Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934).
Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934). (Purchased in Cambodia).

When I was about nine or ten years old my family bought its first video player, my parents got it for Christmas. But the only video we had to watch that Christmas was a cartoon version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm–my dad being an English teacher, he had brought it home from school. I’m the oldest child in my family, so my brother was about eight, and my sister would’ve been about five. Animal Farm is NOT a story for young children, not even in cartoon form, and I know we all have frightened memories of that Christmas, of the horse being taken to the glue factory! A few years later, Orwell’s 1984 is the first adult book I can remember reading, aged 13. I had been reading Sweet Valley High until then, much to the annoyance of my father (see how they turn out?)! I’m not sure I entirely understood the novel, but I had been told the storyline by my mum, so understood the concept, if not the execution. But despite Orwell filling in a couple of these firsts, I hadn’t read anything else of his until I picked up this copy of Burmese Days in Phnom Penh.

The novel is based in a small-town British jungle outpost in Burma in the 1930s. The  main protagonist is John Flory, a close-to-middle-aged single man who doesn’t fit in with the other imperial bureaucrats and military-men in town, but can’t quite bring himself to defy them in the ways he would like to:

“In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to the right of you, Pink’un to the left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own country-men, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied or exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.” (p. 69)

Burmese Days critiques the arrogance and debauchery of the waning years of empire, and also serves as a good period piece, reminding us how British women were treated as chattel, ‘natives’ as little more than animals, and dissent within the ranks was not tolerated. I was also surprised by how entwined in ‘India’ Burma was back then: I knew it had been administratively treated as part of British India, but it was interesting to note the intermingling of the Burmese and Urdu languages in the life and administration of British Burma.

Burmese Days is an enjoyable and readable book, but there are good reasons why this, his first novel, doesn’t have the iconic status of Animal Farm or 1984. Like these novels it, too, is prescient and biting, but Burmese Days’ twilight-of-the-empire critique is overshadowed by its near-contemporary, A Passage to India. The plot and sense of place evoked in E. M. Forster’s classic is just more memorable. Nevertheless, Burmese Days is an intelligent book, and perhaps unfairly out-of-fashion these days. There are still discernible truths within it, appearing in private discussion in neo-post-colonial ex-pat culture in the ‘third world’, if not the official line any more: “He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the natives.” (p. 118) Recognisable sentiments like this help the contemporary culturally-western reader resist the temptation to look back on the times narrated in the novel and think ‘how far we’ve come’.

Asymptote’s take on the Wendy Doniger case

Most of what I’ve been reading on Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History is fairly similar: outraged and persuasive. I even wrote such a piece myself. But Eric Gurevitch’s analysis on the Asymptote blog is something a bit different, putting the controversy in a much more focused literary context. Worth reading here.

My commentary on the Doniger “The Hindus” case


My commentary in Himal Southasian on the disgusting case, in which Penguin India succumbed to the irrational, fundamentalist petition against the American scholar’s book:

“The recent case of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) being withdrawn by Penguin India and committed to pulping is another example of India’s succumbing to regressive politics. An out-of-court settlement was reached between Penguin and the complainants, a right-wing Hindu group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (the Save Education Movement), while the Saket court in Delhi was considering the complaint that had originally been filed in February 2010.”

Read the rest here.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2012. (Purchased in India).

It was Ramachandra Guha’s endorsement on the front of the Indian version of this book that drew my attention to it: “The best book about contemporary India, the best work of non-fiction that I have read in the past twenty-five years.” I don’t tend to take these author recommendations too seriously, as who knows what behind-the-scenes machinations go on to get endorsements from prominent writers (some truly good writers have endorsed books by Kamila Shamsie, an author who I have vowed never to read again). But this one got me interested because on the surface it didn’t appear that Katherine Boo was doing anything new in writing a book about the slums of Bombay. Such literature and reportage has almost become an industry in itself, especially post-Slumdog Millionaire, and details of plot and character, you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. So how could such a hackneyed topic have caught Guha’s attention?

Boo’s extraordinary writing. This is a work of non-fiction, but it doesn’t read like it. The author enters the heads of the characters, understands their motivations and speaks their words. This could all read as creative license, and indeed I thought it was, until I read the astonishing author’s note at the back of the book: Boo did extensive fieldwork in Annawadi, the slum that is the setting for the book, recording hundreds of hours of interviews, visiting and revisiting her subjects in order to clarify details, employing a translator, gaining access to court records. The kind of research that only very dedicated and inspired writers can pull off (and that should put those like Ned Beauman to shame, who recently, at the NCell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, admitted that he loved the internet as a writer’s resource because writers like himself, “who couldn’t be bothered”, didn’t have to actually go to the places they were writing about.)

