Basti by Intizar Husain

This is a Pakistani novel from 1979, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan, but with lots of flashbacks — to a pre-Partition life in India, to Partition and the migration to Pakistan — and dreams going further back still, to India’s First War of Independence.*

Tomb_of_Bibi_Jawindi

The earliest scenes of pre-Partition India are seen, through a child’s eyes, as idyllically multicultural, which makes Partition a sort of fall from grace. Partially that’s just the contrast between the innocence of the child and the cynicism of the adult; but there is a sense reading the book of a great deal of political and ideological energy being expended and great changes being achieved, and none of it making life appreciably better.

Politics aside, it’s just a very well-written novel (hat-tip to Frances W. Pritchett for the translation). As well as the flashbacks, parts of it are in the form of letters, diary entries and dreams. The result is atmospheric and impressionistic, and occasionally confusing, especially for those of us who don’t have the cultural context. But it has a very strong sense of place, a great eye for detail, well-drawn characters and natural-sounding dialogue.

This is the second book from Pakistan I’ve read for the Read The World challenge; I felt I ought to be able to do better than the last one (Kartography by Kamila Shamsie), which was fine but nothing special. Basti is a definite improvement.

*i.e. the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion/Revolt of 1857.

» The photo of the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi is from Wikipedia; it’s by Shah zaman baloch and used under a CC by-sa licence.

London Film Festival 2012, personal roundup

I do enjoy the LFF: interesting films, cinemas full of largely well-behaved audiences, and no ads or trailers. I went to five films this year, this is what I thought of them. Obviously.

Reality

An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.

Helter Skelter

A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.

The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.

Tey [‘Today’]

A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.

The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.

Midnight’s Children

The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).

It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.

Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.

Village at the End of the World

An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.

It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.

It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.

Links

Exhibition round-up

Sorry for the slight hiatus; it was a combination of the cricket and Dragon Quest: the Chapters of the Chosen. But there’s a pause in the cricket*, so I’ll just quickly round up a few of the things I’ve been to see recently.

Firstly, the big Baroque exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see a few weeks ago and actually closed yesterday. This is exactly the kind of exhibition that the V&A does a superb job with, and I was glad I went, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it because, well, it’s the Baroque. It’s the aesthetic of wealth and power, of an exquisitely crafted, gilded boot stamping on a human face forever. I didn’t warm to it.

There were interesting items and impressive ones, but not many were likeable; almost none triggered the acquisitive itch in me. The slight exception was actually a video reel of Baroque buildings. Craftsmen obviously struggled to capture the grandeur, ambition and megalomania of the Baroque in something like a  candlestick or a side-table — although it didn’t stop them trying — but if you’ve got a whole church to work with, or a palace or an opera house, you can produce something magnificent.

And I suppose you can argue that once you’ve got your church or your palace, you need some suitably pompous candlesticks and side-tables to match the decor. I still can’t get excited about going to look at them in a museum.

yogi

A more enjoyable exhibition was BM’s Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. These are paintings that are in a style that I associate with Persian miniatures — and of course the Mughals were Persians, more or less — but on a much large scale.

Different Maharajas commissioned different works. The exhibition starts with paintings of court life, mainly represented here as lounging around in the palace garden surrounded by scantily clad women. Then as, we move into scenes from Hindu mythology — some of them looking remarkably like the first paintings except with Shiva sitting in a garden instead of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but others with more dramatic subjects from the Ramayana. And then it shifts into a more esoteric, mystical tradition within Hinduism, with paintings of the creation of the universe from nothingness, spiritual maps of the universe, symbolic maps of the human body with chakras and so on.

The pictures were attractive, never a bad thing, as well as being interesting. And the attempts to represent the unrepresentable were beautiful and more successful (whatever that means) than most Western equivalents I can think of.

I also went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (“now in its 241st year!”). It’s always slightly more enjoyable than I expect; apart from anything else, it’s always interesting to go to an art exhibition where everything has a price marked on it. Vulgar of me, I know. But there’s just so much of it that you’re suffering from fried brain by two thirds of the way through.

And on the subject of art prices, check out this link: ‘If Famous Architecture Were Priced Like Paintings, a Le Corbusier Would Cost the Same as the Entire American GDP‘.

*after a heroic win for England at Lord’s, the first time we’ve beaten the Aussies there for 75 years. I could probably find quite a lot to say about the first two matches in the series — that 75-year losing streak is a fascinating subject in itself — but let’s stay on topic.

»The picture is Chakras of the Subtle Body, 1823, © Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani

All About H. Hatterr is a novel I bought after seeing it recommended somewhere — the complete review, I think. It is a modernist novel written in 1948 in a colloquial Indian English laced with bits of slang, Shakespeare, legal jargon and so on. I’m not in a position to judge the relationship between the language of the book and the English of India, but Salman Rushdie is quoted on the back cover:

Hatterr’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language…. This is the ‘babu English,’ the semi-literate, half-learned English of the bazaars, transmuted by erudition, highbrow monkeying around, and the impish magic of Desani’s unique phrasing and rhythm into an entirely new kind of literary voice.

