Return of a King: The First Afgan War

There is a certain cyclic order to British rule in the subcontinent. Successful occupation, social disconnect with the natives obscuring the British to a growing resentment (mostly based on religious but also nationalistic sentiments) caused by the actions of a handful of British officials and other elements of the colonial entourage, the resentment slowing but steadily solidifying into mass based anger simmering under the surface for some time and then a singular incident blowing it up into a wide spread revolt against the British leading to their large scale massacre (including their children and women folk), the sudden explosion of revolt and its utter brutality taking the British by surprise.

They are destroyed, defeated and pushed back. There is a period of calm. The British organize themselves and retaliate. The retaliation is severe, equaling the savagery and ferocity of their opponents. The natives are massacred, humiliated and defeated. British power is restored.

Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857, which rocked British rule in India albeit for a short period, has the same pattern to it.  Around 100 years before the Mutiny there was lot of bonhomie between the British and natives (exemplified best by an affair between a British spy and a lady of Muslim nobility in Hyderabad – read  Dalrymple’s The White Mughal – which had scandalized the Muslim and the English society alike).

This bonhomie was frowned upon by high officials in England and it slowly stopped leading to a complete absence of social exchange between the ruler and the ruled, placing the British poorly to gauge the widespread anti-British mood among Indians which led to the outbreak of the Mutiny, a result of multiple factors but provoked by a single incident – a minor East Indian Company soldier’s refusal to put cartridge in his mouth to tear off its opening which was rumored to have been greased with animal fat.

Large scale massacre of the British followed – followed by British retaliation and restoration of British rule in India. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal brilliantly captures everything about the Mutiny.

In many ways, 1857 was a repeat of 1840 – 41, when British rule’s hubris, ignorance of local conditions and insensitivities towards local sentiments led to a similar disaster but on a much, much bigger scale, this time in Afghanistan. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, which I read recently, deals with it.

The British have intelligence that Russia is planning to invade India, the jewel in the British Empire crown, via Afghanistan with the help of Napoleon. The intelligence sends panic waves in British quarters from London to Calcutta and the theory, which was highly exaggerated, finds its backers and gathers momentum over time. Only a friendly administration in Afghanistan can prevent the disaster, the British decide eventually.

Shah Shuja had been deposed from the throne many decades ago by Dost Mohammad who has ruled Afghanistan since. Against the advices of one of their most hands-on observer – Alexander Barnes – who has spent considerable time in the region, the British decide to invade Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammad and restore the rule of Shah Shuja.

After a bitter war between the two sides, the British manage to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan. But problems start soon after. Three things slowly turn the mood of the Afghans against British occupation: dislodging of Dost Mohammad, a popular king; British policies in Afghanistan some of which hit the interests of the local tribal chiefs involving removing and curtling subsidies they had received for very long from the king; and the most incendiary one: licentious ways of the British officials using Afghan women, from all social sections, for pleasure.

Amidst growing resentment  a singular incident involving a slave girl, who had escaped from the harem of an Afghan of nobility to Alexzander Barnes, now the highest British official in Afghanistan whose licentious ways with Afghan women are chiefly responsible for  the growing anger against the British – sparked the revolt. The common Afghans, enraged by the fact that the kafirs are dishonoring their women folk, rise to arms massacring anything and everything British on their way. A mob storms into Alexzander Barnes’ place and slaughter him.

Eventually British exit from Afghanistan is negotiated but here awaits an even bigger disaster for the British. Afghanistan is a complex country whose different provinces are ruled by different tribal leaders – and a central leadership’s authority is dependent on their fealty to it. However, tribal groups often act independent of the dictats of their central leadership.

On their way out of Afghanistan when the British entourage is passing through the Khyber Pass they find themselves completely helpless against the tribal groups constantly buffeting them with sniper and ambush attacks in a terrain completely unfamiliar to the British and one that the tribals know like the back of their hands. The weather is more inhospitable than the terrain. An unexpected snow storm leaves the British troops, leaving officers and fellow companions frozen to death and those escaping death, completely maimed.

The humiliation makes international news headlines and is seen as the biggest reversal to face the Empire since its beginning. Prestige has to be restored. Retaliation and recapture of Afghanistan follow…

This is followed by another revolt taking place – this time spearheaded by Akbar Khan the son of the deposed king Dost Mohammad who had been banished to India by the British after he surrendered to them following the British invasion of Afghanistan to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan.

