February End Notes…..

Its the end of the second month of the New Year and if we are standing on the brink of third month, can it be really be called a new year anymore? Does the newness of time wear off after some time? But is not the start of day, a new day and maybe in terms of time, we never really lose the newness? I would like to think so; there seems to be such possibilities is this kind of belief!

And speaking of possibilities, February was a great month in expanding and exploring new material for reading, very different from January! There were several interesting and thought provoking reads this month, along with a few, what-the-hell-was-the-author thinking bookish mishaps! This is how February reading month finally looked like –

I am glad to have had some some variety in my books this past month, with a few non fiction, one play and an Indian author reads. I really enjoyed Valmiki’s Women and Anna and her Daughters as well as re-reading The Thursday Murder Club. I have a LOT to think about after reading Humankind by Rutger Bergman and will try and post about it soon! March looks to be similarly fulfilling, I have another #ReadIndies 2022 book finishing up for Karen & Lizzy’s event ( so relieved they extended the deadline till March 15th ). I have also finally gotten hold off Amor Towles’s latest book ( not latest anymore, but you know what I mean ) and Lincoln Highway seems to hold on to all the promises of a Amor Towles’s book; history, deep insightful emotions wrapped in a great story! I am also reading an extremely interesting revisionist history, called The Dawn of Everything by Dr. David Graeber and David Wengrow. And I need to also complete my long overdue Classic Club Dare 2.0 reading, The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens!

February has also been kind of sick month ( Yes! Chemo side effects is still rocking & rolling ) but I still managed to have fun and do the things I needed or wannted to do.

February marks the end of winter and the start of spring in our part of the world and naturally, this is a cause for celebration! The festival is called Basant Panchami , Basant meaning Spring, Panchami refers to the 5th day in the lunar fortnight of the Hindu calendar. The day also marks the occasion of Saraswati Pujo; Goddess Saraswati is the patron God of knowledge, wisdom, literature and art. Naturally, she is one of my most favorite among the pantheon of Hindu Gods ( Yes, we have several choices here, God of Power, God Destruction, God of Wealth, God of Success; you name it, we have it! ) and we celebrate this festival every year! Some pictures of the “Pujo” , the worship ceremony and the special food that is cooked on the occasion – Kichudi, it is mixture of Rice and legumes, cooked with spices and clarified butter, some tomato chutney ( Sweet) , a side preparation of a unique vegetable dish made of 5 winter vegetables without onion or garlic and finally, the pièce de résistance  – Hilsa fried fish. The East Indian culture in India, offers fish for all auspicious occasion and Hilsa is consider the queen of the fresh water fish in the Indian Subcontinent, available only for a few months in the year and tasting like heaven! It is offered at this festival and will not be eaten again until the monsoon season sets in!

This year 7th February marked what would have been the 49th marriage anniversary of my parents and their 58 years of being together. They met through my Aunt ( my father’s sister ) who was my mum’s friend. They were complete opposites in everything they did or liked from books to food to travels. They loved music, Hindustani Classical to Jazz ( only people I know who went to all the hip Jazz clubs that were swinging in Kolkata in 70s) and hosting dinner for friends and impulsive travels. They weathered storms and patched up their differences and had their moments. Even death could not keep them apart too long; Baba followed Ma just 5 years after she passed away! The first photo was taken in Sikkim, then an independent Kingdom in 1973, a few months after their wedding. The second was taken in 1993, when we were on a family vacation to the Himalayas.

Food was always, a major love of my parent’s life and though they liked diametrically opposite cuisines, eating was always an occasion to be enjoyed. We celebrated their anniversary with Chicken Kati Rolls. Wikipedia describes this food the best; it says, Kati Rolls s a street-food dish originating from Kolkata, West Bengal. In its original form, it is a skewer roasted kebab wrapped in a paratha bread.

My phone has been given me trouble lately ( like a year!) but I loath to change gadgets, so I have been dragging the poor thing along for a while. I could not hear anything, the apps took forever to open and the display screen gave away and yet I continued using it. Finally it decided commit hara kiri and simply not work and I had to get a new phone. Mandate in the family, that we take one selfie, every time, my sister or I get a new phone and this one marked the start of this gadget journey!

