This novel by Mohsin Hamid is a wonderfully creative way of relaying a whole life lived in an unnamed country in Asia. The country may well be Pakistan but it is not stated. Instead, the author, using the second person, addresses the reader as someone in need or want of a self- help book. The advice offered, of course, is the experience of one person from poor boy to old age. Each chapter starts with a new topic and is actually another stage in the life of the protagonist. “Move to the city”, “Get an education”, “Work for yourself”: the chapter headings show the trajectory of the hero. Behind the motivational talk are also words of wisdom for the reader. The book may reflect the changing Asia but the regrets of a life are universal and here we have the love of our protagonist for a ‘pretty girl’; a love that lasts a lifetime.
The strength of the book is that, despite placing the story in a specific, yet unnamed place, the story is one of joys, pain and vicissitudes of life.
The second person is an unusual form but the effect here is to drag you in. I was there for the whole ride.
‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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 The maps at his disposal were out of date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
Every once in a while I stumble across something golden while searching for something else. Having thought the radio dramatisation of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ was fantastic, I was pleased to discover this BBC Leeds radio play by Nick Ahad. Ordinarily, I would have no reason to listen to a Leeds radio station since I do not live anywhere near but I was searching for information about the partition of India at the end of British rule and came across this production by accident.
The play is a joint project with the West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was staged following the radio broadcast.
‘Partition’ tells the story of the past by focusing on the present day relationship between a couple about to get married. He is a Sikh and she is a Muslim. Their families have been invited to the wedding but her mother and his grandfather will not attend. We may be in present day Leeds but history is not in the past for the generation that experienced the partition of India.
The play takes us on the wedding day to the ceremony where officials are used to dealing with unusual experiences, except for the registrar, this is her very first time officiating at a wedding and the non- arrival of witnesses is going to be a problem. Both bride and groom- to- be are relying on their respective family members coming; witnesses from the street would be needed if they don’t turn up. The play shows us what obstacles would need to be overcome to face a marriage across the divide.
‘Partition’ by Nick Ahad is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London, so off to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington to see the Lockwood Kipling exhibition. I was particularly keen to see this as it celebrates a man who could easily be forgotten, or overshadowed in his case. His son’s fame as a poet and author has endured while his work as a champion of India’s artistic heritage has been largely forgotten. ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling is a favourite book from my youth. I reread it as an adult, and had conflicting thoughts about the place of the British Empire’s role in history, but the edition I read had illustrations by Lockwood Kipling.
The story is a fascinating one. He attended the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was inspired by what he saw in the Indian galleries. He was a teenager but this was the start of a love affair with the arts and crafts of India. This alone makes me warm towards him; people who are inspired at an early age and go on to dedicate their careers in pursuit of their interests are always fascinating to me.
Lockwood Kipling is also connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum itself, although in its previous carnation as the South Kensington Museum. It is fitting, then, that it is here that his work and influence is celebrated. There are artefacts and images of India with an emphasis on the decorative arts that influenced him so much. There are pictures of the Great Exhibition as well as an evocation of the cities of Mumbai and Lahore, both of which were important in Kipling’s life. As the fame of his son spread, so Lockwood Kipling became involved in book illustration. In the exhibition are samples of his work. At the end was a ‘room’ with artefacts from Osborne House where he worked with Bai Ram Singh on the Durbar Room. My favourite item was a painting called ‘A Peep at the Train’ by Rudolf Swoboda.
The second novel in Jamila Gavin’s ‘The Wheel of Surya’ trilogy is fascinating since most of the action takes place in post war London where Sikh children Marvinder and Jaspal have found their father but discovered that he is not the worthy man they thought he was.
The novel shows different cultures and different lives as they weave in and out of the events leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. It also shows the effect of the war on people and places. The London where Jaspal runs with his gang is war damaged and reduced to rubble. The kindly doctor befriended by Marvinder, attracted to the playing of his violin, has lost his family in the holocaust. Both brother and sister miss their father, in prison for his wrong doing, but unsure of the fate of their mother back in India.
Throughout the story, we see the effect of a different culture on the children. For Jaspal, his inner rage surfaces as a need to fight but Marvinder finds solace in music, especially the violin. Both are shaped by Britain at the same time as being identified as foreign because of their religion and appearance. It is a book about being torn between two worlds.
Characters from the first book in the trilogy return and scenes set in India make us hope, like Marvinder and Jaspal, that the mother is still alive.
‘The Eye of the Horse’ 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.