Boo follows the lives of several families in a small section of Annawadi, a slum situated next to Mumbai airport, over the course of a couple of years. I give nothing away in saying that the pivotal event (that happens early on) is the burning-to-death of a Muslim convert woman, over a neighbourhood dispute, and the ruination of a neighbouring family in being implicated in it. Even before I understood how much research had gone into this book, I inherently believed Boo’s portrayal of surroundings as accurate:

“And here at Cooper [government hospital], where fluorescent lights buzzed like horseflies, she continued to feel like a person who counted. Though the small burn ward stank of fetid gauze, it was a fine place compared to the general wards, where many patients lay on the floor. She was sharing a room with only one other woman, whose husband swore he hadn’t lit the fateful match. She had her first foam mattress, now sopping with urine. She had a plastic tube in her nostrils, attached to nothing. She had an IV bag with a used syringe sticking out of it, since the nurse said it was a waste to use a fresh syringe every time. She had a rusty metal contraption over her torso, to keep the stained sheet from sticking to her skin. But of all the new experiences Fatima was having in the burn ward, the most unexpected was the stream of respectable female visitors from Annawadi.” (pp. 99-100)

The sequence of events that follows Fatima’s death illustrates the fragility of the ability to make one’s living in the slums; the corruption and degradation that is an everyday fact of life; the ability of the desperate to keep on living when they have to. Despite ‘hope’ featuring in the title, I didn’t feel that there was very much of it here, unless it can be considered hopeful that life continues, no matter what.

Boo’s writing is what makes this book so brilliant. She has a novelist’s ability to follow characters and plot, and a poet’s sense of language. For instance: “He often presided over his lavender-walled, lavender-furnished living room in an undershirt, legs barely covered by his lungi, while his petitioners flopsweated in polyester suits.” (p. 21) I have often been dumfounded by Indian lads in their top-to-toe shiny polyester in the heat, and now have a new word with which to describe them: flopsweaty.

And the title? I had assumed it was a reference to Bollywood movies. That this book would document what happened once the cameras stopped rolling, once the beautiful happy-ever-afters were screened and everyone went home. But happy-ever-after isn’t a common trope of Bollywood movies, whereas tragedy is, perhaps more fitting for this book. Nevertheless, I was wrong, the reference isn’t to this at all. A “beautiful forever” is a particular wall in Annawadi, keeping some things out, others in; perhaps a more fitting metaphor for the lives retold in this book.

The Water People, Joe Simpson (1992)

The Water People
The Water People, by Joe Simpson. London: Abacus, 1993 (1992). (Second-hand acquired copy).

Joe Simpson’s The Water People is the story of childhood friends, Chris and Jimmy, who set off into the Indian Himalaya partly for the adventure of climbing mountains, partly because of Jimmy’s search for the “water people.” These are creatures of folklore, more real than imagination but still intangible. They are the spirits, you could say, that dwell in all water bodies, from rain to rivers to glaciers and snow, and can move between them all, wherever they meet. Chris, the narrator, is skeptical of their existence.

A large chunk of the novel passes, however, before Chris and Jimmy even arrive in India, and much more before they reach the mountains. This enables the author to set up the characters’ personalities and their relationship with each other in complex ways: Chris is slightly uptight and generally skeptical and fearful of the unknown. Jimmy is more open-minded, but also pretty irresponsible and annoying. Chris’s ‘secret’ relationship with Jimmy’s younger sister is symbolic of how well, and how little, the two young men know each other.

There are many beautiful and poignant parts of The Water People, but overall it felt as though the author was trying to do too much. There were too many different locations entered, too many personal anxieties explored, too many complicated relationships entered into, for a relatively short book. The love and tension between Jimmy and Chris underpins the climactic tragedy, and it was necessary for these to be articulated in a slow and sustained manner. But in the end it felt disjointed.

Furthermore, Simpson’s skills lie in describing the natural environment rather than the built, human-inhabited one. Chris’s impressions of Delhi are described in the cliched terms that make me cringe. He writes well in many ways, but the imagery is so stale. Describing Old Delhi:

“At the back of the mosque I found a bazaar laid out in the pattern of a Mogul garden and pathways lined in sandstone, and fountains by terraces and every imaginable type of stall staffed by dark-bearded Pathans–soothsayers and snake charmers, hawkers and beggars. I bought sweet milked tea in a thick chipped glass and sat resting on sun-browned grass watching the Hakims sell their wares. The midday sun hung in a cloudless sky directly above the domes of the mosque. It was refreshingly cool in the open esplanade of the park, free from the stifling claustrophobia of Chandni Chowk. I had learnt that in the past caged cheetah, greyhounds, hooded hunting leopards and Persian cats had been sold in those darkened lanes. They were gone now, replaced with the plastic squalor of consumer goods but the fervent desperation of the sellers was no doubt the same.” (p. 75)

