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.

Tales in Colour and Other Stories and Bhutanese Tales Of The Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Two collections of short pieces by the same writer, which I read as books from Bhutan for the Read The World challenge. I was intrigued to read the yeti stories but also wanted something more contemporary; in the event Tales of Colour is the more interesting book.

bhutan

It was certainly interesting to read some yeti lore: I learned that they smell horrible and have hollow backs, for example. And it’s clear that they are regarded as magical/folkloric creatures rather than just another species of wild animal; people may believe they are real, but they are not just another wild animal like a bear. There are stories of women bearing them children, for example. But although I was pleased to get some sense of the yeti’s place in Bhutanese culture, the stories themselves were not especially fascinating; a selection of four or five of the best ones would have been enough for me.

Tales of Colour is a collection of short stories about everyday life for women in rural Bhutan, touching on alcoholism, illness, infidelity, the lure of the city, age… universal themes, really, and simple stories, but very well told and with a strong sense of place.

» The photo Chimi Lhakhang 01 is © Buddhist Fox and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra

Hemanta Mishra is a Nepali conservationist who, among other things, was part of the campaign to set up Nepals’ first national park, primarily to protect what is usually referred to as the Indian Rhinoceros, but which he refers to, for understandable nationalistic reasons, as the Asian one-horned rhinoceros.

This book is a memoir and is primarily a book about people rather than rhinos; that is, about the practicalities and politics of conservation, rather than the behaviour and habits of Rhinoceros unicornis.

So he has to deal with farmers whose crops are being damaged by rhinos; deter poachers; encourage tourism; work with bureaucrats and foreign NGOs; to learn from the practical experience of rangers and trackers; to capture rhinos for captive breeding programmes overseas; and after a brief battle with his conscience, he organises a ritualistic rhino hunt for the new king to kill a rhino for traditional symbolic purposes.

For most of the book he is telling a conservation success story; the population of rhinos in Nepal increases from about 100 to 650, including some relocated from Chitwan to a new national park elsewhere in Nepal that established a breeding population. Depressingly though, it ends with the country being thrown into chaos by the Nepalese Civil War, and poachers taking advantage of the power vacuum to kill about 270 rhinos in a few years. The book was published in 2008; as far as I can tell from a bit of quick googling, the situation has been stabilised and the rhinos are once again better protected, but it is a reminder of how fragile these populations can be.

I commented that 88 Days was a book with interesting material, but written by someone who wasn’t primarily a writer; The Soul of the Rhino is both more interesting and better written than 88 Days, but it has something of the same quality. Mishra certainly has enough interesting stories from decades of conservation work to fill a book, and he does a solid enough job of telling them, but it doesn’t transcend the subject matter; it’s not one of those books I would recommend to people just for the quality of the writing. However, if you’re interested in conservation, or rhinos, or Nepal, you will probably find it worth reading.

The Soul of the Rhino is my book from Nepal for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of tourists on safari in Chitwan National Park is © Nomad Tales and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Born in Tibet by Chögyam Trungpa

Born in Tibet is the story of Chögyam Trungpa’s early life in Tibet, as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts. He was a year old when some monks turned up and announced he was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku and hence the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet; at twenty he managed to escape the Chinese occupation and make his way to India.

So the book really has three main subjects: his traditional religious education, the increasing impact of the Chinese on Tibetan life, and the adventure/survival story of escaping cross-country into India. The escape is remarkable, since it involves dozens of people trying to secretly cross some of the most difficult terrain in the world; but the portrayal of traditional life in a Tibetan monastery is what interested me most.

It is slightly ironic that many westerners treat Buddhism as a kind of antidote to organised religion, because this was organised, institutional religion on the grand scale: an elaborate formal hierarchy, large, expensively appointed buildings with hundreds of people, elaborate rituals, explicitly supernatural practices like divination, all supported by large scale land ownership and tributes offered by the local population. It’s rather how I imagine the middle ages in Europe must have been: a basically peasant population loomed over both by the houses of feudal aristocrats and by the abbeys and monasteries of the great religious orders.

