I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago. I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.
This novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life. The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British. As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman. Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.
It is a story of power and manipulation. The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne. While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.
For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk. Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India. The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland. He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab. International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.
The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man. The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class. Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built. They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look. The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world. It was built with the hands of 20,000 men. These hands become important as the play moves towards its end. We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok. Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him. This too becomes important as the play moves on.
The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again. The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.
There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending. Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still. The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.
This novel by Tariq Ali is the first of his ‘Islam Quintet’. I have read several of his non-fiction works and his journalism; I have even heard him speak at a literary festival. This is the first time I have read any of his fiction. I was attracted to it by the subject matter of this first novel.
The story starts in Cordoba where a bonfire of books took place after the reconquest of Spain by the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. From this we encounter characters of both sides of the religious divide but especially the Banu Hadyl family who are forced, like all Muslims to make a decision about their faith: convert, go into exile or die.
The ending is inevitable, especially to those who know the history, but the sense of loss from a time when different religions co-existed is huge. Instead, we see war and politics carried out as a form of religious devotion or maybe religion is used as the cover for the usual manipulations of states and monarchs.
In general, Tariq Ali’s non-fiction is more cohesive than his fiction but his passion for his subjects is still clear as if his determination to steer us away from a Eurocentric view of the world. In these times of religious intolerance, it is good to be reminded that there was, and is, a better way of living with each other. It is also important to realise that Islam is wider and more complex than it is often portrayed in our media.
‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is worth reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
I was struck, when in Cordoba, Spain, by the way three religions lived peacefully together several centuries ago; Jewish, Muslim and Christian believers managed to co-exist without compromising their own beliefs.
The statue to Maimonides in the old Jewish quarter of the city is the perfect reminder that we can learn from the past. He was born in Cordoba in 1125 and found fame as a philosopher and author of the Mishneh Torah. He was also interested in the sciences and in Greek philosophy and Islamic teachings. He lived in Spain at a time when the enlightened rule of the Moors might be considered a golden age but left when a Berber dynasty conquered the city in 1148. The status of Christians and Jews was threatened and Maimonides, being Jewish, went into exile with his family, moving around Andalucia before travelling to Morocco and Egypt.
I heard Anthony Sattin talk about this amazing book at a literary festival and was struck by the importance of his central idea: what sort of life formed the man who became the legend? This book concentrates on the life of T. E. Lawrence as a young man from university to the start of the war that forged his reputation.
Lawrence is a fascinating figure but is known chiefly for his role with the Arab revolt during the First World War and his advocacy of Arab causes at the post- war peace conference. He identified closely with the Arab people and the author addresses the question of why by looking at his earlier life.
History is full of examples of men and women from the West who were entranced by the East or by the cultural differences to be found there. What intrigued Anthony Sattin was what experiences led to Lawrence earning the sobriquet Lawrence of Arabia’. He set out to find out. The book shows that his life could have taken a different course but that, once he discovered a different way of life, he was not going to take another direction.
The war changed the nature of his engagement with the Middle East and led to his fame which might otherwise have been found in academia.
The author is careful not to get tied up in too much speculation; he is clear to define the extent of what we actually know. This is helpful as so much has been written about aspects of his life that cannot be proved. This includes his relationship with a young Arab boy. He developed a strong attachment to this young man over several years but the true nature of this is unknown,.
The most intriguing piece of information was that T.E. Lawrence wrote a book before leaving for the war in 1914. He called it ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. He destroyed the manuscript before leaving England. What was it about? That would be a book worth reading.
‘Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?