This revolt is different from the earlier one which ousted the British from Afghanistan the first time. The earlier one was due to a confusion of several factors – imposition of a puppet ruler, British policies and behavior with locals – where religion played but a minor role; the second rising is distinctly religious in character, mobilized by Akbar Khan as such.

Faced with a religious uprising, and depleting British coffers owing to an ongoing Opium War in China, Britain decide to retreat from Afghanistan…to India. However, the retreat, this time via a route different from the earlier one, is an experience no different from the earlier disaster – again constantly troubled by Afghan tribes through sniper attacks carried out from the crevices of the craggy mountains surrounding the serpentine passageways through which the British entourage (the entire soldiery, families and camp followers) are retreating.

To this day the country remains as inhospitable to foreigners as it was 170 years back when the British had left. The Russians got a taste of that in 1989. The Americans have been bearing the burnt for some time. While Dalrymple was researching the book, an Afghan told him: “We sent the Brits on their way. The Americans know their game is up, only their bosses back home refuse to accept the reality. The next will be the Chinese.”

The America We Hardly Know

You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.

Taken from Good Reads

You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.

And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.

What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.

There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.

Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.

But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.

Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.

But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.

Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.

As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.

When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.

He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.

Home as Office

I had written this blog in 2010 on work from home, a practice widely followed in IT in the West but, eight years after I wrote the blog, WFH is still frowned upon in India.

Although WFH is more widely practiced today than eight to 10 years ago, coming to office is still the more accepted form of the two – and a large number of those who work from home sometimes do so stealthily either hiding it from their colleagues or their bosses.

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Many years ago, when I had heard that the son of my father’s close friend, who stayed in Japan and worked for a multinational company, had made his home his office, I was surprised. Today working from home is a very common practice among IT workers. The laptop and the internet have turned the old concept of office as workplace on its head.

A sizable part of IT population either work from home frequently or have become home-based workers. Until few years ago, this privilege was available mainly to managers, but now it is quite common for a normal worker to operate away from office.

But despite the ubiquity of the practice, the concept has received a varied response in different parts of the world. In the US, working from home is hardly frowned upon. And I guess even in other parts of the West, it is considered quite normal (although the non-IT sector, even in the West, has remained cold to such new-age work practices).

Not so in India. The practice isn’t more than five to six years old in India, but it’s catching up well with companies arming a larger body of their work force with laptops, a luxury which was limited to only IT managers until some years back.

But in India, the practice doesn’t enjoy the acceptability it has in the West. I sympathize with the Indian stand to an extent. There are certain problems. The concept is new to India and will take sometime to find acceptance (and it is getting some acceptance slowly). While there are people who work seriously regardless of where they work from, there is no dearth of work shirkers.

You need a good setup at home to ensure that you are as effective while working at home as you would be if you were at office (power cuts don’t help). It doesn’t help team bonding. And then, there are certain roles, even in IT, that can be better performed with your presence in office.

But, on the other hand, working from home has some advantages, too. It helps companies save infrastructure cost. The companies that allow their employees the luxury are seen as better employers than those that don’t. It helps working women immensely. It also helps workers avoid unnecessary office socializing and thus promotes productivity.

If you look at the positives and negatives of the practice, the points in its favor will far outweigh the points against it. And, while the advantages are actual business and employee benefits, the disadvantages (like lack of proper setup, powercuts, work shirking etc.) are problems whose solutions aren’t difficult to work out.

Karnataka Elections – Several Tragedies Rolled into One

Siddaramaiah offering HD Kumaraswami chief ministership to form government in Karnataka has a tragic twist to it. Siddaramaiah, the Congress CM, was a senior minister in JD(S). In 2005 he left JD(S) feeling marginalized by HD Deve Gowda’s attempts to promote his son Kumaraswami as his political heir and the top leader of the party.

After leaving JD(S), Siddaramaiah joined Congress. In later years, both Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswami rose to the pinnacle of Karnataka state politics. Kumaraswami became CM in 2006 when JD(S) formed government with BJP. Siddaramaiah became CM in 2013 when he helped Congress win in Karnataka. But their rivalry continued. They kept exchanging barbs through media.

