Tag Archives: India

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.

No

By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.

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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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60th London Film Festival – 6

Just a single film from the Treasures of Cinema DARE section – films that are in-your-face, up-front and arresting: films that take you out of your comfort zone.

9-10-1-junoon Billed as a re-mastered version of a well-known and highly respected film from India, made in 1979 by Shyam Benegal and produced by Shashi Kapoor, this film lived for many years in the garage of the house, after the Bengal Studios closed. Re-mastered from negative and sound tape by Shashi Kapoor’s son, it is probably the best film about the Indian mutiny of 1857 to come out of India, or indeed anywhere.

Using members of the Indian acting community as well as dragooning members of his own family, Shashi Kapoor (who plays Javed Khan) brings a vivid reality to this terrifying moment in the history of Indian independence from Britain.

Muslim Soldiers in the British Army mutinied against the use of the cartridges which were wrapped in oiled paper, which had to be ripped open with their teeth because the fat used to oil the paper was either from cows or pigs – both of which are haram (forbidden). This was followed by a mass rising, engineered over all of Indian by passing secret messages in chapattis (flat breads into the pockets of which messages could be inserted).

A brave Muslim, Lalal Ramjimal played by Kulbushan Kharbanda, hides three female members of a British family (Jennifer Kendal, Ismat Chughtai and Nafisa Ali) in his house, but an influential Pathan, Javed Khan has become obsessed by Ruth, the daughter (Nafisa Ali) and insists on moving them to his house.

The book from which this film is made is called The Flight of the Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, but this could easily also be called a cat among the pigeons, placing these three English women in his household causes endless conflict among the women already there. And eventually he submits to the advice of his ‘aunt’ to take them away to her estate.

The scenes indoors where much of the action is shown through layers of screens (made from rush and lowered to keep the house cool, and to shield the women of the household from any visiting males) adds another texture to the layers of relationships, the sadness and jealousy (understandable) of Javed’s beautiful wife, the sharp tongues of his sister and sister-in-law (also in the house because their husbands are fighting) and finally the more placating tones of his aunt.

Javed is determined to marry Ruth as his second wife, which as a Muslim is permitted, but Ruth’s mother and indeed the girl herself, still traumatised by the events of the early scenes which include a massacre in a church where the father is killed, are completely against the idea. The tension between these two, Ruth and Javed, a fascination and a repulsion which dominates all the action of the film is palpable and brilliantly played. Javed’s frustration at his bewitchment creates a coil of anguish within him which occasionally overwhelms him, and this is brilliantly portrayed.

The battle scenes, which are many and furious, during which two opposing sets of horsemen charge towards each other, bearing lances, guns and swords, followed by much fierce sword fighting on horseback, must have taken some skill to film quite apart from anything else, there was such a melee of horses hooves that filming soldiers falling off as they were ‘killed’ must have presented quite a challenge in terms of ‘health and safety’.

For the Caucasian English viewer this was an interesting film because, of course, all the ‘English’ characters were in fact played by Indians, except Jennifer Kendal who was Shashi Kapoor’s wife (and the sister of Felicity).

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59th London Film Festival Day 10

Pearl ButtonThe Pearl Button, a new film by Patrizio Guzmán. This followed on from his previous film Nostalgia for the Light which meditated and explored our relationship to the stars from the point of view (largely) of Chile. In the Chilean desert, the driest place on earth, there is a huge observatory called Atacama. [For the record there are several large observatories in Chile, for star-gazers it is Heaven brought to Earth]. According to the new film, all the water on the planet arrived on earth in a collision with a comet. The Pearl Button is a meditation on water: its music, its abundance, its harvest and its people – once again from the point of view of Chile. Chile has the longest coastline in the world, the narrow strip of land which at its highest is the Andes Range drops swiftly to the Pacific Ocean, breaking at its edge into a myriad of small islands, threaded with navigable channels. Until the arrival of white settlers, there were five groups of indigenous people, all of them living on the water and diving for shellfish and the harvest of the sea.

The camera takes us along the coast, passed rivulets, waterfalls and the glaciers – the music, the natural sounds and the colour alone mean that everyone should try to see this magnificent visual poem to water, the life-sustaining liquid so essential to all life.