It would be interesting to read the whole article which that comes from, but it’s hidden behind the New Yorker’s pay wall.

The book is narrated by the H. Hatterr of the title, the son of a European merchant seaman and a woman from Burma, raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. It’s anecdotal and episodic in structure; there isn’t, at least for me at first reading, any kind of overarching plot. Picaresque might be a good word for it.

It is somewhat ‘difficult’ — it’s not for people who like their prose plain. But googling around while writing this post I’ve seen it compared to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and it’s certainly not that difficult. The prose is sometimes elaborate and colourful but otherwise fairly conventional: it’s not all stream-of-consciousnessy or anything. And there’s not a great deal of vocabulary from Indian languages. There’s more English public-school slang than there is Hindi.

PRESUMPTION: ‘Kismet’, i.e., fate — if at all anything, and as potent as suspected for centuries — is a dam’ baffling thing!
It defies a feller’s rational: his entire conception as to his soma, pneuma, and psyche!
Why did a feller like me commit matrimony with a femme fatale like Mrs H. Hatterr (née Rialto), the waxed Kiss-curl?
A personal query, but I don’t mind answering…
If only I could!
All I know is that I wanted to raise a family: add to the world’s vital statistics and legitimate: have a niche in the community, for my own kid, to hand out the wager till the end. And since you can’t achieve this without a wife — the neighbours wouldn’t let you! the police wouldn’t let you! — I equipped myself with the blarney-phrases, convinced this female that she was real jam, had me led to the middle aisle and gave the ready ‘I do’ to the amenwallah her brother had hired for the occasion.
This I did, knowing, hell, that between us was all the temperamental difference in the world!
Till death us do part! this museum-piece and I! And that promise — what a stingo! — after a conflict dating back to the donkey’s Sundays!
The female — contrast? — was poles apart: though, between the cur Jenkins, me and the Duke Humphrey, it did seem once that she was going to win my regards for good, by delivering me an heir-presumptive — my own piccolo le fils — to survive me (and be added to the looney-bin). But despite days and days of biological observation and anticipation — the wasted reference to the obstetric table and pre-occupation with the signs of labour — it didn’t come off. (Backed the wrong filly, or, maybe, something the matter with me as create-or!)

You probably have a pretty good idea whether that’s the kind of thing you like. Personally I enjoyed it, stylistically; occasionally there would be a particularly dense paragraph or two and I would glaze over a bit, but more often it was lively and funny.

My only reservation really is the one I have about a lot of these less traditional novels: I think perhaps the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I think people often overstate the importance of plots, but they are at least one way of holding a book together. Still, I’m glad I read it.

» The picture, ‘a Sadhu‘, is © Chris de Rham and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Sadhus feature quite heavily in the book.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle and aunt. They met in the 30s in Berlin when Shanti Seth was studying dentistry and took lodgings with the (Jewish) Caro family. Henny Caro was one of the daughters of the house and at the time was engaged to someone else; but after the war they eventually got married and lived together in London.

In one way of another their lives and those of their friends touch on many of the key historical moments of the C20th, but most centrally the war and the Holocaust. I’m reluctant to give too many details because I think he intentionally reveals them slowly.

Seth writes well, of course, and I found it an engaging enough book. I still slightly wonder whether it would have been published if it wasn’t written by a famous novelist, though. Not because it’s badly written or not worth reading, but because it seems to lack focus somewhat. He started writing it after the death of Henny, intending really to write a book just about his uncle but found a stash of letters, mainly between Henny and her German friends after the war. So Shanti’s story is based on direct interviews as an old man, while hers is pieced together from old letters, and they don’t quite mesh, somehow. In fact, considering they were married for several decades, there’s an odd feeling that their lives as told in this book don’t overlap that much.

I don’t know. I’m not sure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Mind you, those parts are are often very good: interesting, moving, well written.

(this post also appears in my ‘What I’ve been reading‘ section)

Doublehard Goans

I made ‘rechad’ spice paste today. It’s a recipe from Goa; Goa was a Portuguese colony, and the name is apparently from the Portuguese recheado, ‘to stuff’, because the Goans use it to stuff fish*. I used some of it tonight to make a particularly good Goan seafood curry called ambot tik which uses the paste with some tamarind to make a hot, fragrant, sour dish. I got both recipes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India. Her ambot tik recipe uses squid; I made it with prawns today.

I’ve made the paste a few times before, but I noticed something today. Her recipe calls for ‘about 45’ dried chillies, and even the first time I made it I thought that seemed a lot and toned it down to about 15. That still makes something with a kick to it, and my ambot tik tonight seemed quite hot enough to me. But actually the recipe calls for ‘1oz of dried chillies (about 45)’. She’s clearly using chillies which are bigger and heavier than mine – I’ve got the little tiddly ones, and 45 of them barely weigh enough to register on the scales. I weighed out an ounce, and I reckon my paste is about one-twentieth as fiery as her recipe suggests.