My sister and I have been doing Sunday movie nights religiously these past few months and one of the best films I have seen lately was Harishchandra’s Factory. The film tells the story of the founding father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke and traces the life of his and his wife’s lives during the time they tried to put together, the very first film of India. Beautifully shot, using both voice and non voice narrative, to move the story forward, capturing the life and times of India in that era authentically. The nature of the subject could have made the story telling into a depressing pedagogic film, instead it shimmers with joy and humor and is a treat for the soul!

February despite several hiccups, turned out quite all right, and it is one more month down in the goal calendar! I am super excited about March as its my sister’s birthday and we will have family visiting! But for now leaving you all with one of my most favorite poems for February by Hilaire Belloc –

The winter moon has such a quiet car
That all the winter nights are dumb with rest.
She drives the gradual dark with drooping crest,
And dreams go wandering from her drowsy star.
Because the nights are silent, do not wake:
But there shall tremble through the general earth,
And over you, a quickening and a birth.
The sun is near the hill-tops for your sake.

The latest born of all the days shall creep
To kiss the tender eyelids of the year;
And you shall wake, grown young with perfect sleep,
And smile at the new world, and make it dear
With living murmurs more than dreams are deep.
Silence is dead, my Dawn; the morning’s here.

An Old Lake…..

In celebration of having finished Chemotherapy, I decided to throw caution to the wind and do some impromptu traveling. I just returned for one such trip and I have another one planned next week; the trip planned next week is to the home of my heart – Himalayas and about which I think I have bored one and all enough, but for today the agenda is to talk about this small town in the north west of India, near the great Thar Desert called Pushkar and share a bit about it!

Pushkar located in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is an old, old town, older than the memory of mankind. Legend has it that it was created when Lord Brahma’s ( one of the many Gods of the Hindu pantheon and one of the top 3 in the hierarchy ) lotus slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground, creating the Pushkar Lake. This lake has been mentioned in the epics like Mahabharat and the depiction of this lake has been found in coins dating back 400 BC ( which compared to the whole breadth of Indian history is like day before yesterday but still!) Needless to say this is an ancient town with many myths and legends. In the days of yore this town was famous for its annual festival called the Pushkar mela or Pushkar fair, where the highlighted event was camel trading but various other crafts and entertainments were also at display. The fair fortunately continues till today though in reduced capacity as these ancient tribes, take on more “modern professions” and leave their traditional nomadic lives behind.

We spent three very happy days exploring the city, it’s culture and it’s food. The township is really small compared to the other places in India. Nestled in the valley of the granite mountains of Aravalli range, the best way to explore this place is on foot. Dotted around the lake are several temples of greater or lesser importance. The most heartening sight is to see a temple, situated adjacent to a mosque and facing a Gurudwara ( place of worship for the Sikh religion ); people forget that everyday people just want to live their lives peacefully and quietly and this is the essence of mankind and my country specifically. We took a wrong route to the lake ( thank you Google ) but that led us to a more secluded part of the lake with a grand vista and none of the craziness of people and business, that are a feature in other banks of the lake. We spent some hours on this quiet spot and then began a leisurely and glorious walk through the lesser known temples, admiring the architecture as we made our way to the commercial part of the town. The Bazaar is filled with some gorgeous handicrafts of metal and leather, the latter being a specialty of this town. The most spectacular feature of this is place is as you keep walking, among modern building and commercial outfits, there is a wide door, and as you peek inside, a magnificent, awe inspiring temple structure greets, you, totally unexpected and completely taking your breathe away! Another memorable item of this trip was the food; we were fortunate enough to have a found an amazing hotel with a wonderful warm staff and a brilliant chef ( Must stay a Hotel Brahma Horizon if here! ) and while all our meals were remarkably delicious, one particular lunch where we had the traditional food of this region was wow! The Rajasthani Thali ( literally meaning plate) that was served to us had 7-8 dishes, displaying the best that this place had to offer! Rajasthan is an arid zone unlike the rest of the more fertile areas of the country and agriculture products are mainly millets and legumes; yet out of these sparse resources, the people of this region have been able to develop a delicious, nutritious and a varied cuisine which we got to sample as part of this thali. We ate Dal Batti ( wheat dumplings with legume curry ) soaked in Ghee ( clarified butter) with Churma (made of flour, sugar and dry fruits ) , Bajra roti ( pearl millet flatbread ) , gatta curry ( steamed dumplings made from chickpea cooked in a spiced yoghurt sauce), Mangodi curry ( deep friend moong bean dumpling curry made with ginger, asafetida and other spices) , panchmel subzi ( mixed vegetable curry ) were some of the items in this meal. One of the best I have ever eaten!