Couple of years ago, the rivalry boiled over when at the State Assembly Kumaraswami swore on his father that he would not let Siddaramaiah become CM and Siddaramaiah retorted that he swore on Kumaraswami’s father (HD Deve Gowda) that he would become CM. Karnataka politics is acrimonious and filthy. But as fate would have it, a few years later and a few days ago, driven by compulsions of politics, in the wake of unexpected dip in Congress’ number of seats, Siddaramaiah not only offered support to JD(S) to form government in Karnatka but also offered Kumaraswami the position of CM.

That’s not where the tragedy ends, though.

Of the three chief ministerial aspirants – HD Kumaraswami, Siddaramaiah and B. S. Yeddyurappa (BJP) – Siddaramaiah was the most deserving candidate. He has run a clean administration for five years which performed reasonably well and wasn’t disrupted by internal feuds and challenges to his leadership. None of these can be said about the other two chief ministerial aspirants (one of whom – Kumaraswami – is a chief minister now).

But will this coming together of the Cong and JD(S) for purely political reasons mark a complete transformation of Siddaramaiah’s and Kumaraswami’s relationship? Or will the old bitterness rear its head again once the euphoria is over? Both are mercurial and ambitious. And at least Kumaraswami has the record of being ungentlemanly when it comes to temptations of power.

In 2006, JD(S) had formed government with BJP with Kumaraswami as chief minister on the understanding that after 10 months Kumaraswami would step down from the position of CM making way for Yeddyurappa, but he refused to, prompting BJP to withdraw support to the government and call for new elections which BJP won riding a pro- Yeddyurappa sympathy wave.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always fun to read. Lot of information, presented in a very interesting manner. But that’s not the only trait of Bryson’s writing. His writing is high energy and his humor is over the top, if a little low brow sometimes. There are very few serious moments – in fact he looks at anything serious with the smirk of a jester – and there is always a college buddy air to it. I am currently having lot of fun reading a travelogue by Bryson on small towns of America – and will write something on it when I finish it.

The book review below is on a Bryson book I had read many years ago and believe it is one of his most popular and best works – English the Mother Tongue coming very close. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is a wafer thin hardbound book – I have never seen a paperback version – where Bryson recreates the times Shakespeare lived in and using very little credible information that’s available on the Bard creates a picture of him which at least told me things I never knew about the greatest writer in the English language. Enjoy.

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Anything about Shakespeare inspires two reactions: boredom and reverence. And this makes Shakespeare a bad topic for a book. That’s why credit should go to Bill Bryson for his Shakespeare for making it everything that a good book is – exciting and informative.

The problem about writing a biographical book on Shakespeare is that about most of his life there is no concrete record set in a tight chronological order. So you are left to rely on his plays and the times he lived in to track his life.

That’s precisely what Bill Bryson has done. He has brought Shakespeare to his readers through the times he lived in and relied on his plays to trace as much of Shakespeare’s life and world as the work of any writer can possibly reveal about its creator.

Bryson describes the England of Elizabethan times, the rule of the queen, life of commoners in London (where Shakespeare lived while working as a playwright), the personality of the queen, her relationship with the arts and artists (she was a patron of theatres and a tyrant too) and how theatres were run those days.

Bryson has handled his research material so well that you hardly feel there is very little Bryson has to offer about the main subject – Shakespeare. In fact, you will feel a picture of how Shakespeare would have lived his life in 16th century London taking shape behind the details of the times he lived in.

But Bryson has had to depend on this method mostly to describe Shakespeare’s life while he stayed in London because almost nothing is known about the part of life Shakespeare spent in London. Albeit, there are other parts of his life one can track through piecemeal records like court and marriage records and what is documented by earlier biographers.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and went to school there. His father was a merchant and although the Shakespeares weren’t rich they didn’t lack for anything; however, William’s father fortunes declines towards the end of his life as fell upon hard times with his business failing leading to mounting loans. Shakespeare was a decent student and showed flair for Latin early on.

Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright. His entry into the world of theatres was dramatic. A troop was travelling to Stratford to stage a play and a fight broke out between two actors on the way. One actor died and when the troop reached Stratford, it took Shakespeare as a replacement.

Shakespeare’s plays were not greatly regarded in his days; some of his contemporaries’ plays were regarded more highly than Shakespeare’s. Not much literary value was attached with plays those days and they were considered means of earning a living through quick entertainment. This explains why Shakespeare’s works were not compiled with an intent to preserve them within his lifetime. Long after the death of Shakespeare someone compiled them as First Folio and later subsequent Folios were published by others.

The most formidable challenge Bryson has had to deal with in the book is to arrive at a conclusion on whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else did it under the Bard’s identity for some consideration or other.