And there it stayed, a virtual Paradise until Captain Fitzroy (he, of The Beagle) made a cartographic study, so accurate that it was in use until very recently, which encouraged the influx of settlers after gold, precious metals and wood. Once the settlers arrived the story followed the same grim pattern as elsewhere – genocide on a huge scale, either by accident through European disease or deliberate through slaughter on a massive scale. Just as gamekeepers would get a bounty from moleskins and raptors, so hunters would get a bounty from human testicles, breasts and ears.

The indigenous people believe that in the afterlife they join the stars, and recently there has been discovered a huge nova that is mainly water, in fact it has more water than Earth – whimsically the film suggests that this is where they all are and where the 20 direct descendants will one day join them.

But the film and the water has another story and it is linked to Captain Robert Fitzroy. As an experiment in 1828, he took a native boy aged about 10 back to England and brought him up as a gentleman, for this pleasure he paid the family in pearl buttons. [The film doesn’t say this, but he actually took four natives, two boys, a girl and an adult.] Jemmy Button, as he was called, returned to Chile ten years later, a foreigner in his own land. He moved from the Stone Age into the Industrial Revolution and back, he saw the future and left it behind.

But the other story belongs in the 20th Century. Socialist President Salvador Allende began to return land to the indigenous people, but in a coup d’etat in 1973, probably backed by Richard Nixon, he was ousted from power and there began a civil war. Dissidents and families began to disappear, 800 secret prisons sprang up from nowhere and there was a reign of torture and political assassination unrivalled, almost, in recent times. Some of the “Disappeared” were dropped in the ocean fixed to metal railway track. One, and only one, had to be detached from her rail and strangled while in the air and her body floated to shore. After the Pinochet Junta failed and he was removed, investigators examined and identified her. Since then, hundreds of iron rails have been lifted from the sea bed – there are thought to be more than 12-1400 of them and with the accretion of sea life there remains little or nothing of the human that was once so brutally attached, but on one such recovery there is embedded a pearl button.

This film is astonishingly varied and beautiful, but at the point where the voice-over is describing these events we are looking at the twisted and wrecked remains of an ancient forest, dead trees corkscrewed by some elemental force into horrific grotesque shapes – it was more telling than archive footage, more emotionally charged and painful to see.

This Thing of DarknessI am rather sad that Robert Fitzroy does not come well out of this story as he is something of a hero of mine and a loud cheer went up in my heart when Finnisterre was altered to Fitzroy in the Maritime Weather Forecast. To learn more read Harry Thompson‘s magnificent novel This Thing of Darkness.

Guilty
Then to a film from the THRILL Section. Guilty is a polemic about a real-life double murder that filled the Indian media for weeks. Everyone has a view.

The plain facts are that at some point in the night a young girl, Shruti aged fourteen, has her throat cut.  This is discovered in the morning by her parents who were asleep at the time, the police are called and decide that the missing Nepalese servant must be to blame. Sometime later, when Shruti’s family are returning with her ashes, the murdered body of the servant is discovered on the roof.

The film presents various scenarios, based upon the police records, the media reports and the various verdicts that were arrived at by different parties, the local police who thought it must be the servant, the first CDI investigation who proved it was not the servant but his companions and the second CDI investigation which proved it was the parents.

In this film, and the Director, Meghna Guizar, was very clear in the Q&A afterwards, none of the scenarios add up to an entirely satisfactory conclusion. Firstly, the crime scene was hugely compromised. Family friends and media were allowed to come in and look even before forensics had finished, several essential clues were missed, including a vital hand print in blood on a wall at the roof level, which was photographed but then failed to be added to the case notes. It washed off in a subsequent rain storm. Then when the CDI were involved some of the methods of interrogation were suspect, though not illegal and were not permissible as evidence and finally at a critical juncture the Chief Director of the CDI was changed and the new Director, for reasons not examined in the film, started a whole new investigation that made a quite different scenario appear. At a conference it was concluded that insufficient proof had been provided by either side and therefore the case was closed. But at the Court level, the Judge declared that the case was not closed, the parents were guilty and were sentenced to prison for life.

Although there is a campaign to re-open the case, the backlog in the Appeal Court in India is thirty years.

It would not be fair to present a different version from that which the Director stoutly maintained in her Q&A, that this was a presentation of the facts and that she was not “directing” the audience view as to which scenario was right. However, her choice of actor slightly belies this. The fact that Irrfan Khan was chosen as the first CDI Investigating Officer suggests that his theory is the most probable. The local policeman was played as a buffoon (Gajraj Rao) and the second Director of the CDI had ‘villain’ written across his forehead.

