One of the signs that a book has gone deep is the subsequent research or reading I do. This novel by Philip Hensher made me look into the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh. It is an event I knew little about even though I did know that the country emerged from what was East Pakistan and I had a vague memory of reading about the dominance of Pakistan, or West Pakistan, over the eastern part of the split country.
The novel tells the early life story of Hensher’s husband who is from Bangladesh. I was not struck by the early part of the book and felt as I often do when reading autobiographies that early chapters have to be waded through to get to the interesting parts. Yet, once into the book I was captivated. There is a large cast of characters since our hero Saadi was born into a large family of aunts and uncles.
It is the determination of a people to keep alive their culture and language that is the most effective aspect of the book. Bengali speakers are subject to humiliations and fear for their lives when Urdu speaking rulers try to force their culture on the east in an attempt to unify a country.
The family is upper middle class with plenty of servants but fear is distributed evenly in this era. Saadi’s grandfather hides his Bengali books and music in a room behind a door that is plastered over, such is the fear of discovery. As a baby, Saadi is passed from aunt to aunt and fed whatever he needs to ensure he does not cry out during the hours of curfew; who needs attention from soldiers patrolling the street?
The book passes back and forth in time. It starts when the war is over with a young Saadi playing in the street. When a neighbourhood boy tries to play with him it is the adults who step in. They know which family he comes from and what they did in the war. So, when we step back to a younger Saadi and a time of greater fear we see why the scars still exist years later.
The book works well as fiction even if it edges up against biography of the author’s husband. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Kamila Shamsie is an amazing writer. I was blown away by ‘Burnt Shadows’ so was keen to read this novel, published this year. All the reviews refer to the story as a re-telling of Antigone and so it is but the contemporary setting works well and explores many of the dilemmas of young Muslims who seem to be judged in a way other sectors of our society are not. The unspoken expectation is that Muslims have to prove their loyalty on an almost daily basis. Step forward the newly promoted Muslim Home Secretary whose expedient pronouncements on how others should show their loyalty to the state serve his political ambitions more than they address the current tensions.
There are two families involved in this story: the Home Secretary and his privileged son; and the three children of a suspected terrorist, killed in action in some foreign land leaving them in London to move on and out of his shadow. The eldest child, Isma, is the sensible one, the studious one who has had to care for her twin siblings following the death of their mother and grandmother. The story starts with her and we start to piece together a story of brother and sisters from the Wembley area whose normality is striking.
In America where she is studying, Isma meets Eamonn (and deliberately not Ayman) the son of the Home Secretary. Drifting rather than working, he strikes up a friendship with her and through an offer to deliver a package ends up meeting the younger sister, Aneeka, back in London.
Aneeka is the most forceful of the characters and she sees in Eamonn an opportunity. Love gets in the way but the two develop a relationship that could make or break them.
Parvaiz is the brother who took a different path. His route to radicalisation is detailed in the chapters dedicated to his story but it is the impact he has on others that acts as the anchor of the book. All the other characters are ready to judge him for his actions but Aneeka, our Antigone figure, is the one who puts her views aside to do what she thinks is right.
This is a novel by a wonderful writer. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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.