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?
This book is the third part of the ‘Surya Trilogy’ by Jamila Gavin. Set in India in 1951 the family of Govind and Jhoti and their son and daughter, Marvinder and Jaspal, are reunited following the separations we witnessed in the previous two books. Yet they remain separated from each other since they each try to make a life in a newly independent country. Govind retreats into a traditional role as he tried to reform a family he abandoned when he left for England. Marvinder struggles to accept a dutiful role as daughter but cannot forget the relative freedom she enjoyed in post war London and, in particular, she cannot forget one boy who was so welcoming to her back then.
Jaspal, always the one most affected by the upheaval of partition, finds an identity in his religion. What marked him out as different in London becomes his point of honour to the extent of rejecting his childhood Muslim friend.
In many ways, this book brings the threads of the earlier books together even though it does not resolve all the issues of the characters and we are left unclear about what future there is for the brother and sister in the new India. We have only glimpses of the British characters who played a prominent part in the previous novels but one of the minor characters from the earlier books is instrumental in bringing the trilogy to a close.
‘The Track of the Wind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The second novel in Jamila Gavin’s ‘The Wheel of Surya’ trilogy is fascinating since most of the action takes place in post war London where Sikh children Marvinder and Jaspal have found their father but discovered that he is not the worthy man they thought he was.
The novel shows different cultures and different lives as they weave in and out of the events leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. It also shows the effect of the war on people and places. The London where Jaspal runs with his gang is war damaged and reduced to rubble. The kindly doctor befriended by Marvinder, attracted to the playing of his violin, has lost his family in the holocaust. Both brother and sister miss their father, in prison for his wrong doing, but unsure of the fate of their mother back in India.
Throughout the story, we see the effect of a different culture on the children. For Jaspal, his inner rage surfaces as a need to fight but Marvinder finds solace in music, especially the violin. Both are shaped by Britain at the same time as being identified as foreign because of their religion and appearance. It is a book about being torn between two worlds.
Characters from the first book in the trilogy return and scenes set in India make us hope, like Marvinder and Jaspal, that the mother is still alive.
‘The Eye of the Horse’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?