The fact that comparison sounds like a criticism says something about the glowing image of Tibetan buddhism — mainly I guess down to the personal qualities of the current Dalai Lama — and the bad image of medieval Catholicism. The reasons for which are more tangled, although the largely Protestant history of the English speaking world is clearly relevant. Personally I have a soft spot for medieval monasticism; and my scepticism about human nature means I bet there were a few Tibetan monks over the centuries who were, let’s say, more worldly than they should have been.

Though it has to be said that Chögyam Trungpa was not living the life of a Medici pope. His life in Tibet seems to have been austerely lived and completely devoted to spiritual practice. The childhood in particular sounds tough; being taken away to a monastery at three and spending pretty much all his time from then on in study and devotion.

Anyway, it is fascinating stuff.

Our travelling party was organized with a good deal of pomp. There were thirty monks on horseback and eighty mules to carry the baggage. I was still only twelve and, being so young, I was not expected to preach long sermons; mostly I had to perform rites, read the scriptures aloud, and impart blessings. We started from the highlands and traveled down to the cultivated land; I was able to see how all these different people lived as we passed through many changes of scenery. Of course I did not see the villagers quite as they were in their everyday lives, for wherever we went all was in festival, everyone was excited and looking forward to the special religious services, so that we had little time for rest. I missed the routine of my early life, but found it all very exciting.

When we visited Lhathog, the king had to follow the established tradition by asking us to perform the religious rites according to ancient custom. We were lodged in one of the palaces, from where we could look down on a school that the Chinese had recently established. A Communist flag hung at the gate, and when it was lowered in the evenings the children had to sing the Communist national anthem. Lessons were given in both Chinese and Tibetan, including much indoctrination about the benefits China was bringing to Tibet. Singing and dancing were encouraged and I felt that it was a sign of the times that the monastery drum was used to teach the children to march. Being young myself I was keenly interested, though this distortion worried me; a religious instrument should not have been used for a secular purpose, nor for mere amusement. A detachment of Chinese officials sent from their main headquarters at Chamdo lived in the king’s palace together with a Tibetan interpreter, while various teachers had been brought to Lhathog to organize the school, which was one of many that the Chinese were setting up in all the chief places in Tibet. The local people’s reactions were very unfavourable. In the town the Communists had stuck posters or painted slogans everywhere, even on the walls of the monastery; they consisted of phrases like ‘We come to help you’ and ‘The liberation army is always at the people’s service.’

Born in Tibet is my book from Tibet for the Read The World challenge. Chögyam Trungpa wasn’t actually born in what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region; when the Chinese took over Tibet, large chunks which were culturally Tibetan were assigned to different provinces.

We ourselves always considered that the people who speak Tibetan and ate roasted barley (tsampa) as their staple food are Tibetans.

Which is good enough for me.

» The top thing is a ration ticket for 500 g of cereals, issued by the People’s Liberation Army – Tibet Military Region. It’s from 1996, so not even remotely contemporary with this book, but sort of an interesting object, I think. From the British Museum. The C18th Tibetan scroll painting is from the V&A.

Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

Kartography is my book from Pakistan for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel set in Karachi in the 90s with flashbacks to the 70s and particularly the 1971 civil war when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Raheen and Karim have a tangled relationship which parallels, and is haunted by, the tangled relationships of their parents twenty years earlier. It’s a love story, a family saga, a book about ethnic and class tensions in Pakistan.

Given that the Read The World challenge has lead me to some pretty obscure and unusual books, it was a nice change of speed to be reading some mainstream literary fiction that was actually written in English. But I wasn’t blown away by this one. I was quite pleased with it when I first picked it up: Shamsie can certainly write, and it’s well observed and lively… but after a while it started to annoy me slightly. The dramatic contrivances are just a bit too contrived and a bit too relentless: every page has to ratchet up the emotional tension, so there’s a constant stream of twists and misunderstanding and surprises. There’s never a lull or a pause; it’s a bit soap-operaish in its piling up of plot devices.

So I didn’t hate it, but I probably could have found a better book for a country like Pakistan. Quite possibly I would have enjoyed one of Shamsie’s other books more, for that matter. But there you go; win some lose some.

