On the South Downs, overlooking Brighton, is a monument to soldiers from India who died in the First World War. The Pavilion in Brighton town was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and the bodies of the dead Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on this spot. The Muslim soldiers were taken to Woking for burial.
The word ‘chattri’ means umbrella in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi. It stands here as a memorial to honour the fallen from India who died a long way from home. It was erected in 1921 and opened by the then Prince of Wales. There are three slabs where the cremations took place. These were below the monument itself and had wreaths of poppies when I visited.
As always when I see walls full of names, I tried to hang on to one that I could remember. Jai Singh was the name I picked out. Trying to keep one name in mind is a way of remembering this was a person; lists of names can be impersonal. One and a half million soldiers from India served in the forces of the Empire. About twelve thousand of the wounded were in hospital in sites around Brighton. Fifty three Hindus and Sikhs who died in Brighton were cremated here.
I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
The poem by Auden about the work (and supposed attitude) of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man given the task of dividing India into two new countries, seems somewhat harsh in light of the history books that suggest that he was a man brought low by the task and the repercussions. He famously refused his fee.
I am unclear about the date this poem was written so cannot tell what the prevailing mood was about the man and his task.
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
W H Auden
This novel by Jamila Gavin is called an epic on the front cover of the version I have and I do not think this is misplaced. I could see this story of spies and intrigue making a very good film or television series.
The story centres around young Filippo whose family is in dire straits after the disappearance of his father into India many years ago. Geronimo Veraneo is a jeweller in search of precious stones, hence the trip to India to find them. He never returns and the family fear he is a prisoner of an Afghan warlord. His wife refuses to believe he is dead even though her son-in-law wants to have him declared so and thereby inherit the family fortune. He believes the family holds a precious diamond, the Blood Stone of the title, and he wants to find it. He has spies among the servants but is unable to track it down.
When news reaches them that their father is still alive, it is decided that Filippo should be the one to travel to India to pay the diamond as ransom money. The blood stone is sewn into his head and the adventure begins.
It is unclear who to trust but young Filippo makes the journey across the Middle East from Italy to India.
There are sub-plots involving the daughter married to the unscrupulous son-in-law, Filippo’s friend and his family, and the brothers who are apprentice jewellers. Like other stories by Jamila Gavin, there is the crossing of borders, both physical and cultural but the main narrative is one of adventure and intrigue.
‘The Blood Stone’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2001 film directed by Mira Nair has settled in my hinterland. It tells the story of a family as it prepares for a large wedding with the father Lalit at the centre trying to keep everyone happy. His daughter Aditi is to marry a man selected by the family and the wedding must be expensive to show how much she is valued. Relatives will arrive from around the world to participate. These include Lalit’s brother- in -law, Tej. He has an important place in the family because of help he gave when the family was penniless. He is an honoured guest.
The extended family includes Aditi’s cousin Ria, taken in by Lalit when her father died. Her desire to study abroad looks promising when Tej offers to pay for her but there is trouble when Ria, who stays clear of Tej, sees him flirting with a ten-year old relative. This brings back memories of when she was young and the wedding is put under threat when she makes an accusation against the wealthy visitor.
The film shows Lalit trying to keep his family together despite all the issues emerging. His son has planned a dance with a cousin and wants to perform at the wedding but he is concerned that the boy is effeminate and such a public display will shame them all. This is the least of his worries, though, and the central dilemma is whether Lalit will protect his niece and risk a break with an important and wealthy relative.
The setting of New Dehli and the fact that this is an Indian family is less significant than the fact that this is a family and the emotional baggage arrives with all the guests and members of the extended family. There are cultural specifics but the story is universal.
‘Monsoon Wedding’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film is something of an oddity but it remains in my hinterland because it covers a period of history with which I am fascinated and takes another angle when exploring it. The partition of India in 1947 has been covered in many other films but in this one Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan takes centre stage.
Interestingly, the film is structured around the idea of a dying Jinnah arriving in some heavenly anteroom where he is asked to account for his life. The use of an ‘angel’ figure guiding a person back to the key scenes of their past has featured in many films. Why computers are needed in this heavenly room is a mystery since Jinnah died in 1948, unless we are to suppose that either he spent a long time awaiting his judgement or that computers were in use there before they were invented on earth. Whichever, the story of Jinnah’s life is the important thing.
By talking to his heavenly guide we are given insights into Jinnah’s reflections on his actions. He voices regret over the course history took, especially over the loss of life caused by the partition on India into India and Pakistan. At the end of the film we have a scene where Jinnah resumes his earlier career as a barrister and cross examines Mountbatten who he blames for the chaos of partition.
The best aspects of the film are the scenes where the more straightforward retelling of his story is possible, for he did have a fascinating life. His role as a central figure in Congress and opposition to the British rule is shown, as is his willingness to cross boundaries by marrying a Parsi. However, as independence becomes a possibility his determination to protect the Muslim minority grows into a demand for a separate Muslim state.
Gandhi and Nehru play major parts in this film as do Lord and Lady Mountbatten. The friendship between Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru is given more space than perhaps it needs in the context of this story. Christopher Lee played Jinnah in what was an interesting casting choice. He is on record as saying it was one of the most important roles of his career. I also believe the film was popular in Pakistan.
This film is worth seeing alongside other films that cover the same period.
This novel formed the major part of my A Level English Literature course, so for much of 1978 and 1979 I was bored rigid by themes of dislocation and cultural differences. As with all things in my hinterland, it is what resonates over the years that matters and while I may have been bored by topics that had little relevance to my life back then, as I have grown up I have understood more of the underlying message of the book.
I read ‘A Passage to India’ again in my 20s as I wanted to see if I could enjoy it as a novel rather than as a set book. I did. By then, I understood more of the history of the British Empire and my views had sifted, politically, from the ‘my country- right or wrong’ attitude of my youth.
The character that I related most easily to was Fielding, the headmaster of the college for Indian boys. He is the English gentleman whose view of India and Indians is more benign than most of the rest of the governing classes. His friendship with Dr Aziz grows in the early part of the book but this friendship will be tested when Aziz finds himself in the British judicial system. Adela is the young woman whose journey to India is for the purpose of marrying Ronnie, a young administrator of the British Indian government. She is accompanied by an older woman, Mrs Moore. Both women experience culture shock, not so much at India but by the Raj. Both women find themselves at odds with the prevailing view of the British and both women cause some discomfort because of their attempts to meet ‘real Indians’.
Around them we see the servants of the Raj and Indians of different religions. It is important that Aziz is a professional as this emphasises the extent of the rejection of the British who believe they have innate superiority. His connection with Fielding should be one of equals but race gets in the way.
The betrayal of Aziz is made more dramatic because of the people involved but a strength of this novel is the ambiguity of what actually happened. Instead of making it clear, what actually happened, E M Forster created a stronger novel and a problem for every film maker ever after!
‘A Passage to India’ by E. M. Forster is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?