The British Museum is something of a place of pilgrimage for me so I suppose it is fitting that, this time, my visit there was to see the exhibition ‘Living with Gods’, an exploration of how religious artefacts have helped mankind make sense of the spiritual.
As always with high profile exhibitions, the people turn out so a route around the treasures on show involves high levels of patience. This is made more important by the fact that so many of the artefacts were quite small and laid out on table top arrangements. There was an element of waiting before I could get close enough to read and see.
Yet, it was worth it. The curating of exhibitions is a skill denied me but I am always grateful to the experts who seem to know what to include, how to lay it out and in what order. Here the story of different societies and how they behave in terms of religion is set out. What is striking is that there is little time spent on what people believe; the exhibition concentrates instead on the items related to religious practice. Why worry what the motivation is, what do they do?
The British Museum is able to call upon its own collection for most of these treasures and they come from across the ages and across the world. My list of favourites includes the juggernaut from India, acquired in the eighteenth century. It is from south India where a tradition of taking deities for an outing allowed people to see them. The scale model of a real juggernaut is in the museum. I was also taken with the Tibetan Thangka, an illustration of the wheel of life used as both a teaching and a devotional tool. The Lion Man from the ice age suggests that belief is universal and a human condition. To people of faith, though, the central point must be WHAT you believe.
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?
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?
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!
On the South Downs, overlooking Brighton, is a monument to soldiers from India who died in the First World War. The Pavilion in Brighton town was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and the bodies of the dead Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on this spot. The Muslim soldiers were taken to Woking for burial.
The word ‘chattri’ means umbrella in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi. It stands here as a memorial to honour the fallen from India who died a long way from home. It was erected in 1921 and opened by the then Prince of Wales. There are three slabs where the cremations took place. These were below the monument itself and had wreaths of poppies when I visited.
As always when I see walls full of names, I tried to hang on to one that I could remember. Jai Singh was the name I picked out. Trying to keep one name in mind is a way of remembering this was a person; lists of names can be impersonal. One and a half million soldiers from India served in the forces of the Empire. About twelve thousand of the wounded were in hospital in sites around Brighton. Fifty three Hindus and Sikhs who died in Brighton were cremated here.
I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
This short book by Antonia Fraser is worth reading as an evocation of a specific time and place. Historian and writer Fraser travelled with her partner, the playwright Harold Pinter, to Israel in 1978. He was Jewish and she was not; she refers to the differing perspectives in her diary.
These are not anonymous travellers observing quietly in a strange country. It isn’t the type of travel book that shows the exotic. They have connections and know many of the great and the good of the country; at one point they dine with Shimon Peres, leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister and President. The PM at the time was Begin, a controversial figure as far as Harold Pinter was concerned.
They visit the sites many tourists take in but this trip has access to many other areas. It is the actual diary Antonia Fraser kept while travelling, discovered recently by the author. It reads with the immediacy of a journal. These are not the carefully sculpted sentences of her historical works. It is worth reading for the sense of a journey taken and the growing relationship between two people.