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.
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.
If I had a list of favourite books, this one would have to be on it. I don’t, I have a hinterland instead so there is room for this wonderful story of the lives of four people, all desperate in their own way, as they cross in Sheffield in Yorkshire.
There is a central story of the four people, three men and a woman, trying to survive in difficult circumstances in a city that is sometimes unwelcoming. The novel is broken up with extended back story chapters showing the paths that led each character to their current situation. In unveiling the story, Sunjeev Sahota, shows us how interdependent our lives are but also how easy it is to ignore those at the bottom of the pile.
Tochi, Randeep and Avtar live together with other migrant workers in a squat in Sheffield. Each has come to Britain from India. Randeep has an arranged marriage with a British Asian woman and Avtar has a student visa. They are both Sikhs and are connected through the sister of one who is the girlfriend of the other. Tochi is from the very bottom of the pile in India since he is an ‘untouchable’. His story is the most tragic, something that must be kept in mind when he often seems to be the least sympathetic of characters in the book. The everyday injustices are seen in the small moments and in the way these men treat each other. At the edge of their lives is Narindar, a young woman from a reasonably prosperous family who wants to live out the teachings of her Sikh religion by doing good. Her chosen path is her way of living out her faith but when this conflicts with family honour there is heartache and anxiety.
This excellent novel shows an aspect of British life that is most often only revealed through the shrill headlines of the tabloid press. Sunjeev Sahota shows us what might lie behind the accusatory headlines of illegal immigrant and sham marriages. At first sight, the title seems to refer to the fact that the men have run away to England. By the end of the book, I wondered whether the ‘runaway’ was the aspiration to get them out of the hell they were in.
This book is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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.
In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years. I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!
I was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna. The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.
The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty. This work is dated 1854.
Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself. There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank. Their position is all due to ethnicity.
As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history. The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh. Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen. It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879. Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school. The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.
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?
I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago. I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.
This novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life. The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British. As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman. Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.
It is a story of power and manipulation. The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne. While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.
For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk. Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India. The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland. He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab. International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.
The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man. The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?