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?

BlogPassagetoIndia

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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 Boy with the Topknot

Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed.  In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother.  Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront.  It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories.  It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.

Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London.  His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh.  He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition.  On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing.  The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia.  The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story.  He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.

This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it.  The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city.  Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.

The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen.  In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here.  Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick

This poem by Brian Patten back in the 60s is just one reason why I hold him in high esteem.  His poem was a response to the awful, racist election in Smethwick in 1964 and the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration.  The fact that this was a white man writing shows that allies are to be found everywhere.  I like the poem but I love the fact that Brian Patten wrote it.

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song)

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once

Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.

I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.

The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.

Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
              And may all your citizens be white.

Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.

Brian Patten

blogsmethwick1964

 

Tales from Two Cities

I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history.  Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.

BlogDervlaMurphyI read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain.  In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians.  Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies.  His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post.  This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum!  Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up.  Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him.  Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.

This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there.  Her time here is more dramatic.  She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer.  Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.

Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer.  She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain.  What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views.  The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.

BlogTalesTwoCitiesRe-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues.  Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.

Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians.  Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in.  I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.

‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

I Am Not Your Negro

This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population.  Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.BlogIamNotYourNegro

Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X.  All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here.  Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.

The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.

James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life.  The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message.  Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.

The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Ballad of East and West

This is a poem associated for ever with the classroom where I encountered it.  Like many poems fed to my teenage brain, it was only later that the point behind the poem made any sense to me.  The first two lines were the only ones I held on to so it was good to discover it again in later life and realise that the third and fourth lines of the opening stanza were the most important.

The Ballad of East and West

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,
And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.
He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and day
And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.

Then up and spoke the Colonel’s son that led a troop of the Guides
Is there never a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides? “
Then up and spoke Mohammed Khan, the son of the Ressaldar:
“If ye know the track of the morning-mist, ye know where his pickets are.
“At dusk he harries the Abazai – at dawn he is into Bonair,
“But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.
“So if ye gallop to Fort Bukloh as fast as a bird can fly,
“By the favour of God ye may cut him off ere he win to the Tongue of Jagai.
“But if he be past the Tongue of Jagai, right swiftly turn ye then,
“For the length and the breadth of that grisly plain is sown with Kamal’s men.
“There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
“And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.
The Colonel’s son to the Fort has won, they bid him stay to eat 
Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.
He’s up and away from Fort Bukloh as fast as he can fly,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare in the gut of the Tongue of Jagai,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare with Kamal upon her back,
And when he could spy the white of her eye, he made the Pistol crack.
He has fired once, he has fired twice, but the whistling ball went wide.
Ye shoot like a soldier,” Kamal said. ” Show now if ye can ride! 
It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.
There was rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.

They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn.
The dun he fell at a water-course – in a woeful heap fell he,
And Kamal. has turned the red mare back, and pulled the rider free. 
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand – small room was there to strive,
‘Twas only by favour of mine,” quoth he, ” ye rode so long alive:
“There was not a rock for twenty mile, there was not a clump of tree,
“But covered a man of my own men with his rifle cocked on his knee.
“If I had raised my bridle-hand, as I have held it low, 
“The little jackals that flee so fast were feasting all in a row.
“If I had bowed my head on my breast, as I have held it high,
“The kite that whistles above us now were gorged till she could not fly.”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “Do good to bird and beast,
“But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast.
“If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away.
“Belike the price of a jackal’s meal were more than a thief could pay.
“They will feed their horse on the standing crop, their men on the garnered grain.
“The thatch of the byres will serve their fires when all the cattle are slain.
“But if thou thinkest the price be fair – thy brethren wait to sup,
“The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn – howl, dog, and call them up! 
“And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
“Give me my father’s mare again, and I’ll fight my own way back! “

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and grey wolf meet.
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
“What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: ” I hold by the blood of my clan: 
Take up the mare for my father’s gift – by God, she has carried a man!” 
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast; 
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, ” but she loveth the younger best.
“So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
“My ‘broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrup twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he. ” Will ye take the mate from a friend? “
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
“Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!” 
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
“Now here is thy master,” Kamal said, “who leads a troop of the Guides,
“And thou must ride at his left side as shield on shoulder rides.
“Till Death or I cut loose the tie, at camp and board and bed,
“Thy life is his – thy fate it is to guard him with thy head. 
“So, thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
“And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the Border-line.
“And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power 
“Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur! “

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault.
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.

The Colonel’s son he rides the mare and Kamal’s boy the dun, 
And two have come back to Fort Bukloh where there went forth but one. 
And when they drew to the Quarter-Guard, full twenty swords flew clear
There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.
Ha’ done! ha’ done! ” said the Colonel’s son. ” Put up the steel at your sides!
Last night ye had struck at a Border thief – to-night ‘t is a man of the Guides! “

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling

BlogKiplingEastWest