This is a great film though and full of marvellous small miracles as well as petty and great injustices.

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Blogging the Booker 2015 – 9 Last but not least

The pile is empty, at least the pile that was the Man Booker Longlist 2015. The final stretch happened to be several short novels, at least novels that did not stretch beyond 300 pages, which is by several standards now considered short.

JupiterAnuradha Roy‘s novel Sleeping on Jupiter is a compact but unflinching look at a stolen childhood. We begin the journey on a train, in the sleeping carriage and probably air-conditioned, three elderly women are travelling on a last journey together – Latika, Vidya and Gouri. Gouri is a large, ungainly mass with a steadily more confused mind, she is unreliable and therefore something of a liability, but they are going to Jarmuli on a pilgrimage. Latika, because she wants to travel with her friends and Gouri because she is a believer, Vidya is more the mother-hen, placing cards with their address and contact details in Gouri’s handbag in case she gets lost. In the carriage with them is a young woman – she is chasing her lost childhood. She grew up in Jarmuli, in an ashram as an orphan, kept in unwitting captivity, abused and badly treated by all but the gardener, Jadhu and her friend Piku. Nomi is there scoping for a documentary, while at the same time looking for her past, but as the train stops in a station somewhere, she leaps off and goes to get food, not for herself but for a poor beggar woman, and the train moves off…

We follow these four disparate people for five days having different adventures and mishaps – odd meetings, some deliberate and some accidental, and missed opportunities. Ultimately, we learn more of their secrets, pains and mistakes. It ends quite suddenly, and then some time later we meet Nomi again, burying what remains of her past, shedding the pain and forgiving herself for what was a child-survivor’s instinct, to save herself and abandon her friend.

The prose is pitch-perfect, and some of the scenes are vividly told. The sense of place and of how sound brings up old feelings and memories is profoundly present. In the acknowledgements, Anuradha Roy writes

There are countless horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India. I have drawn on the legal and investigative history of many such incidents; this book is not based on any particular instance.

Although this book is not wholly about any one such case, it does remind us once again about the fragility of childhood. The abuse is nothing like as horrific as the experiences describe in A Little Life, but only quantitatively. The lasting mental and emotional effect is life-changing and appalling.

The last book in the pile, FishermenChigozie Obioma‘s The Fishermen is also about childhood and is a debut novel. Against a background of some violence, four boys and their younger siblings live a life governed by order, discipline and rules in Akure, a town in western Nigeria. But this changes when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is moved away to Yola in the north and can only come home every few weeks. While he is away and their mother is working in the market, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin play truant from school and go fishing in the local river, the dangerous Omi-Ala. Two seminal things happen there – they are seen by a neighbour (who they know will tell their mother) and approached by a madman, Abulu, who issues a horrible and dangerous prophecy…

The whole novel is seen from a distance of years, the teller is Benjamin.  Now older and a parent himself, he looks back at the incidents that shaped his life. At the moment which became the fulcrum of all that happened afterwards and the effect it had on his mother and father and obviously, his siblings.

For a first novel, this is something of an accomplishment because the telling is quite straightforward, there is no unnecessary detail but all the same you get a very complete picture of rural Nigeria, of profoundly pagan beliefs held together with sincere Christianity. Abulu has a horrible habit of truth-foretelling, many things that he has said do seem to come about, but he is mad, dirty and fearsome at the same time. Set in an English village this story simply could not bear the weight of the things that happen in this small town, but in an African town they take on a significant and believable ghastliness.

The father has great hopes and ambitions for his family, he prospers and has contacts abroad, there is talk of getting the older boys to Canada but before that can happen, the events that shape this compelling story begin their insidious work…

Definitely a new African voice to look out for.

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White Poppy – Black Mud = Pipe Dreams

What happened to our memory of history? How many people presently reading Amitav Ghosh‘s magnificently detailed and peopled trilogy covering the beginnings of the opium industry knew how deeply mired in the filth of coercion, bribery and corruption lay British Capitalism? FIFA is nothing, a mere pinprick compared to this.

scan0004Beginning with A Sea of Poppies, which covers the industry from the Indian end, we meet Deeti. She is a young married woman, her husband – partially lamed during combat in some war or other – works in an opium factory packing processed opium for export.  Deeti grows and harvests opium, like many other farmers, coerced into the crop by bribery, trickery or desperation.