Needless to say, this was an amazing way to close out my chemo affair! I absolutely loved this city and I leave you with some pictures of my adventures.

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

The Archbishop of New Mexico

Yet another late post; a book that should have been read & reviewed in April, finally trundles into mid May and I go with the philosophy, that truly, some things are better late than never! As part of The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, an event hosted by Adam, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, was my TBR book for April, and though I managed to finish the novel within the month, but just never got to posting a book review!

Death Comes

Death Comes for the Archbishop chronicles the life and works of Archbishop Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his Vicar, Joseph Vaillant , as they attempt to establish a Catholic Diocese, in the newly captured New Mexico territory of United States. The novel begins with the Bishop and the Priest travelling from Ohio though difficult terrain to establish their Diocese in New Mexico. After some initial setbacks, including a trip that took a year and on arriving, realizing that the local Mexican Clergy, refuse to recognize the authority of Jean Marie Latour, the two worthy settle down to tame the wild elements of the Church which so far had been in lackadaisical fashion managed by the Mexican priests, and bring true piety and relief to the inhabitants, whether European or American or Indians. Over the years, they develop friendships with the local Indian leaders as well the American Businessman and Mexican Ranchers; they rescue an abused woman from the tyranny of a violent husband and convince yet another, to give up on her pride and declare her true age, so that she does not lose her wealth. They try and overcome the acrimony that exists between the local Mexican Priests and the new wave of leaders that Vatican was sending forth and enable the building of  a Romanesque Church. Finally they both end their days, in this land, Father Valliant pre-deceasing Father Latur, as the Bishop of Colorado. Father Latur now retired chooses to stay in New Mexico instead of returning to his homeland in France, dying in the company and service of the people with whom he worked and whose devotion to him till the end was unstinting and complete.

Ms. Cather remains as usual her brilliant self. The dry, difficult land of New Mexico, with its parallel institutions of the Indians, Mexicans and Americans cultures and politics comes alive in this slim novel. In sparse, but succinct prose, Ms. Cather manages to convey, not just the atmosphere, but also the depth of the characters and their past history, all the while, moving the plot along, in such magnificent manner, that leaves you in awe both as a reader and a writer. The lives of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Wikipedia, advises is based on the life and times of Jean-Baptiste Lamy & Joseph Projectus Machebeuf respectively and I am not sufficiently well read to comment on how true to life the portrayals are; however in the characters of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Ms. Cather, created the epitome of spiritual leaders, who like all humans were beset with doubts and weaknesses, but still lead their people, providing comfort, support and spiritual guidance as and when needed, with minimum interference and with a lot of respect for different cultures and practices. The ensemble cast is equally good, providing much needed “materialistic” and “earthy” props to the religious/spiritual narrative of the main protagonists. The thing that really stands about Ms. Cather’s writings is her sense of humanity; writing in 1927, she made it clear in her quiet writing style that the government’s practices against the Navajos, who were exiled to the Bosque Redondo, killing many of its population was unacceptable and defined the very principles of humanity! To end, I can only say, this is a beautiful, lyrical book, that seems to sings songs of the land and lives of the New Mexico Deserts!

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!

SD

Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along

Hello! Hello! Its been some time since I last posted, but as many of you already know I was traveling all over the western coast of the country and once I came back, which was only Monday, it took some time to settle in to the everyday! Anyhow I am back and I now share my long overdue post on the one of my most favorite books of all time, The Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye!

A year back I remember reading this novel as I always do as a ritual in the month of May and having a discussion with Cleo, hard-selling the book to her as a must read! A year later, May was again round the corner, I popped in to check with her if she was still interested in a Read Along and Cleo, being the awesome enthusiast she is, agreed, with the only stipulation that we begin in June as she had way too much to do in the month of May. Very soon the word got around and Helen and Yvonne also joined in the for the Read Along and we were all set to go back in time to 1857 India.

