Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Wheel of Surya

This turned out to be another serendipitously delayed read. Why I never read Jamila Gavin’s The Wheel of Surya before, I don’t know. Maybe because each time I looked at it, I was reminded it’s the first of three, and I didn’t have the other two. Now I say, that’s easy to remedy. Just buy them. (It’s my birthday in the not too distant future. Cough.)

It’s a book about independence; both that of the main characters, but also India’s. And it’s a journey book.

Jamila Gavin, The Wheel of Surya

First we see how hard life was for the youngest daughter-in-law in a Punjabi village in the 1930s. Married off at 13, Jhoti is the lowest of the low in her husband’s family. She is bullied by her sister-in-law and by her mother-in-law, and her very young husband Govind is away most of the time.

Her two children Marvinder and Jaspal are the same age as the children of the local, English, teacher. Life is relatively good for them, until first Govind leaves for England and a promising career, and war breaks out, followed by a more personal tragedy. Then there is unrest as the country moves closer to freedom, and in 1947 the two children end up alone, fleeing for their lives.

Their goal is to do what Jhoti had planned, which was to travel to England and find Govind. It is not a spoiler to mention that of course they make it to England, eventually. This war damaged country is far from the glorious place they had been expecting, however, and nothing is as they had hoped.

Jamila herself experienced a similar move, so has plenty of material to base her story on. It’s enlightening to see postwar London through the eyes of these beautiful Sikh children, who felt so rich when they were at home in India, despite being so poor.

Because this is a trilogy, there is more to the story than what’s in The Wheel of Surya, and the reader is left with many questions. But because this is Jamila Gavin, at her Coram Boy best, you will want to read on. And I have to admit to peeking at the blurbs for the other books.

Higher Ground

Higher Ground

I have mentioned Higher Ground briefly in the past. Anuj Goyal had the bright idea to collect stories written by children’s authors about the 2004 tsunami, for the children who suffered in the tsunami. As it says on the cover, ‘stories inspired by the courage and hope of children who survived.’

Most of the stories are set elsewhere than India, because other countries were much harder hit. Not that details matter, but there are two southern India stories and a couple set in the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands. It doesn’t matter where they are set, because you will cry over all of them. Either because it is very dreadful and sad, or occasionally because something beautiful and wonderful happens. I don’t have a favourite, but keep remembering The Christmas Angel by Cliff McNish.

Apart from the obvious fact of bringing people’s attention to the tsunami children’s realities, it’s good to be able to read more about children in countries we tend to know less about. People go to Thailand, but what do they really know about their holiday hosts?

It’s worth being aware that these stories are based on real tales from the tsunami. They aren’t just something the authors made up. I hope Tim Bowler won’t mind my saying this, but I sort of understood from a comment he made back then, that writing his story made him cry. So, what hope does the reader have?

There aren’t many copies for sale these days, and probably none for the charitable causes it was conceived in aid of. But if you simply want to read about this disaster which now seems very far away, it is possible to get hold of a copy.

Talking Cranes

There was another wedding at some later point. Actually, there were two Indian family weddings within one week of each other. Both in America and we didn’t go because we couldn’t afford to. Have regretted it ever since. If they wouldn’t mind doing it again, I’d do … well, something.

The nice thing about it was the addition of Cousin Kerala, and at another wedding (we sacrificed them hard and fast during a short period in time) I almost married off both Offsprings (although Daughter had yet to be born) to the offspring of those weddings. The Indian relatives were most impressed with this Swede who didn’t flinch at the idea of arranged marriages. (It’s probably easier if you are the arranger rather than the arrangee.)

20 years later

Anyway, where was I? A better question would be, where am I heading?

Immigration. Or as seen from the other side, emigration. Whichever it is, it’s not necessarily easy. That will be why Cousin Kerala and friends have started up a website for South Asian women. It’s called Talking Cranes and is a curious mix of news items, recipes and advice.