The jury is out on this to this day. There are two lobbies, one believes Shakespeare wrote those plays and the other that Shakespeare wasn’t educated and experienced enough to write those plays; that they had to be the work of a person who enjoyed a higher standing in the society (possibly an aristocrat) than Shakespeare did and due to his social position was better connected than Shakespeare; had more access to the workings of royal courts (to have written about court intricacies in the plays) and, of course, was better educated.

Detractors of Shakespeare have found many to have these qualifications who lived at or around the time of Shakespeare and each one of the detractors has his/her own Shakespeare number two and individual theories to establish their claims.

Bryson has used many arguments to debunk the claims and the central one is, although Shakespeare hadn’t received any university education as there was no university in Stratford, he had finished his school education. Overcoming his deficiencies to write those plays would be, in any case, a great achievement, which, however difficult, wouldn’t be impossible, Bryson observes.

And there are country scenes in Shakespeare’s plays whose inspiration could be traced back to his growing years in Stratford. Bryson finishes the book by concluding that it was none other than Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to him – “whoever he was”.

A deficiency of the book is that Bryson didn’t tell much about the division between Latin and English and why exactly even plays enacted with the royalty in audience was played in English while Latin was the court language.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have written on Jhumpa Lahiri on this blog. I found out a book review I had written in 2014 on a book – The Lowland – by her which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year. Sharing it here.

 

I had heard and read about Jhumpa Lahiri, but had never read her works. Recently I finished her Lowland, her latest offering, which was nominated for the Booker prize. I am happy that I have arrived if a little late. Lowland deals with the Naxal period in Bengal and peels one layer after another off the movement to show its various sides.

Let me first admit that my interest in the book owes itself to this subject, Naxalism. Taking the movement as the center, Lahiri’s plot uncovers how Naxalism changed the lives of people involved in it, its impact on their families and later generations.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in the 60s, in a middle class family where not wealth but education is valued. The brothers share a strong bond and their relationship is one without any sibling rivalry. As the two grow up, while Subhash remains chiefly interested in studies, the storm of Naxalism that’s building up in the city gradually attracting impressionable middle-class Bengali youth into its vortex, slowly draws Udayan into its fold. And Udayan starts moving away from his studies and family plunging into the world of Marxist and Maoist ideas. On the other hand, Shubash goes to the US to pursue higher education.

After Subhash leaves for America, the story gets split into two parts, Subhash’s life in the US and Udayan’s in Calcutta. Subhash, now staying in America, loses day-to-day touch with Udayan’s life in Calcutta, only staying updated with it in snippets through Udayan’s occasional letters.

One day, Udayan writes about Gauri, the girl he is courting, although Subhash keeps his brief affair with an American middle-aged lady a secret from his parents and brother. Another day, Subhash gets a letter from his parents, written in a laconic manner, telling him that Udayan has died and that he should come to Calcutta immediately.

From here on, the style of narration changes, moving back and forth in time, to reveal to the reader, bit by bit, the circumstances in which Udayan died.

Back to Calcutta, Subhash finds Udayan’s widow in a neglected condition and decides to gives her a new life by marrying her. They get married and as Gauri starts her life in America, Lahiri frequently moves back in time to chronicle the circumstances in which Udayan had met with his end.

Udayan’s Naxalism-affected life forms the spine of the story and Lahiri has revealed it in small doses keeping her readers looking out for more and refusing to quench their thrust until the last page of the book.

Shubash’s and Gauri’s life in America on Rhodes Island, has a lot to offer to the reader, too. Just as Jhumpa Lahiri has described Calcutta very well, her descriptions of Rhodes Island transport you to the place. In that, Lowland is a novel that constantly explores the differences in the two worlds and how they shape the lives of people inhabiting them.

As the story progresses, Jhumpa sometimes skips important bits of some incidents as they unfold and covers them later, springing a surprise on you after you have reconciled to having been shortchanged by the author. Later, you realize that sparing you some details involved in an incident keeps you interested and when you are finally thrown those details at, you feel your thrust has been pleasantly quenched.

She narrates key incidents related to Udayan’s death several times over, each time through the perspective of a different character, making the same incidents look different each time and thus bringing the story full circle or as a  Hindi reviewer put it, giving you a Sampurna Anubhav (a complete experience).