The novel is set in the events leading upto the Indian Revolt of 1857 against the British. Winter de Ballesteros, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman Marcos de Ballesteros and Sabrina, the granddaughter of Earl of Ware, is born in the house of her aunt, Juanita, the sister of Marcos who had married a Indian nobleman, the son one of the oldest friends of her father, who had settled in Oudh, the North Eastern royal state of India, as an adviser to the Nawab or the ruler of the state. Sabrina on a visit to India with her aunt and uncle had fallen in love with the dashing Marcos and married him against the wish of her doting grandfather. Sabrina however dies post giving birth to her daughter, named Winter after the winter season in her beloved Ware, and a grieving Marcos, after handing over the affairs to his sister and Winter’s uncle sets off for the ill fated Afghan campaign and is one of the many casualties. Juanita grieving for her dead brother sets about sending letters to the now very old Earl of Ware who was appointed guardian to little Winter by both her parents.  The death of his beloved granddaughter had softened the Earl and he sends for his little great granddaughter from India, but letters across oceans take time and Winter spends her formative years in India, in Gulab Mahal, Juanita’s house and only reaches the shores of England as a child of 7. Homesick and lonely, she pines for the home she ever knew, and the unkind treatment she receives from everybody except her Grandfather retreat more and more into the world she thought she truly belongs to. When she is 11, she meets Conway Barton, a distant relation who is one is way to India to take up a position in the Commissioner of Lunjore.  Conway Barton, is a unprincipled man who seeks to make his fortune in any way possible. Realizing that Winter was an heiress, he sets about trying to be pleasant to her, speaking of India, a country he detests, in the most colorful way. He approaches the now very old Earl seeking a betrothal with Winter, followed by marriage when she is older. The Earl worried about having no one to care for Winter after him and impressed by the display of affection showed by Barton, consents to the engagement. Conway Barton thus leaves for India secure in his knowledge of early wealth and Winter passes her years hoping the years would fly until she could be married to the kind man who would take her back to her true home. The years did pass, but Conway now fat, debauched drunkard feels unable to face his fiance and her august relations, for the fear that they may break of the engagement after looking at him, instead sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, to fetch Winter to India, so that he could coerce her into marrying him, in the absence of her friends and relations. Captain Alex Randall, a man of immense talent and integrity has very little respect for the commissioner whom he considers a fool and is irritated to be saddled with the task during his furlong. He arrives at Ware to realize that the Earl is dead and Winter’s relatives do not care for the kind of man she is marrying as long as she is out of their way. Winter herself seemed to have a glorified image of Conway Barton and refuses to listen to any description of the kind of man he truly is , that Ale wants to convey. They set off for India and thus start of a chain of events, unexpected by both, especially as the cloud of rebellion gathers on the horizon of the Indian plains, long held together by John Company.

What can I say about this wonderful book that I have not said before? Being biased, I always found the plot to be tight, with deep insights into Indian culture and traditions which is woven well with the suspenseful unfolding of the drama of the rebellion. The history is constantly and subtly interlaced with the story to give the reader an understanding of the events that led to the rebellion. The characters drawn by Kaye are very life like and real. Again being biased and having been  in love with Captain Alex Randall, since I was introduced to him at the age of 15 and all these almost 14 years, he remains to be one of the most enduring fictional heroes of all times. I love the complexity of his character, his ability to look at both sides of the arguments as well the way he was torn by what was his duty and what was his abiding love. His character showed off the very best of British India administrators, men who loved the country wholly with all her faults and worked hard to improve the condition of her people. I used to like Winter a lot more at the age of 15 than at 34, and now see her a little obsessed -India,  Conway , Alex; but she is still an insightful and gracious character and is a good predecessor to Anjuli Bai, the heroine of Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. As always, I love the supporting cast of Kaye’s books, for the complete and utter devotion of Niaz to the torn loyalties of Ameera, the daughter of Juanita, cousin to Winter and daughter of two worlds, to the fast living Lou Cotter who lives through harshest of conditions and fights off bravely, for the love of a child, not her own, by birth, but by heart! But the greatest of all characters is the character of India. MM Kaye, born and brought up in this land, brings all her knowledge understanding and love for the land into her book and India comes live in the pages as we are taken through the crowded and colorful bazaars of Lunjore, the never ending plains and jungles of North India and the glamorous balls of Calcutta,the imperial capital of British India. The country comes alive from the pages of the book and dances in all her majesty for the reader to soak in a time long gone by!