It’s a good idea, now that it’s not just the British who are out collecting for their empire, but we all move about a lot and lose what’s familiar. We need something else to replace home. Here is Cousin Kerala, talking about Talking Cranes.

Two decades after our lack of wedding attendance, they did do a sort of repeat, closer to (our) home, with everyone else doing the travelling. And what could be more Indian than an English barn dance?

The barn dance


It’s good to see that The Far Pavilions is alive and well enough to merit being called TFP by its fans. I’ve also found a fantastic website about the book, which I will only let you visit if you promise you are not writing an essay on M M Kaye’s novel and are intending to cheat. I’m so impressed that someone is keen enough to do all that extra work and then to put it on the internet.

Also really impressed that so many readers were not put off the 950 pages and actually bought and read the book. I know the power of television and film, but I gather people read TFP before it as well. As you know – because I told you the other day – I read it after, but never watched the mini-series.

The Far Pavilions

What surprises me is that the story isn’t coming back to me all that much, despite reacquainting myself with the book and reading up on it. I do remember enjoying it, nearly 30 years ago, but I wonder if it was a little heavy on the history for me. Reading it with an atlas to hand would make a lot of difference.

The story begins in the 1850s when Ash is born, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in India. He’s British, but ends up being brought up by an Indian woman, learning to speak lots of the local languages. Circumstances then send him to school in England, which he hates, until he can return home. Ash falls in love with a bullied Indian princess, and the rest of TFP deals with their love and their enemies and the general unrest in the country, finishing up in Kabul…

I must have missed the 2005 London musical based on TFP, and not being an avid radio listener I had no idea it was on Radio Four a year ago. That would have been nice. There is  apparently a new film being made, which sounds like it’s a cooperation with Bollywood. I would love to see it, and it’s a good idea to make more of an Indian film of such an Indian story.

In fact, the Resident IT Consultant and I were discussing how history is taught in schools. I decided I remembered more from fiction and films than from twelve years of history at school. Perhaps that’s where they go wrong? Give children books, and the occasional film instead. When I get that eighth day in my week I will read some more.

The Grasshopper’s Run

I love it when a book I’ve not quite got to earlier, turns out to be unexpectedly really very good. Except I wonder about my own delaying tactics sometimes.

Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run is like an Alistair MacLean for teens, with India in its heart. And better. I didn’t realise before what kind of book it is. If I had I wouldn’t have waited. Although if I hadn’t saved it – however mistakenly – I wouldn’t have discovered it now. Now it fits perfectly with my Indian theme.

Set in Assam in 1944 immediately prior to the war in Burma escalating, it partly features MacLean style British military people, but mostly it is about the locals in this part of East Assam. The natives, who are not terribly highly thought of by either the British or the Japanese. It’s the cruelty – and stupidity – of one Japanese Colonel which is at the centre of this story.

Siddhartha Sarma, The Grasshopper's Run

The book begins with the slaughter of every person in a small Naga village, by the Colonel’s soldiers, and the rest of the story deals with the revenge taken by neighbouring native groups. They get together to cooperate on this, unlike how things used to be.

The main character is a 15-year-old boy, the son and grandson of someone important. His best friend died in the massacre, and they were clearly two remarkable teenage boys, well trained by their elders. This comes in very handy for finding one specific Japanese Colonel in the haystack of the Naga Hills.

Siddhartha has done a great deal of research and his knowledge of both the war and of the Naga tribes feels genuine. For any reader who might believe that ‘natives’ are simple, it’s time to think again.

There is something terribly satisfying about revenge, when it’s done for all the right reasons. This a truly exciting book, and most informative for the European reader. I knew nothing about Assam. And the mind boggles when you learn that the Brahmaputra river ‘here narrowed till it was little more than a mile across.’ That’s some river!

Where in the world are they?

