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?

 

 

 

Frome in Palestine

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!

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A Year in Marrakesh

This is an interesting book even if it wasn’t the book I thought it would be!  Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in the early 50s to write a novel.  Instead of the fiction work he imagined, his time in the country resulted in this journal of his year in Marrakesh.

BlogMarrakeshHaving lived in Pakistan, Mayne knew something of the Muslim way of life but the year spent in Morocco proved to be eye-opening for many reasons.  He was determined not to be seen as a tourist, to live in the old city even though this meant giving up the modern comforts, and to forge friendships with the local people.

The resulting journal is a record of his daily efforts to fit in.  His accommodation changes several times and much of the book is taken up with efforts to secure a roof over his head on reasonable terms.  He also talks about his relationships with locals who have different expectations about trade and financial understandings.

The time he writes about has passed and with it many of the attitudes expressed here by ‘westerners’ and the Moroccans.  I expected a book where the author led us through the sites and gave us local flavour.  He does the latter  but only in as much as it relates to the business of buying, eating, seeking accommodation.  There is little of Mayne himself revealed in this book.  We do not find out much about him.  I was keen to know how he could afford a year without income from any work.  There is no hinterland of interest or experience. What we have instead is a picture of a city in a country before it went through great changes- Morocco became independent in 1956.  He captures life in one place at one time and does it well.  ‘A Year in Marrakesh’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Letters from Baghdad

I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film.  Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East.  In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.

The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen.  That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected.  Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.

The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one.  Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War.  Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed.  In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’.  She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives.  She was not really accepted in either group.

The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out.  It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman.  ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

 

Crusade

This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims.  Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship.  He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade.  Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem.  What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war.  What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.

The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative.  We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances?  Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor.  They should not meet except in battle but they do.

Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides.  With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam.  The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.

 

 

 

Partition

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.

Partition

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

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