The Man Who Knew Infinity

This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past.  In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.


Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India.  He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics.  His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public.  This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.

The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world.  Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain.  Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.

There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war.  Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).

Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story!  It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it.  It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle.  For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.

Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel.  This film is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Fishing Fleet

BlogFishingFleetThis book by Anne de Courcy is a study of the British in India through the particular prism of the women who travelled out to the Raj to marry.  In some cases, the journey was made with the sole purpose of finding a husband.

The history of the Empire is well documented and what makes this book stand out is its focus on amazing women, many from the ruling classes, who supported husbands in their governing roles, often in trying circumstances; not all women lived in Government House!

The pressures on family life were seen most of all by the women.  An example of the difficulties they faced is seen through the difficult decision needed when their children go back ‘home’ for school.  Should they stay in England or leave them to return to husbands in India?  In such ways did the British show their stiff upper lips!

For some women, the bachelors of India (mostly running the Indian Civil Service) were ideal since their working lives precluded marriage until they turned 30.  The fleet also proved handy for families who decided their daughters were too plain or too clever or both.

The story of the British in India is an interesting one but has been well covered by other historians.  This book works so well by exploring the history from a different angle but also because voices that might otherwise be forgotten are aired.

‘The Fishing Fleet’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Guards at the Taj

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.


The Lunchbox

This 2013 film from India was an unexpected pleasure.  I watched it thinking I knew the direction the film would take, with a romance growing between an older widower and a younger woman ignored by her husband.  Instead, the film explored ideas of connection and loneliness and never tipped into sentimentality.

The story starts with a misunderstanding.  Each day, Ila prepares her husband’s lunchtime meal and stores it in special tins for the purpose.  It does not go with her husband but is delivered to his desk by a special delivery company.  This is obviously a cultural norm that exists in a country where sandwiches are not the staple lunchtime fare for office workers.  On one occasion, the meal is delivered, by mistake, to Saajan, a diligent, aloof claims supervisor in an insurance company.  He is preparing himself for early retirement but the glimpses of his life show a lonely man, disconnected from the world.  He immediately notices the improved quality of the meal.  Meanwhile, Ila is disappointed that her husband has nothing to say about the effort she put into the food she thought he would be eating.  When it becomes clear that the meal he ate was not the one she cooked, she writes a note to the mystery recipient.

Notes are passed between them and it looks certain that they will find in each other the person to fill the gap in their lives.

The film also has a younger man, Shaikh, who will replace Saajan in his job.  Shaikh is an orphan whose impending marriage to his girlfriend has the sensitive social niceties to navigate: at the wedding, he will be alone ‘on his side’ while his fiance will have an extended family with her.

In such ways, the film shows the need for human contact and a sense of belonging.  The film works well because the film’s ending seems clear.  The direction it takes is all the more pleasing because it is unexpected.  ‘The Lunchbox’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?


Mad Dogs and Englishmen

BlogMadDogsEnglishThis book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book!  The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850.  Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height.  Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth.  Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.

I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.

Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question.  It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent.  Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety.  The text is as illuminating as the pictures.

My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture.  Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit.  It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.

‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

A Level History Without Tears

The best thing about reading A Level textbooks for history is the knowledge that there is no exam at the end of it. Add to that the fact that there is no course work either!  For both of these reasons studying units of the History curriculum for A Level is pure joy.  Maybe this is what education used to be like before politicians got involved.  Maybe studying for the sake of it is what is needed to produce good learners.  I should not like to deny the students seeking validation the experience of exams but, for me, those days are over.

The A Level textbooks continue to provide the right level at which to access high quality information on a topic or period in history.  The Access to History series I have used also directs you to particular historians if you want to study specific areas in greater depth.

I started a couple of years ago with a unit on the USA involvement in Asia after the Second World War, particularly in Korea and Vietnam.  Since then I have studied a unit on Presidents of the USA in the later half of the Twentieth Century (but I did this before the last Presidential election), a unit on the Indian fight for independence and, most recently, a unit on Germany from defeat in 1945 to reunification.

I studied British and European history for my own A Level back in the 70s, before many of the events in these books had even taken place!  This, though, is the way to study history without tears.  I recommend it.

Monsoon Wedding

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?