In the Twilight of British Raj…

Two books both set in Colonia India; both set in early 20th century, in era of World Wars and Mahatma, told in the back drop of Himalayas and both written by women in 2000s!!

The first book is my long overdue review of “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas. To begin with grammatically, the name is incorrect – like the French Perfume is called the French Perfume and not the France Perfume, it should be “The Kashmiri Shawl”. That in itself put me against the novel, since the very name displayed a very superficial understanding of the land and not a lot of in-depth research. Anyway I soldiered on and I cannot say the story was all bad. After the death of her father, Mair Ellis discovers a shawl belonging to her grandmother. Exquisite in the riot of bright colors and hand-woven embroidery, Mair realizes the shawl is completely out of sync with her missionary grandparents’ lives and characters and sets off to India to discover the story behind the shawl. It is 1941 and Neyrs Watkins is a newlywed bride when her husband is assigned a remote missionary posting in Ladak. In order to recover from a miscarriage, ill-health and address some of the issues that is creating a distance between herself and her husband, Nerys moves to Kashmir in the company of her friends Myrtle and Evan McMinn. In Kashmir, she discovers the true life of British Raj – Shikara’s of flowers, houseboats on Dal lake, the social events at the Regency and new friendships which would change her life and course of  Mair’s life as well. The description of Kashmir is beautiful and from the back cover I gleaned that the author has spent several months in Ladhak and Kashmir which would account for the some lovely word portraits of the land. The friendship between Neyrs Watkins and Myrtle McMinn is warm, humane and alive only in the way women who have close girlfriends would understand. Kashmir in British Raj comes alive with all its gaiety and social hierarchies and hypocrisies even at the height of World War II which is as genuine a description as it gets! But despite all these redeeming factors, the story is bordering of improbabilities and fantasy. There are Swiss citizens walking about Kashmir during World War II and that in itself is a questionable fact. While Switzerland was not officially at war, all citizens who did not belong to the Allied Nations were treated as Alien Citizens with limited movements, especially in the border regions, like Kashmir. Then there is a “magical” disappearance of an Indian child and her “adopted” mother and how she was brought up in Switzerland! I do not think there were too many Indian children growing up in 1940s in Switzerland. All lot of this seems like taking the tale too far and while there is something to be said about poetic license and liberty, it leaves the reader feeling slightly incongruent with the plot line. This especially becomes highlighted as there the very epitome of stereotypes – the evil Indian Prince – Yawn! Indian Princes are soooooo evil and the only good Indians are the menials and underlings! And of course, the very old and boring reason for being unfaithful – your husband swings the other way! I mean why? Why cannot we come up with a more plausible reason for an illicit affair between a British Memsahib and an Indian Prince? I mean she could have just fallen in love or does the author still lie in the morasses of colonial mindset where the Memsahib cannot sink “so low” unless there is a very good reason for it! Otherwise it’s all very “Chi! Chi!. All in all, not a bad yarn but not a good one either ….your literary endeavors will not be incomplete if you give this one a pass!

The second book with similar heritage is “Ragtime in Shimla” by Barbara Cleverly. Set in 1922 Shimla, the Summer Capital of British Raj, the book follows Commander Joe Sandilands who is heading to the hill station in the company of a famous Russian Opera Singer, when he is shot dead. Why would anyone kill a Russian Opera singer in a part of the world, where he had apparently no past acquaintances? Joe Sandilands begins to discover all is not what it seems and just as he seems to have unraveled  a knot, a new one appears! From Shimla to South of France, Joe finds surprising connection between a brutal train accident and the death of not only a famous opera singer, but also a lost heir and a political plot! Now for the review, British Shimla is live and throbbing through the pages of the book – there is the famous Christ Church, the Cecil Hotel and The Mall. There are Residency balls and fashionable shops and rickshaws!  And then there are the majestic Himalayan Mountains – borrowing heavily and acknowledging the sourcing of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the author describes the land beautifully with its conifers and pines and lovely houses, which, for all their beauty seemed a higgly piggly motley crew, much to the disgust of Lord Lytton, the architect of New Delhi. The tale in itself is a very good whodunit. Just when you figure out, oh! I knew that all along, a new twist comes along and you are thrown off the rock again. The characters though not really written as multilayered or with depth in some cases, are nevertheless believable – they are neither very good nor very bad, mixture of all that is humane – wanting success, wanting better lives, angry of past actions/injuries, believing in the joy of future.  Very real and very endearing, and even the morally wrong ones are fun. Thank fully there are no justifications for the whys of a fallen woman and no need to expatiate her past of make her sound like a victim, a la “The Kashmir Shawl” style – they are what they and no apologies. There is the clichéd Indian Prince Villain – charming, seductive and crooked! Yawn!! At least, there is not too much time spent on him. Like in the naming of “The Kashmir Shawl”, a minor flaw revels the lack of complete of understanding of the India on the author’s part – the Indian Prince is a Pathan and a Muslim; son of King of a princely state on the North West Frontier Border – the author calls the Prince’s father the “Rajah” which is Hindu epithet and not used by Pathan rulers of the North West Frontier Border – they rather used terms like Shah or Amir.  However the overall book is very good read, for the mystery alone, if not the era. Again your literary endeavors will not be enriched by this book, but some time one reads for fun and this book us great fun!