Even allowing for variable hotness in the chillies, all I can say is: OMG. Those Goans are like superheroes with lips and tongues and throats and indeed whole digestive tracts of steel.

*Similarly, ‘vindaloo’ is derived from ‘vin d’alho’ because it’s derived from a Portuguese dish made with wine and garlic.

More ethnic food slurs

I was watching Antiques Roadshow at the weekend and some chap brought in an C18th* English silver sauce boat. The expert got excited because it was a rare early example; apparently before that point English food rarely had sauces but it was about then that some people started employing French cooks.

So far, reasonable enough and entirely plausible. But his explanation for why it should be so was that English ingredients were so good that they could be served plain and unadorned, whereas the French had developed a cuisine based around rich sauces in order to disguise the poor quality of the food. I’ve also heard almost exactly the same explanation for the heavy use of spices in Indian food and (English!) Tudor food: to disguise the flavour of meat that might have gone bad without refrigeration.

The trouble is, it’s obviously patronising crap. Bending over backwards to be fair: yes, with really good quality ingredients you can afford to just present them simply, and it’s a mistake to mess about with them too much. And yes, Britain has some very good quality basic ingredients; the rain makes it a great place to produce lamb, beef and dairy products, there’s some excellent seafood and good game, and some great fruit and veg like apples and asparagus and so on. For some of these products, the best quality stuff may have been better than the French equivalent.

But in a country where most people were peasants who were having a good year if they didn’t go hungry, I just don’t believe that the tiny elite who could afford to eat rich sauces and elaborate food were eating bad quality ingredients. That applies to C18th France, Tudor England and Mughal India. And with the Tudor refrigeration argument, I have to point out that most meat needs to be hung for a while – for several weeks, in the case of beef – to improve the flavour. It doesn’t exactly turn putrescent overnight, even without a refrigerator. The Indian climate presumably accelerates decay, but I still don’t believe that obtaining fresh meat was a problem for those with money. Conversely, however good the best British beef is, there must have been plenty of people in England eating all the crappy stuff that the aristos rejected.

It’s such a bizarre bit of unthinking snobbery to suggest that, just because British food is traditionally plain, anyone who cooks something more elaborate must have something to hide. It’s like suggesting that the Italians cook pizza to disguise the poor quality of their bread. A few decades ago, when few British people had any experience of all that fancy foreign muck, I can imagine the argument seemed plausible. But now we all eat Indian and Thai and Chinese and French and Italian food by choice, you’d think it would have become obvious that people like the flavour of spices and that people like rich sauces. These things don’t need any special justification.

I know I’m probably spending too much time on a trivial point, but I’m always baffled when I hear people confidently repeat arguments that must surely ring false even somewhere in their own heads.

*ish

Colonial troops in WWII

I found this article in the Independent interesting. There’s a film coming out in France called Indigènes about “the 300,000 Arab and north African soldiers who helped to liberate France in 1944.” Apparently about half the French army in 1944 was African or Arab. The director and producer, both French of North African descent, “hope the film will remind the majority population of France that the country owes a deliberately obscured debt of blood to colonial soldiers with brown and black skins. They also hope the film will persuade young French people of African origin that they belong in France.”

In one respect, the film has already succeeded where years of complaints have failed. Last week, just before it reached the cinema, the French government was shamed into paying belated full pensions to 80,000 surviving ex-colonial soldiers who, since 1959, have been paid a fraction of what French veterans receive.

All of which is quite interesting, but I was mainly struck that the article managed to get all the way through exuding a sense of superiority to those racist French without commenting on the British parallel. There were really quite a lot of colonial troops fighting for the British in the war, most notably the Indian Army, which in WWII was the largest all-volunteer army ever assembled. Unsurprisingly, the Indian Army was important in the Burma campaign, but they also fought in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. I think I read once that a third of troops at the battle of El-Alamein were Indian. There aren’t too many Indian faces in all those old war films, though, and I really don’t think most British people know anything about their role. And given that the Ghurkas who are current members of the British army still don’t get the same pensions as their British counterparts, it seems a fair bet that Indian veterans of El-Alamein and Monte Cassino don’t either.

This particular blindspot in the British view of history isn’t simply a race thing, of course. Only a minority of the ‘British’ Eighth Army at El-Alamein was actually British; apart from the Indians, there were troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia; and even a few Free French and Poles. But I only know that because I just looked it up in Wikipedia, and I imagine that most people in this country would have assumed, like me, that the British Army was, basically, British.

Quite apart from the fact that le fairplay demands these things be better known, the French example makes me think – there must be a good film in this somewhere. Or novel. Or even poem, at a pinch.

Close Menu