I had to strain to heave the atlas onto the bureau, but for once it was me who got it out. Usually the Resident IT Consultant can’t be stopped and he will get it out to prove whatever we are talking about, or to find out more. (And then he doesn’t put it back… And because it is Very Heavy, I struggle with tidying it away. It has this lovely box it lives in, but whereas pulling out isn’t too bad, putting back in is impossible for weaklings.)

So, I was behaving uncharacteristically. It’s not that I’m not into maps. I am. I just prefer for them to be liftable. I quite like the one the Resident IT Consultant owned (still does) when we met. I lived in a small village, which never made it into any atlas that wasn’t Swedish. But he could find it in his. Very impressive. As I said, I like that one, but these days it’s not so up-to-date.

Which is why I gave my permission for the purchase of the current monstrosity. Expensive, but on some sort of offer at the time.

The atlas

I was getting all muddled over Son’s Indian itinerary. I hate to admit it, but some of these places were just names to me. Hence, I needed to find out where he’d be, and I just can’t haul that thing out every time I need it. That’s why I gave it a new home for the two weeks when I might need to refer to it.

It’s out in the open, showing the right page, all ready for me to look and search.

And the poor, poor Resident IT Consultant. He was under the impression he’d got it out and needed to put it away…

(Son and Dodo accidentally got off a train at the wrong – Delhi – station the other day. They asked a member of staff where they were. Unfortunately he didn’t know either.)

Bookwitch bites #77

Vegetable pakora, perhaps. One of my very favourites. Along with those newly discovered chilli parathas we like.

I mentioned the other day how I could see myself wearing a beautiful sari. It’s funny how your mind changes, from one decade to another, thirty years on. The Resident IT Consultant came with Indian relatives, which was very thoughtful of him. It’s pretty exotic to a Swedish peasant like myself.

So, as the happy day drew near, all those years ago, The Indian Aunt suggested we might want something Indian as a wedding present. Perhaps a sari. I felt I would look odd wearing one of those round Brighton, so replied that almost anything else Indian would be absolutely lovely. It was. But you can’t wear an antique embroidered wall hanging, even in Stockport, if you change your mind.

And to be realistic about this, at my age I suspect the draughtiness of the ‘gaps’ in a sari might be a little on the chilli side.

There are books with bits of India in them. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for instance. And more recently, Jane Eagland’s Whisper My Name. Both are about formerly ‘Indian’ girls who come to England for their education. And I can’t help but feel that whereas we do like the books for what happens once the girls get here, we would quite like some more of India.

Mr Ram Dass makes me think of Art Malik as Mr Amanjit Singh in Upstairs Downstairs. Silly of me, I know. He’s probably past climbing around on roofs.

(And it’s odd how things happen. As I was blogging merrily away on my Indian theme, I ‘got mail.’ It was from Raja Fashions, telling me when they are next in my neck of the woods. What would we wear without them?)

Shadow of the Moon

What I was really after as I searched my shelves was M M Kaye’s Indian novels. I came to them late, having ‘grown up’ on her modern romantic thrillers. But then in the early 1980s we had The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown (neither of which I watched, as we didn’t own a television…) and I somehow got swept up in this new love for old love in India in the past. And I may have been television-less, but books are easy to buy.

Finding that I had several new-to-me, absolutely gloriously romantic and exciting and very long novels by my old favourite, was a real bonus, and I enjoyed every single one.

I must own up to not having hastily re-read Shadow of the Moon, but I had a quick look through and am as charmed now as I was then, and very tempted to have another go at reading it. I used to be of the opinion that earlier works tend to be better than novels written by authors well past retirement age (sorry!) so I picked Shadow of the Moon because it was written in the 1950s, well before M M Kaye’s television success.

M M Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Set in the time leading up to the Indian mutiny in the middle of the 19th century, I somehow thought it might not be very interesting. How wrong I was! A good romance and a good adventure is always great, whenever it is set. And the love story between Winter and Alex is one of the memorable ones.

True, this kind of book is mainly set among the ‘British’ and is not ‘real’ Indian, but the British were there, so it features something that did exist, whether you think it is right or wrong. M M Kaye was born there, and lived in India for many years. She spoke Hindi. She did what is natural; wrote about what she knew.