Perhaps the thing I liked the most is that she has not tried to eulogize Naxalism calling it a fight between rich and poor to create an equal society. Instead, she has handled the subject unsentimentally blaming all sides, sparing none.

Are Social Media Sites Class Driven

Social media platforms are considered progressive and egalitarian where anyone can create a profile, connect with anyone, follow anybody and be followed. At least as far as the technology is concerned they are progressive and egalitarian slapping no restrictions on anybody to do anything that’s in keeping with the platform’s intent and within the bounds of acceptable behavior (the trolls may stretch the definition of acceptable behavior but that’s another discussion).

There are no restrictions on who you can follow, whether you know that person or whether even that person approves of you following him (mostly we don’t care who is following us unless the person the indulges into inappropriate behavior).

Who you can have a reciprocal relationship with is, of course, dependent on the other person’s choice whether he wants to connect with you – but that hardly undermines the purported egalitarian nature of social media. It promotes it.

What undermines it, however, is the homogeneous sphere within which exchanges take place. A celebrity (which can be anyone with a considerable follower base and mostly real world celebrities have them) only talks to another celebrity. There are very few instances of a celebrity engaging in an interaction with a non-celebrity. There may be exceptions to it. But they are that: exceptions.

However, what’s more unfortunate is this practice of interacting with only your own ‘types’ is not restricted to celebrities – this is the general norm.

Take FB. You may have a network of 1000 people but you will interact with only a few of them, probably only with people you mix with socially – family members, close friends etc. – restricting your interactions to the social pocket you come from (which in India may not be independent of caste, religious and recently, political considerations).

Twitter, being an interest based networking site, unlike FB, and attracting, as a result, people with a penchant for ‘political correctness’ may be more secular and cross sectional in terms of the interactions that take place on it, but it’s cross-sectional nature is horizontal not vertical. A celebrity (famous journalists, film stars, politicians, public intellectuals etc.) may have an conersation  with a celebrity from another walk of life, but not a pedestrian like you and me.

Non-celeb Twitter guys with a small follower base below, say, five hundred spend most of their time on the site retweeting the tweets of celebrities and only on very a few occasions do these celebs return the favor by retweeting the tweets of their lesser known followers. Undeterred, the anonymous brigade goes on retweeting celebrity tweets.

Once a friend had told me how a reply he had sent to a famous writer’s tweet on a book the latter had recently published complimenting the writer on it, had gone unreplied by the writer, while the same writer, on the same day and probably around the same time, had thanked a tweet by a famous filmstar praising his book.

I myself have been through similar experiences several times – feeling unresponded, unappreciated and feeling that the trolls are so much better – they at least ignore the common man because of a visible reason: the lack of impact they have given their small follower base.

Being ignored by the celebs who count on their less exalted followers’ support to develop and sustain their online clout is utter class snobbery. But that is how stratospheric the world of Twitter or social media is.

There is no cross-sectional exchange – you scratch my back and I will scratch yours only if it is big enough to equal my stature.

On William Dalrymple

All I remember from history I read in school and BA are names and some stray events and years (only the big ones). Conversely, I remember the whole narrative and the main characters of the one history book – The Last Mughal – and several articles on various topics of subcontinent history by William Dalrymple I have read over the years.

This is the difference between telling history in a didactic manner as is taught in our schools and colleges and in a story telling manner.

Dalrymple chooses a passage of time / event, researches it deeply down to finer points about each character and writes it like a novel where the emphasis is on characters and how their traits shape the historical narrative.

In the book I am reading now, The Return of a King, Shah Shuja a literature lover who is kind and considerate departs from the general Afghan practice of blinding a defeated and captured enemy spares a person from the Barakzai clan a rival group who had revolted against his rule and merely keeps him captive in a fort.

Later this person escapes from imprisonment, joins Shuja’s rival and captures large swathes of his empire eventually bringing an end to the rule of the Durrani Empire to which the Shah belonged.

William Dalrymple is a Scott who has been staying in a farmhouse near Delhi for many years. In his early years in India as a historian he said his books shed new light on subjects that had been earlier written on by Indian historians, thanks to his use of research material that were left unused by his Indian counterparts  “who were too lazy to use them”. The statement enraged the literary establishment and Dalrymple immediately came under attack.