Advertisement

Let us read, let us dance…..

I want to ask to that part of the population that is passionate about books and reading and that too in an obsessive compulsive manner like me, who needs to read at least 3 books a week if not more, have you been asked this question – How can you read the same book twice? or “How can you waste your time reading the same book again? And the best question of them all “Do you not get bored reading the same thing again? Don’t you want to do something better in life?”

I need to find out if it is just me who is always snowed with such questions, or others have been in my shoes and felt similarly flummoxed. I usually get this question from mostly from those who not read, but what really really confuses me is when people who claim to be a readers ask me this! I need to understand this phenomenon.

A lover of books will always go back to certain writings again and again. For instance, when I have a bad day at work or have an argument or something nasty happens in way of things, I resort to what I call my “comfort” books – Jane Austin and Terry Pratchett. On the other hand, if I am in a leisurely mood, eating something delicious (yes! I read when I eat! Yes I am aware it’s a bad habit and my mother has yelled her lungs off about it…but I enjoy it so I am sticking to it!) or generally contented with life, then its Saki, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Conan Doyle, J K Rowling , Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, A S Byatt and Gorge Orwell. On a long vacation, I tackle, Leo Tolstoy, John Galsworthy, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Joesph Conrad, Thorton Wilder etc etc. The list is endless but this is not about the list. It’s about the fact that there are books we all (I am referring to the reading population) go back to time after time, because we have developed a special bond with them. The characters of these books are our friends, confidants and comrades who sooth us and entertain us. The locales give us a get away from all that is mundane and trite and allow us a break from our humdrum existence, revitalizing us for our foray back to the real world. These books are our partners in our life journey……that’s why they are classics. They are timeless; we can go back to them whenever we feel like. I do not know how many of you feel a sheer, reasonless joy when you pick up one of your favourite comfort books from the your shelves and run your hands over its much thumbed pages…I love this feeling, especially, when I have not read the book for a while. I love the anticipation of trying to reach a particular chapter that I especially enjoy, from a novel I have read so many times. Like when I re-read Pride and Prejudice, I actually wait to reach the part where Elizabeth Bennett along with Mr and Mrs Gardiner set off on a tour of Derbyshire. Or even the part when Wickham and Lydia return to the Bennett household after their elopement. I read through the entire book, just in anticipation that I am still to read my favourite parts!

There are books which I will never ever get back too. I am not going to name them, but there many so-not-worth it books out there in the market today; many of them make me feel at the end….er…why did I read this again? But that does not take away the fact that these cases are far and few in comparison with all the brilliant writing out there which can be read again and again! In the words of Oscar Wilde If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.

I am convinced that those people who ask me this question, and trust me I have been asked this question many times, see reading as a task. Naturally a task that needs to be completed cannot be a joy (in most cases) and more importantly, cannot be repeated. I am completely tolerant if you are not a reader…lot of people are not; many people do not and I am sure they have many other ways keeping themselves amused! But I do draw a line if you ask inane questions about it. I mean do I ever ask you “Hey Dude! You are Go carting/adventure sporting/head banging again?”  So please, you stay at your side of turf and let me stay on mine and we will have world peace!