That’s why it’s so very good.

M M Kaye on the background to writing Shadow of the Moon.

(The cover image above is the one I have. It’s not my favourite, and here you can see why.)

Murder in Bollywood

It’s funny how, when you look for something, you find something else, even more suitable. I went to pick out some ‘Indian’ books from my shelves, and was surprised to find a copy of Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote. You don’t get more Indian than that (well, maybe you do), if you allow for the fact that H R F Keating was British and wrote his first book about Inspector Ghote without having set foot in India. Brave man.

H R F Keating, Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote

That goes for poor Ghote, too. He is quite brave, once he forgets to be too full of himself, in a quiet sort of way. Here in Filmi, Filmi, which is set in a Bollywood studio, he fancies himself something dreadful to begin with, which makes him a sadly comical figure.

Ghote quickly decides who killed the villain Dhartiraj on set. Except that proves to be wrong. The next ‘guilty’ person is also wrong. And so it goes on, until Ghote realises a few things he had been too starstruck to notice at first. He is no fool, and he sets about catching the murderer, even if it will mean the end of his own career.

This crime novel from 1976 feels very dated. Or perhaps less dated than I first thought, because some of the oddness probably comes from the unusual ways of Bollywood. At least as it was then. I found I could totally identify with the gossip writer Miss Officewalla. And if it’s important not to be too thin to make it as a Bollywood actress, I can always put myself forward. I quite fancy one of those colourful, gold covered saris.

It’s hard to know how authentic Keating’s India is. It feels quite real, especially the small details. I read somewhere that people have compared Ghote with Columbo. I kept thinking he was more Clouseau.

I’m pleased this book was about Bollywood. I didn’t know much about it, and it was fun to read. And I suppose I should have worked out that all those little clues were precisely that. Clues. It would have helped solve the crime. As it was, I only sensed something wasn’t quite right.

Suspect no one had read our copy of the book before. It was so old and dry it fell to pieces as I opened it…

Those trains

Never underestimate the early impressions you provide your child with. Twenty years ago we had a three-year-old whose vocabulary was still not as extensive as that of his peers. But he could talk about Bangalore.

The Resident IT Consultant spent a couple of months between jobs, and diligently went to the library to borrow videos to keep himself and Son entertained. I forget how many train videos made it to our house, and I hope they weren’t worn blank after having been watched over and over again.

I’m not sure if there was more than one Indian train film, but the ‘train to Bangalore’ went down a treat. Far more popular than Thomas the tank Engine, even then.

Train to Bangalore

And now Son has gone and won a pair of plane tickets, and he and Dodo flew to Amritsar (of all places!) on Monday. (I know. It’s not Bangalore. But this plane didn’t fly there.) I’ve got the itinerary here on my desk and there are going to be a few train journeys. Have you any idea how hard it is to book train tickets in India from home?

How did I end up with a Son who knows where the Indian sleeper train was built? He has bought tickets to places I had no idea existed.

I blame Kim. After the Bangalore train, it’s been Kipling’s Kim who has had a disproportionate influence over Offspring number one. I got him (us, perhaps?) the audiobook years ago. Son has listened to it so many times I’m not surprised he had to download another copy. Those tapes can only last so long.

Rudyard Kipling, Kim - read by Sam Dastor

Sam Dastor (whoever he is) reads Kim extremely well. I know, because Sam and Kim have helped me iron an awful lot of shirts in the past. But since I only listened once, I don’t know the story by heart. But I know a boy who does…

So, I suspect Son and his Dodo are on a sort of Kim and Bangalore treasure trail.

Myself, I’ve felt almost inspired by all this talk of staying with Maharajas and stuff, and I do believe I will look at a few ‘Indian’ books now. Going to see the ‘exotic marigold’ the other week didn’t help, of course.

(Anyone here with an interest in the Delhi metro service?)