Sobha De said the White Mughal, among Dalrymple’s early books which tells the story of a love affair between a British officer and a girl from Muslim nobility which took place almost 100 years before the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny when there was lot of camaraderie between the British and Indians which declined slowly because it was frowned upon by England and slowly disappeared resulting in complete gulf between the two sides – was imitative of The Far Pavilions which dealt with the same subject more competently. And Ramchandra Guha said Dalrymple’s books are factually inaccurate.

Dalrymple largely ducked the attacks complementing Shoba De for defending her beauty against age and calling himself poorly placed to return the barb of Guha because “Ramachandra Guha writes on cricket and I hardly know anything about the subject.” It was Guha’s pre India After Gandhi days.

Accusing Dalrymple of factual inaccuracy is slightly missing the point. Of course, accuracy is the primary responsibility of a historian or any nonfiction writer but given the way in which Dalrymple writes history there has to be some space for interpretation.

Dalrymple has done to history reading what Chetan Bhagat has done to novel reading: both have attracted people from outside traditional base of readers to the form. A large section of Dalrymple’s reader base are people like me: history lovers but not historians (aspiring or otherwise).  They enjoy a good narrative and don’t consider little liberty taken with facts or interpretation creeping in as sacrilege.

But what research material does Dalrymple blame fellow historians for not using? As much as Dalrymple makes use of official archives and site research to construct the larger grid work of his narrative, he relies heavily on things like personal letters exchanged between characters and accounts left by contemporary travelers / observers for the inner lives of his characters. In Victorian times there was a custom of writing long letters, he had said once.

Enyd Blyton in Chikmagalur

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enyd Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction – picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of books.)

I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation, whether someone was a commercial or literary writer, his/her position in the world of literature etc. I developed these pretentions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enyd Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years back why I didn’t try out Enyd Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I wasn’t class conscious but age conscious back then. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s just author wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was out of the question. But my indifference to writers like Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with Blyton.

In my early reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enyd Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enyd Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English – where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society as it existed at a particular point of time…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree on which the aircraft was, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

There is a moral and social justice angle to Three Cheers, Secret Seven. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for a lot derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and since they don’t go beyond 100 to 120 pages, most of them over weekends.

The Artist of the Floating World – A Different Kind of Experience

Generally novels dealing with abstract themes without any tangible storyline don’t make very arresting reads. The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro is an exception to the rule. Set in a post World War 2 Japan, the novel deals with multiplicity of themes.

How accepted values of the past come to be frowned upon by subsequent generations; how a war can change a country not only in terms of its physical landscape but also values; how a current generation can blame a former generation for something without fully appreciating a situation; Japanese art and culture. It almost has everything under the sun. Yet nothing seems forced. Every theme seems to fit into the larger architecture of the novel.

Ono worked as a propaganda artist during World War 2. Now retired, he ruminates on his past – about the friends he once had, the slow decline and disappearance of the pleasure districts he once visited regularly – his ruminations work as a window to the reader into different aspects of not only his own past but also that of the country.

Told in the first person, the recollections don’t flow in a chronological order but appear in a haphazard way triggered sometimes by a stray thought or by an unlikely object – progressing for some time to form a full-bodied theme and then when seen by the reader after it has run its course the sub theme appearing to be in sync with the larger theme. In the foreword Kazuo Ishiguro says he wanted to deal with memory like Marcel Proust.

As an Asian I sometimes find Western novels culturally alien – oh, that sort of thing would never happen here. We treat our parents more respectfully than that etc. – but Japan seems too familiar. Arrange marriages, stiff respect for elders, conformity, everything is so similar to how India is. I had the same feeling when I had read Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden, although it was on a different subject.

If there is any constant theme running through the book it is Ono’s concern about how others see his role during the war. His younger daughter’s marriage negotiations suddenly broke under rather mysterious circumstances.

One day while the marriage negotiations were still on he had a chance meeting with his would-be son in law who told him that the president of his company had committed suicide as an apology to the current generation on behalf of those who were responsible for the war. Ono had a long conversation with his future son in law about why should anyone be apologetic for the war trying to steer him away from his beliefs. Soon after this incident, the son in law’s family withdrew from the negotiations.

Ono suspects the husband of his elder daughter blames the previous generation for the war and believes his daughter shares her husband’s views. He goes through a moment of bitter introspection where he feels frustrated and angry about the accusatory attitude of the current generation towards his and decides to write an angry mail to his daughter and her husband.

Had it not been for Kazuo Ishiguro’s light and easy style of writing the book would not be an easy read. The Artist of the Floating World is the first novel I read as an ebook.