The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia. The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story. He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.
This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it. The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city. Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.
The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen. In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here. Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
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?
This 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?
Cross cultural relationships are a common theme in films and television but what makes this 2012 film from director Katarzyna Klimkiewicz different is the fact that we are never sure if the Algerian student has an ulterior motive for starting a relationship with the older engineer who just happens to be working on a highly sensitive aerospace contract for the military.
Helen McCrory plays the ambitious engineer at the top of her game who meets Kahil at a lecture she gives at the local university. He is impressed by her lecture and says so when he passes her in the car park. Another incidental meeting sparks her interest and they meet up and start a relationship. McCrory’s Frankie is following in the footsteps of her father who worked on Concorde. Like him, she places work first and his worries about her developing relationship are heightened by the fact that he is ‘foreign’. His worries start to transfer themselves to Frankie who, having met Kalil’s friends at his house, wonders if she is being used.
The film is an excellent exploration of people’s motives and our prejudices; we often keep these hidden but they lie just below the surface.
Najib Oudghiri plays Kahil as a straightforward young man yet the doubts remain and the tension is maintained throughout the film. Security officers, team members and Kahil’s friends all have views about the relationship and the ending, when it comes, acts as a mirror to our current concerns. The film’s title is well-earned!
‘Flying Blind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?