Needless to say, I LOVE this book! Several re-reading and much abused paperback has not diminished by joy of once again revisiting the people and times of Lunjore in 1857. However, the Read Along introduced me to a whole new appreciation of the book as I tried to provide some insight into the actual history of the country for my reading buddies to find references and better understanding of things, which I, an Indian, take for granted. I had some wonderful discussions along the way, which opened me to prospective I was not aware off and if possible, made the experience of reading this book even richer.  A big hearty thank you to Cleo, Helen and Yvonne for not only coming with me on a leap of faith for a ride down uncertain premises but also for bearing through not one but two of boring history lessons and the joining in for a fantastic and brilliant discussion. You read there review, here and here!

The Shadow of Moon Read Along – A Brief History of the “Company Raj”

The Indian History as I had mentioned in my The Home and the World Read Along Historical Overview is vast and it’s simply not possible to summarize all that has happened over 5000 years in 5 paragraphs.  However since I always chose to host books with historical significance, it behooves me to ensure that my friends who come along for the ride, get a better understanding of the complex dynamics at play, to better understand the nuances of the novel that we are reading! Hence I present to you, a snapshot of India in 1857.

To get a more detailed understanding of what happened to India before the British came, I would refer you to the post highlighted above from last year! If you are interested in more details, please reach out to me and I will be happy to share more information.  Now, to 18th century India.

The British company, The East India Company, got its charter or “firman” to trade in India,  after several rejections at the court of the Mughal Emperors, when a fluke chance enabled the East India Company Doctor to cure the then Emperor Jahangir’s son from a long suffering illness. As a mark of gratitude, Emperor Jahangir, granted the company the right to start a factory in Surat, in the Western coastland of India. This was the beginning of British presence in the country! The company soon acquired more rights and established factories in Madras (modern day Chennai) and Bombay, which was a Portuguese colony and was gifted to England as part of dowry for Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II and finally, Calcutta on the eastern banks of Ganga in Eastern India. At this, point, several companies, including the Dutch, French and Portuguese were all competition with the English to gain supremacy over trading rights in India and the British began to realize that they would have to quickly up their game to survive the trading rights.

Enter Robert Clive, an 18 year old clerk who had a vision which saw England triumph over all her peers. In 1757, through guile and much bribery, he defeated Nawab of Bengal, Sirj-ud-Dula in the infamous Battle of Plassey. Sirj-ud-Dula was an independent minded ruler who was unhappy with the East India Companies free for all trading rules and wanted to Company to pay taxes for its presence in Calcutta, Bengal. Using this as an opportunity to turn a financial enterprise into a military campaign to gain complete land control of East India, Clive bribed some of the Nawab’s closest aids to turn traitor and became the Governor of Bengal, giving Britain an absolute control, economic and political over one of the most economically rich areas of India. He soon followed it up with Battle of Buxar (1864), forcing the then Mughal Emperor to appoint East India Company as Diwan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A Diwan is a powerful position; the official revenue collector of the Mughal Court and by this means became the de facto rulers over the populous and rich areas of Easter Gangetic Plains. The Regulating Act further asserted the power of the company by making it the official representative of the British Crown in India. The act also set foundation of making Calcutta the capital of British India by asserting the supremacy  of the Presidency of Fort William in Calcutta (Bengal) over those of Fort St. George (Madras) and Bombay and made the then Governor-General (Warren Hastings)of Bengal, the Governor  General of all Company lands in India.

Over the next 70 odd years, the East India Company would use guile, wars, pretended mis-rule of the local ruler or blatant disregard of Indian customs to annex practically whole of India. The Anglo Mysore and Anglo Maratha Wars saw subjugation of Western and Southern India. Post this came, the outright and blatant annexation of centuries old kingdoms of Rohilakhand, Assam and eventually Punjab. The company also entered into alliances with other Princely states, under which the Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy; however this treaty was often negated and terms violated per the convenience of the British Company, as was the case in Jhansi and Satara.

