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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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 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 Year of the Runaways

If I had a list of favourite books, this one would have to be on it.  I don’t, I have a hinterland instead so there is room for this wonderful story of the lives of four people, all desperate in their own way, as they cross in Sheffield in Yorkshire.

There is a central story of the four people, three men and a woman, trying to survive in difficult circumstances in a city that is sometimes unwelcoming.  The novel is broken up with extended back story chapters showing the paths that led each character to their current situation.  In unveiling the story, Sunjeev Sahota, shows us how interdependent our lives are but also how easy it is to ignore those at the bottom of the pile.

Tochi, Randeep and Avtar live together with other migrant workers in a squat in Sheffield.  Each has come to Britain from India.  Randeep has an arranged marriage with a British Asian woman and Avtar has a student visa.  They are both Sikhs and are connected through the sister of one who is the girlfriend of the other. Tochi is from the very bottom of the pile in India since he is an ‘untouchable’.  His story is the most tragic, something that must be kept in mind when he often seems to be the least sympathetic of characters in the book.  The everyday injustices are seen in the small moments and in the way these men treat each other.  At the edge of their lives is Narindar, a young woman from a reasonably prosperous family who wants to live out the teachings of her Sikh religion by doing good.  Her chosen path is her way of living out her faith but when this conflicts with family honour there is heartache and anxiety.

This excellent novel shows an aspect of British life that is most often only revealed through the shrill headlines of the tabloid press.  Sunjeev Sahota shows us what might lie behind the accusatory headlines of illegal immigrant and sham marriages.  At first sight, the title seems to refer to the fact that the men have run away to England.  By the end of the book, I wondered whether the ‘runaway’ was the aspiration to get them out of the hell they were in.

This book is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

Bateman’s

I finally made it to the home of Rudyard Kipling, now held in trust for the nation by the National Trust.  I have long wanted to visit, mostly because I like his work.  The house itself is interesting because it has many of the original items of furniture.  His wife had no need of the place on his death so left it to the nation.

Rudyard Kipling lived here from 1902 until his death in 1936.  By this stage, he was world-famous and privacy was the main priority.  Around the house are artefacts from India and artwork associated with the country. Some pieces were by his father, the artist Lockwood Kipling, made to illustrate his books.  There are also prints of the Detmold brothers’ illustrations for ‘The Jungle Book’.

The house dates back to Jacobean times but Kipling came here when he was a rich man; he could afford to buy the house and sufficient grounds to ensure privacy for himself and his family.  It was from here that his son John left for the First World War and here, of course, that the family heard the news of his death.  John Kipling’s name is on the war memorial in the village.

At one time, Kipling was the highest paid writer in England.  There is a Rolls Royce car on show here making the point that he was a wealthy man.  Best of all was the study where he wrote in long hand.  His desk has a view over the Sussex countryside and he worked surrounded by books, many of them about India.

This house is worth a visit especially as there is a clear sense that the writer actually lives here.  It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

 

 

India Gate

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is an amazing building if only because it looks so out of place in a southern English seaside city.  The gateway at the southern end was not part of the original John Nash design although it complements the exotic aspirations of the building.  Rather, the gate was a gift from the people of India for ‘caring for her sons’ during the First World War.  The Pavilion was used as a hospital for the wounded so, leaving aside the idea that the Indians came to the aid of the Empire when Britain was under threat, it was a generous gift from the people of India.  BlogIndiaGateBlogPavilion

The Chattri Memorial

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.