In the old days, farmers would keep a little of their home-made opium for their families, to be used during illnesses, or at harvests and weddings; the rest they would sell to the local nobility, or to pykari merchants from Patna. Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little over, to be sold…
…those toothsome winter crops [wheat,dal,vegetables] were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asámi contracts. It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn’t accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commissions on the opium and would never let you off.

Eventually there is a turn in Deeti’s fortune and her adventures through the several books begin. It begins with her vision of a ship. The ship exists, it is the Ibis.

The Ibis has sailed from Baltimore, by the time it arrives in India, Zachary Reid is second mate, having joined the ship as ship’s carpenter. This has been a slaving vessel, but once she arrives in India she has been refitted to ship girmitiyas (indentured workers – a euphemism for slaves) to Mauritius and opium destined for China. When she finally sails, on board are several other main characters in this trilogy but I am avoiding plot spoilers here so I will not list them; suffice it to say they comprise the characters that we will meet during the narrative and whose careers (or careerings) we will follow, in River of Smoke and then Flood of Fire.scan0005

There is something else that I want to say about this completely engrossing narrative. Amitav Ghosh makes no concessions to the reader’s ignorance of certain vocabulary, there is no glossary but the whole text is littered with “foreign” words and phrases. Here are a few examples: bojha = bundle, munshi = secretary, gomusta = general manager (of home, office or factory). These are picked at random, there are many more and once we arrive in China – more still. Personally, I am glad that there is no way of looking every word up, it makes one concentrate on the sense and then by the second or third reading, you know exactly what is meant. Any one who arrives at the end of the trilogy without a sense of what any of these words means simply hasn’t been paying enough attention.

One of the features that has appeared in the reviews of Flood of Fire, the most recent volume, is an immense admiration for the humour. In spite of the fact that the background to this story is dark, there was nothing remotely romantic or pretty about the trade in opium, especially once it was being traded in China, at the same time Amitav Ghosh gets quite a lot of fun out of the preposterous hypocrisy of the British and Anglo-Indian “aristocracy” in India. There is a perfectly marvellous amount of adultery, of mixed race sex and denial. Mr Seth Bahram, an exceedingly rich (and ruthless) trader, has important family connections in India but also has a liaison, and a son, in China. Another character, Zadig Bey has a family in Egypt but has abandoned them for his second, illegitimate, family. His justification being that his Egyptian family are surrounded by relatives and will be cared for, his illegitimate family will have no such support and will be outcasts.

Mrs Burnham, the English wife of Benjamin Burnham, another trader, being left alone for months at a time eventually falls into the same trap – the scenes between her and her singularly inappropriate lover are quite brilliant: funny, touching and full of the most vivid and ripe euphemisms: “Oh look! I see a helmet! A brave little havildar has climbed up my chest and is raising his head above the nullah, to take a dekko!” I am not going to explain…the episode of cunnilingus later is liberally scattered with bizarre vocabulary, and as for the prophylactic!!! But, at the same time, in case of mistakes in public the two lovers continue to address each other very formally – Mr and Mrs!

If you imagine a figure of eight, made up of stranded cotton with India at the outermost curve on one side and China at the outermost point at the other and Ibis at the crossover, you will get the faintest grasp of the complexity of this historical fiction, the background of which is the Opium Industry.

I believe that the original plan was to cover the story right up to the modern era, but the first three volumes have only got us to the First Opium War (1841), the war dragged on for another eighteen months after the ending of Flood of Fire finally concluding with the Treaty of Nanking (1842) which officially recognised the formal ceding of Hong Kong as a separate trading area open to foreign trade. Amitav Ghosh has admitted that he may not complete this work, but I do earnestly hope that there will be at least one further volume.

There is no glossary, as I said before, but an eye-watering bibliography. This is historical fiction of the best kind – properly researched. If you have not started, please be inspired to start now.

The Man Booker postscript: I am pretty sure Kate Atkinson will be on this listscan0008. A God in Ruins is the follow up to her prize winning novel Life After Lifescan0009.

I would also like to see The Mountain Can Wait there too.scan0006

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