Tag Archives: Bali Rai

Remembering Amritsar

Ten – or a hundred – years on and it’s not as if the world has suddenly got a lot better. On Saturday it was 100 years since the massacre at Amritsar. Ten years ago I read Bali Rai’s historical novel City of Ghosts and was shocked. Because I didn’t know nearly enough about this. I blame my non-UK background, but of course, lots of people here don’t know much either. There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day. Seemingly British people don’t realise that what happened that day in 1919 didn’t endear them to the Indian population. Or that they haven’t forgotten.

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

Below is my review from 2009:

Did you know about all the Indian soldiers fighting for England in World War I? I didn’t, other than knowing that soldiers did come from other countries to fight. The sheer number is horrifying. It’s one thing – just about – to send ‘your own’ to die for your country. To send Indian soldiers to their deaths because you have a quarrel with your German neighbour is awful beyond belief.

This novel has a number of sub-plots, which together build a picture of India in the years before 1920. There is Bissen, the soldier who fought in France. There are Gurdial and Jeevan, two teenagers from the local orphanage in Amritsar.

We learn of what happened to Bissen in Europe, and how it affects his life in India after the war. He is an older and wiser influence on the two boys. Gurdial is in love, and Jeevan picks the wrong friends.

And then we have the time and place; Amritsar in 1919. You can tell it’s not all going to end well.

Bali has written a very Indian story from almost a century ago. You can smell the place, and you can see all the colours. You can taste the food, and you can almost feel what happened on that fateful day in April in Amritsar. There is a ghostly element, which although impossible to explain, fits in perfectly with the plot.

It’s very romantic, and it’s very sad and very violent.

It’s a story that needed telling.

It’s a story you need to read.

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Stay a Little Longer

Set somewhere in or near Bali Rai’s Leicester, Aman has lost her dad. She misses him a lot, and she wishes she had given him the letter she wrote when he was ill.

Bali Rai, Stay a Little Longer

Wherever you live, there will be bullies, and being bereaved does not save you. In Aman’s case it’s a new neighbour who does. Gurnam, an elderly man who just moved into her street, comes to her assistance.

She and her mother befriend Gurnam, who becomes some sort of grandfather figure. But all is not well, and among more bullying, there is more sadness. It takes Aman some time to understand what is going on with Gurnam.

The question is whether her friendship will be enough for this troubled man. Society can be very harsh.

It’s good to read more about life in what I believe to be a predominantly Sikh area. There should be many more books like this.

Stories for empathy and a better world

I had been looking forward to the event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai on Saturday. I’d never met Miriam before, but she was everything I had expected, and Bali was Bali as usual. Empathy is important and it promised to be an interesting discussion.

Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy

We were all asked for examples of empathic children’s books that had made a difference to us. I can see the point of asking the audience, but it split my attention a bit too much. Miriam is a big fan of Morris Gleitzman and talked about his Blabbermouth, and Bali suggested Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. President Obama’s talk about the ’empathy deficit’ was mentioned.

Miriam read from The Emergency Zoo, and explained how she loses herself in the book when she writes. She is her characters.

Bali then read from The Harder They Fall, apologising for some ‘rude’ words. When he started writing about a female character, it took him some time to understand that girls are ‘just’ people. He talked about how many poor teenagers never even consider going to university. Sometimes because they are the main carer for someone in their family, and they can’t contemplate getting into debt.

On getting started Miriam reckoned the most important thing she did as a child was to read. After that it was being a teacher, doing a writing course, and reading and meeting people like Morris Gleitzman and Jacqueline Wilson. The best thing about writing is losing yourself in the writing.

Roald Dahl was a hero of Bali’s, and he liked reading about Vikings and volcanoes. Later on Sue Townsend played a big part influencing him. Bali described his hard-working colleague Alan Gibbons, who travels and writes and campaigns tirelessly for good causes. The best thing about being a writer seems to be ‘vomiting [words] on a page.’

Can you understand the world if you read escapism? Miriam believes in a real place and a real boy or girl. Bali feels that in The Lord of the Rings the whole world is escapism, and he listed Andy Stanton for sheer bounciness, had nothing [positive] to say about David Walliams, and it seems the archetypal white man comedian comes from Stockport. He praised the way Jacqueline Wilson writes about hard work and ordinary children. And there’s Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness.

Someone in the audience had problems seeing how fantasy could be empathic, but discovered Miriam and Bali disagreed. To make children understand empathy we don’t need it on the curriculum, and there is no right age. According to Miriam you can’t suddenly ‘do empathy today,’ but you need to embed it more deeply. For Bali it’s economical politics in this dog eat dog world. And you should be allowed to have fun at school, because how else do you get to write about fish zombies?

As with letting school-children have enough time for fun, I’d have liked more time for the two authors at Saturday’s event.

Miranda McKearney, Anna Bassi, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai

Lit there

Or ‘sit there!’

After a morning of walking round Oxford, waving to colleges everywhere, taking touristy photographs, refraining from buying stuff we don’t need, even when it looks so tempting – Dobby mask, anyone? – it was good to get to the litfest venue for a sit down.

At our first event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai, I managed a polite negotiation on not sitting where they wanted me. When it came to the event with Sally Nicholls and Sheena Wilkinson, I ended up offering to leave. I somehow don’t feel that 20 of the best – in my opinion – seats should be reserved for latecomers.

If there is a next time, I will arrive late.

On our way ‘home’ Daughter was enticed into Blackwells where she spent lots of money on some heavy books. I know this, because I carried them, while she carried the pizzas. Safe hands, and all that.

Early check-out and changing of the clocks have ensured this brief blog post. There will be more on what people said later.

Worcester College

The easy read

Another thing I discovered at the library (see yesterday), was their section of beginners’ fiction in English.

Well, that’s what they called it. I noticed the thin books in English by, among others, Bali Rai and Kevin Brooks on the shelves on the end of one of the sections.

I didn’t recognise these books, so went closer, and realised that they were older Barrington Stoke titles. And yes, as such they are easier to read. Shorter and in a simpler language, and thereby ideal for the novice reader of English. We should have had books like that when I was at school! We got Somerset Maugham instead.

Have no idea how popular they will be, now that impatient young readers tackle Harry Potter in the original, because they can’t wait. And I get the impression that having started, many young teens go on to read a lot more in English, because they’ve realised it’s possible. That they can.

But for those who can’t, these dyslexia friendly books are just the thing.

The Harder They Fall

Bali Rai, The Harder They Fall

I’m with Bali Rai. It’s a disgrace the way people in our own country suffer hardship, with nowhere to live, or not enough food. Bali had some figures for the rise in food banks, and as he points out in the ‘about’ bit of his new book The Harder They Fall, you are not poor because you don’t work or because you are lazy. Poor people are also people, just like the rest of us.

Bali’s book for Barrington Stoke is about one such boy. Jacob and his mum need to use the local food bank, and this makes Jacob angry and he feels ashamed. This in turn means he’s unpleasant at school and often gets into trouble and is frequently expelled from the schools he has attended.

But now he meets Cal, who describes himself as a friendless geek. Someone who volunteers at the food bank, so witnesses Jacob’s shame. Along with Freya, the girl he fancies, Cal tries to befriend Jacob, but this is no easy task.

This book is about poverty, bullying, lack of trust, and about always being hungry. And it’s not your fault.

We could do with more books on how – badly – we treat our fellow human beings in this country.

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.