The Company rule was a mixed bag, which tilted more towards negative than positive! The revenue system which had been in disarray because of the broken leadership across India for about a 100 years was systematized and put in order under the Permanent Settlement Act. It introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with Zamindars, the landed Gentry, who were placed in charge of the lands and had the right to extract taxes from the peasants and after keeping a share of it for themselves, turn the remaining over to the Company. If the Zamindars failed to pay the revenue on time, the Zamaindari right would be taken from them and because it was called permanent, as in the right of the land would exist with the Zamindar and his family for perpetuity, the taxes were fixed at a much higher rate, burdening the Zamindar and most importantly the poor landless peasant who had to starve to pay the gentry those taxes.  The modernization of the Indian Army also began under Warren Hastings, and began recruiting across Northern and Eastern India; most of these recruits were from the Hindu High Caste as well Muslims, and the Army adapted itself to ensure that the Hindu and Muslim practices and customs were not violated during their service! Soon the Sepoys, as in the Indian solider outnumbered the British officers by 10 to 1, the idea being one British solider could take on 10 Indian Sepoys. The Civil service was also reorganized on modern lines and various departments were created to manage affairs of customs, taxes, justice and general civic administration. It was under this new administration, that India was introduced to the modern marvels of Telegraph, Railways and most importantly education. Soon after taking over the administration of India, the British realized that they needed a body of clerks who albeit being Indians, would be educated in the English education system to support the growing multitudes of requirements of the Company Raj. This saw the founding of English style schools and then the universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).This was a significant move as it suddenly opened Indians to a world of Western education and Science and the works of Locke and Bentham as well as re-discovering their own Vedic philosophy that began to resonate with the middle class Indians. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance leading to abolition of such medieval practices like Sati (burning of widows on the pyre of the dead husband) and child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows.

While all this good was happening, there were other effects of this colonization. India was ravaged with famine after famines, with no support coming from the company to alleviate the conditions of the masses. If there were no famines, the heavy land-revenue assessment in some areas by the British resulted in many landowning families either losing their land or going into great debt to money lenders. Furthermore, fertile lands which were earlier used to grow crops to feed the families were forced to cultivate Indigo, which kills the soil and makes it unsuitable for growth of any food crop. Thousands and thousands of peasants were forced to abandon their farms where they had existed for generations and search for living in the big cities, barely eking out an existence. The indigenous industries were slowly being destroyed through competition from the Manchester Mills. For instance raw cotton was no longer plucked and woven in the guilds of Indian fabric merchant, but sent to Manchester to made into cloth, which was the sold at cheap rates back to Indians, who already on pecuniary existence , could no longer afford to buy the relatively more expensive indigenous guild products. With the coming of the English Memsahibs, the close bonding that existed between the English and Indians disappeared.  The improvement in ship enabled travels, led to many English women to traveling to India. They brought with them their English social mores and suddenly the ‘darkies’  were not fit companions anymore and were only good to be subjugated to a servant class. English men, who had married high born Indian women, suddenly became socially outcasts as were their children. Marrying an Indian was a taboo that not even the strictest Brahmin standards could compete with. Added to this was the missionary efforts of the various sections of the Churches – suddenly the Hindus and Muslims were being told that they were heathens and unless they convert, their afterlife would be spent in the fires of hell! Then came aggrandizing policies of Governor Generals who followed Warren Hastings; with an exception of William Bentinck, none understood India nor its people or its culture. The worst was Lord Dalhousie, who enacted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse that would directly contribute to the 1857 rebellion. Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family. In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. Under this law, the much loved and respected monarchs of Oudh and Jhansi among others were deprived of their kingdoms. Finally came the grievances of the Army, the long pampered and loyal arm of the Company Raj! First, the Army was asked to cross the seas to fight wars for the British Empire; for the Hindus, the crossing of the sea was a grave religious sin that cannot be rescinded in any way or form. There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. Further more, the European officers were given precedence making promotion slow for the Indians who either never reached a commissioned rank or were too old to be effective. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, Sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. The stage was thus beautifully set by the British  for the 1857 rebellion and the spark was ignited by a solider called Mangal Pandey, who refused to bite the bullet and was hanged infront of his peers under the judgement of the Army Court. The Rebellion had begun!

It was in this backdrop that the narrative of Shadow of the Moon evolves. Next week, I will share a high level road map of how the Mutiny happened, the lands that were impacted and its closure.  As always, while I have not cited any specific source, but all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

Cleo, Helen and Yvonne thank you for not only joining the Read Along but also reading through this 1700 word essay. As Cleo, knows, I do go overboard when it comes to History! But now that Cleo has the book, I think, we can officially commence the Read Along!!!