Everything and nothing changes in India, looking back to the past…

At the heart of Jimmy’s search for the Water People is what could be considered a cliched desire of a young British man searching for an alternative way of understanding his place and his world through the ‘east’. But this desire largely comes across as sincere in The Water People, :

“There are countless myths and legends associated with the mountainous regions of this planet. Fantastic tales, mysteries, archetypal stories imbued with fear and awe. I have heard many of these legends and have begun to recognise a common theme running through them all. The stories, like poorly fitting clothes, hide what lies beneath. The people from whom I have heard these stories have good reason to believe them. Fear and ignorance might account for most of the fantasy that embroiders the tales but these people are blessed with open uncluttered minds that are prepared to acknowledge the truth in them. We can believe in Christianity. Some of us can blindly accept transubstantiation–that wine becomes the blood of Christ and a sliver of bread becomes his flesh when consecrated in Eucharist. Yet we will laugh at the myths and legends of other cultures. We laugh with the amused, conceited arrogance of fools unable to recognise that our own truths are equally unfounded.” (p. 123)

This is all true, but it is not fresh. Simpson succeeds in detaching himself somewhat from these sentiments, however, by making Jimmy an inherently naive character. Chris’ world-weariness also reflects a similar naivete, and it is in this that The Water People holds is charm.

Godavari, Fahmida Riaz (2008) Translated from Urdu by Aquila Ismail

Godavari, by Fahmida Riaz. Translated from the 1998 Urdu novel of the same title by Aquila Ismail. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. (Purchased in India).

Though very short at only 110 pages, Fahmida Riaz’s Godavari is a dense book that packs a lot in, wasting few words. The story is told from Ma’s perspective, and recounts her family’s holiday at a hill station in Maharashtra, somewhat reminiscent of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, or the Wayanad region of Kerala. The family is Pakistani, having moved to India some time before, a fact that would always cause problems in India, but is particularly worrisome at the time being recounted in the novel, as their holiday coincides with an outbreak of communal violence in Bombay. On one level, Godavari is about Indian Hindu-Muslim relations, told through the personal perspective of a single family. On another, it is about adivasi politics and the Hindu right wing’s cooptation of tribal peoples into the Hindutva fold. And yet on another level, Godavari is an intimate story of a wife’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s flirtations with the hired help.

The complexity of the politics and relationships in Godavari is one of its strengths, and what Riaz manages to communicate through very select language and imagery is impressive. However, some of it could have done with a bit more fleshing out. I felt that I didn’t get to know many of the characters very well as they were being used so sparsely and symbolically.

I was drawn to Godavari out of curiosity over how a Pakistani writer would depict Indian communal tensions. Riaz was born in 1946 in undivided India, but is an Urdu-language Pakistani writer. On the whole, the critical perspectives on Hindutva (the Shiv Sena is singled out here, as the novel is based in Maharashtra) were not so very different from how many Indian writers, particularly female writers, treat the topic. I found though that there was a bit more explanation of things, such as regional political movements, that may have been taken for granted by an Indian author writing for Indian readers. The audience for Riaz’s Urdu book would be mostly Pakistani, and while I’m sure educated Pakistanis have the same knowledge of Hindu-Muslim problems in South Asia as Indians, they may not be so aware of the regional Indian politics.

I particularly like the description of the chaos caused to the postal system when the decision was first made to officially change Bombay’s name to Mumbai. The change is usually discussed either on political terms (it was an imposition of the right-wing Marathi chauvinism of the Shiv Sena) or in linguistic ones (it is more “natural” to call the city Mumbai when speaking in Marathi, Bombay when in English). I had never read a comedic (albeit wry) account through the lens of practicality:
“In the end the government decided to really implement the law and used the postal department for this purpose. Therefore a notification was issued that in future only the mail which said Mumbai and not Bombay would be delivered.
With this notification the postal system of Bombay was badly disrupted. This grand commercial and industrial centre of Asia received thousands of letters and parcels every day from abroad. When the error was realized in two days the notification was withdrawn. In its place a relatively softer injunction was issued that let Bombay be accepted when written in English, but in Hindi only Mumbai was acceptable.
But this law could not be implemented. The government of Maharashtra could not enforce its laws in other Indian states, and could not force citizens of other states, for example, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, to write or say Mumbai instead of Bombay. And the governments of other states did not show even an iota of interest in this Maharashtra government law.” (p. 102)

An interesting article by Fahmida Riaz recently appeared in the Pakistani English-language news outlet Dawn, an article called “This too is Pakistani Fiction“. In this, Riaz discusses how though she has been writing since 1967, she has been overlooked by Pakistani literary critics of Urdu literature. But this article is not just a whinge about not receiving enough praise herself. Riaz also laments that much progressive Urdu literature has been overlooked by literary critics, and this is surely a problem for a country and a culture that seems to take so much pride in their literary prowess.