» How fast you want to go? is © Edge of Space and used under a CC by-nc licence.

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.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

The Anil of Anil’s Ghost is a forensic anthropologist; she was born in Sri Lanka but having left to study and work, she is now returning after 15 years away to investigate allegations of political murders. Ondaatje was eleven when he left Sri Lanka, so Anil’s insider/outsider status is presumably a reflection of his own experience. His decision to write this book is perhaps his equivalent of Anil’s need to return to Sri Lanka.

Ondaatje is really a very good writer. His books seem to have a dream-like quality, not so much because of what happens but the way that it is presented to us. Part of it is the way that the focus shifts around, not just between the main characters but an assortment of others who are only loosely connected to the central plot; and shifting backwards and forwards in time as well.

Also, if you were someone who just read books for the plot you might feel that it had its priorities oddly skewed: an ‘important’ event will go past rather rapidly, and then the book will dwell lovingly on a scene which has no particular narrative importance, but is atmospheric or striking or thematically apt.* It’s a kind of structuring which would seem very natural in a long poem but is a bit less common in novels.

As much as I liked the book, it was somewhat depressing. Perhaps a novel about ethnic conflict and political atrocities should be depressing, but still. Obviously I knew there was a long-running conflict in Sri Lanka, and of course it has been in the news recently as the war (or that phase of the war) drew to a bloody end; but I was blissfully ignorant of any of the details, and for me, Sri Lanka was largely associated with cricket. And it’s much more pleasant to associate a country with flamboyant opening batsmen than with heads on spikes. The book doesn’t actually wallow in the atrocities as much as it could do — they are evoked sparingly rather than described at length — but they are quite disturbing enough without that kind of pornographic attention to detail.

I had already counted a different book by Ondaatje — In the Skin of a Lion — as my book from Sri Lanka for the Read The World challenge, but that book is all set in Canada, so it seemed appropriate to read a book with a bit more Sri Lanka in it.

* I would hate to have to justify that sentence with close reference to the text, but thankfully I’m a blogger not a scholar.

» The picture, ‘Old Buddha, Sri Lanka‘ is © Rahul Barraez D’Lucca and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner was really the obvious choice from Afghanistan for the Read The World challenge, since my mother had a copy already. I have to admit I was sceptical about it; the very fact it became so popular at a time when Afghanistan was in the news made me wonder whether its success was based more on topicality than merit. Also the UK edition has a very wishy-washy cover with a sepia-tinged photograph of a small boy on it, and while covers are often misleading, they do at least tell you something about what the publishers think is the market for the book.

And so I rather expected The Kite Runner to be a bit like the book I read for Iran, also written by a refugee who has lived for many years away their home country: nostalgic and rather insubstantial. In fact, it is much darker than I was expecting.

It tells the story of the narrator Amir’s childhood in Kabul, particularly focussing on his relationship with his father and his friendship with the servant boy Hassan; then his life with his father as a refugee in California in the 80s after the Soviet invasion, and a trip back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to do a favour for someone. Some of the darkness comes from the brutality of the past 30 years of Afghan history, but Amir’s personal story is one of betrayal and guilt even in his childhood in the relatively peaceful pre-Soviet days.

Generally I thought it was successful: the childhood stuff is gripping and moving; the portrayal of the refugee experience, and the contrast with their life in Afghanistan, is very effective; and the vision of an absolutely shattered Afghanistan under the Taliban is also pretty good. I found the book to be a genuine page-turner; I was reading until 2am a couple of times. Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a literary masterpiece. But it is a well-written novel that tells a good story.

Hosseini isn’t afraid to pile on the emotive material, and most of the time he manages that without tipping over into corny or melodramatic, but towards the end of the book he did trigger my own personal cynic a couple of times. There’s a confrontation with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan where the coincidences got a bit too Hollywood for me, and I never quite got pulled back into the book again in the same way after that. I also think he fluffed the last few pages.

So having been thoroughly gripped by the book initially, I was a bit disappointed at the end; even so I would recommend it.

» the photo of boys flying a kite in Kabul is AFG_20071109_169.jpg, posted to Flickr by AndyHiggins.

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.

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