An Act

I was planning to share my July reading plans but decided to share this instead…

It was a wonderful balmy monsoon laden evening in this city of South Asia; the capital city of this delta ridden region, the most prosperous city of this debt ridden country. It was Friday and Faraaz looked into his mother’s room before leaving to meet his friends! “Ami, I am going! I will be back in couple of hours!” Faraaz’s mother, an extremely attractive and elegant 48 year old lady turned and smiled and said “Be home on time. You know we leave early tomorrow to meet your aunt and her family. They never see you unless you come home from your University!” Faraaz smiled and nodded and ran out to the driveway, where his car was parked – a gift from his father on graduating with honors and then getting through to Business school at _____ University, Georgia US. In 10 mins, he had reached the cafe, the ‘in place’ of the city, “the place” for some delectable croissants, crème brûlée tart and coffee. He got a corner seat and waited for his friends to join him. One was his classmate from the University and she was bringing another friend, who was planning to go to the same B-School and wanted advise on the how tos. It was already 7:30 in the evening and the Cafe was filling up real quick. Faraaz hoped his friends would come soon before someone came to borrow the empty chairs at his table, as the weekend crowd of various age, nationality and background started filling in. Just has he had been served coffee; Abinta came in with a younger girl. She spotted Faraaz and headed for his table. “Sorry we are late. My fault really…I wanted to pick some muslin for Ma back in US and I just lost track of time. Poor Tarushi was waiting outside her house for more me for an hour. But you know me and fabric” said Abinta rolling her eyes. Faraaz laughed and said ‘Oh! Yes! Why do you think I gallantly declined accompanying you to the bazaar? God! You are crazy!”  Turning to the girl who was called Tarushi, he said “Hi …I am Faraaz and you must be the one dying to get through to B-School.” Tarushi smiled and replied “Dying is the word! I am the only girl in the family to make it to a college in US and now B-School is the next thing on the agenda. After all I am a Jain, you know the business community of India and commerce is in my blood, so B-School for sure and Abinta tells me you are the guy to tell me all the ref. needed and the SOPs and the code to cracking it all.” Faraaz laughed and decried any especial genius but offered to help in any way he could and was about start questioning Tarushi on her grades and plans when Abinta interrupted them saying that they could first order as she was starving and then launch themselves into the geek world. It was while deciding on what to order, they heard a hustle and crash and were suddenly surrounded by deafening voices of “Allah ho Akbar!” Thinking this as some kind of joke, the three young people turned around to see themselves and the other cafe patrons surrounded by atleast a half dozen men carrying arms. Cold fear ran through them, as they realized that this was not a joke but a reality. One of the armed men started talking and it was some time before all 3 grasped what was being said – they had been taken hostage and the purpose of this armed group was to demand release of their leader who had been arrested by the government and the establishment of true religion. One by one, they started going round the room and deciding and declaring who should stay and who should leave, who could recite the holy book and who could not. They came to Faraaz and asked for identification for all three, which they handed over. After looking at their papers, one of the armed men, turned to Faraaz and said, “You can go. You are our countryman and a man of the religion.”  Faraaz turned to the two girls and then back at the armed man and asked “Will my friends go as well?” The armed man looked at the two girls and said “No! They are unbelievers and not of the country. They will stay“. Faraaz then looked into the man’s eye and said “Then I will stay!

Through the night the army and police force played a hide and seek of bullets and negotiations with the armed men. Finally after more than 16 hours of intense conflict, the army was able to break in – 13 hostages were rescued, one of the militant was captured alive and 28 people killed ; 6 militants, 2 police officers and 20 civilians were the price of this religious fanaticism. Among the twenty killed were Faraaz Ayaaz Hossai, Bangladeshi and a Muslim, Abinta Kabir, an Indian origin – American and Tarushi Jain and Indian Hindu-Jain.

This is a not a piece of fiction, though I have wondered about Faraaz had said before he left for the cafe and what plans the three were making that fatal evening of July 1 at Holey Artisan Bakery, Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Faraaz, in your brave act in refusing to abandon your friends, you defeated those bigoted morons and showed what religion truly is!

#Dhaka

For more information –

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/world/asia/bangladesh-hostage-standoff.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/dhaka-bangladesh-restaurant-attack-hostages