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.
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.
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?
Having read Ben Judah’s excellent book on Russia under Putin, I was keen to read his insights into London in the twenty- first century. As a Londoner, I am a keen Londonophile even though, like all enthusiasts, my affection is kept intact by no longer having to live there!
This is first class reportage of life in the capital as experienced by those on the fringes, politically and economically rather than geographically. Apparently, over 40% of the population of London was born elsewhere in the world. Yet London remains a magnet and the route to the city is well worn by those with great hopes.
Ben Judah states that he needs to see things for himself. He distrusts statistics. So, in this book, he beds out for the night with rough sleepers near Hyde Park and meets people in diverse situations across the capital. One of the most interesting interviewees was a policeman, offering his views from one side of the law. His insights are made more interesting by the fact that he is Nigerian.
It becomes clear that there is a congregating of ethnic groups in particular corners, a fact that is articulated by many of the subjects interviewed here. Sometimes this is for safety and companionship and other times it is the economics that keeps people in their place.
Judah does not often pass judgement on what he sees; he communicates his findings which are all based on what he encountered by crossing London. At times, things seem grim yet this is still a city that welcomes people. London is continually renewed by the injection of differing cultures. The views of the migrants on the British are illuminating.
The interviews are thorough and Judah’s gift is to let people speak for themselves. The stories they tell show that there are many Londons; some are places worth visiting and others you might wish to avoid.
I enjoy reading about history but especially the less well known aspects of key events from the past. I thought I knew a lot about evacuees from London; my father was one, evacuated to Kent for the duration of the so- called phoney war and back in time for the Blitz! This history by Susan Soyinka is fascinating and uncovered areas I had not previously considered and revealed new facts. For example, there was highly efficient planning by the government for the evacuation of children from the larger cities but next to know co-ordination of their return. As a consequence, the authorities were unable to say with any certainty where children were.
The story told here is a specific one, though: Jewish children from the East End of London were evacuated with their school to Mousehole, beyond Penzance in Cornwall. The cultural change experienced by both locals and evacuees is related in an oral history that reveals the best of humanity as well as the resilience of people in times of war.
Many of the children from the Jews Free School were the ones who were not in the first wave of evacuation to Cambridgeshire. As bombs fell more often on London, they were sent away by their parents and Cornwall was the designated receiving area.
The memories are well handled by Susan Soyinka who is clear when inconsistencies arise or where memories conflict with the records. In part, the author shows us how she went about researching this history as she discusses her methods as well as her findings.
There are some remarkable insights into how the Jewish religious practices were kept alive in an area far from a synagogue and the story of the refugee children from Europe who, speaking no English, were also evacuated. Their suspicions of trains and train journeys were understandable.
‘East End to Land’s End’ is a fascinating book. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1975 television play by Jack Rosenthal was a wonderful example of what BBC television did so well back in the 1970s. His story of brothers who were evacuated from inner city Manchester to the coast during the Second World War was sweet and poignant. The drama came from the misunderstandings of the childless host family who did not see why the two Jewish boys shouldn’t do what they did in a Christian home.
Jack Rosenthal’s dramas always used comedy to make serious points and there were many wonderful moments in this play, especially when three boys had only two pairs of roller skates between them and decided they had to share to run away. Yet the serious moments are here too. The anxiety of the mother, played by Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman, when letting her children go is clear.
The elderly couple believes they are doing the right thing but the punishments increase and when these include withholding letters from the mother to her boys it seems unbelievably cruel. The boys struggle with the desire to return home and the need not to worry their mother unnecessarily. When the truth emerges it is in the most uncomfortable situation but handled brilliantly by the writer.
I saw this programme in 1975 when the BBC first broadcasted it and I have never forgotten it. That is why is it in my hinterland. What’s in yours?