Archive for ‘history’

September 10, 2016

Bulletpoints: Mohenjo Daro

Here are several thoughts on Mohenjo Daro, which was a cheesy, terrible mess which I loved.

I mean:

hats of mohenjo daro

 

  • The headgear. I will come back to this, but it’s a delight. Watching the trailer some months ago, I suggested that the prevalence of horns in the various headpieces on display were obviously the result of someone associated with the film having a vague memory (this is something I learnt in primary school) that animism of some sort was a big part of the Indus Valley civilisation. This was unfair; I’m sure researchers of some description were consulted. I’m not sure it matters though.

  • Tarsem Singh is in many ways a good reference point for my feelings about this film. It’s not as beautiful, or as visually sumptuous (now that the brilliant Eiko Ishioka is dead, are Singh’s films that beautiful? I haven’t seen the most recent), but at times it feels like it’s working in a similar register, and with a similar visual language. (It’s also less beautiful because the cgi is not exactly great–the flying crocodile in the trailer is hilarious. On the other hand, the mystical unicorn looks, as the friend with whom I watched it pointed out, like a goat drawn by Lisa Frank, which is surely enough to make the whole film worthwhile.) This is also one of the reasons I find attempts to read it from a viewpoint of historical accuracy rather po-faced–surely it’s missing the point to try and map this onto a solid historical narrative. It occupies a space between history, myth and fantasy, and its job is not to Accurately Represent The Past. The film’s title is a good example of this–with the opening credits we get a disclaimer about how obviously the real name of this city wasn’t Mohenjo Daro, but rather than make up a name that its residents might have called it, we’re going with the one that is familiar and that we all acknowledge is wrong. Likewise, the use of language: the movie opens with Sarman and his friends speaking a completely unfamiliar tongue (though they’re mostly yelling each other’s names while trying to fight a crocodile) before zooming in on one character’s mouth, and zooming out again to have him speak a form of Hindi–comprehensible to the audience, but with enough differences to prevent immersion, to remind us that we’re at an extra remove from reality. Or at least, that appears to me to be the intent–how successful it is is another matter entirely.
  • Having said all of which, the film’s gestures towards Real history, though obviously dubious af, are sometimes very satisfying. I genuinely enjoyed the sense of the city as a point of contact for multiple ancient cultures. The Sumerians (whose fault everything here is; also it’s capitalism’s fault), but also all the other names I half-recognised and have to look up. Various people have commented on the presence of horses in the film, but even there they’re presented as strange and foreign–the sort of exotic beast you might find if you travelled to a marketplace like this one, where strange things from strange lands that were previously unimaginable are suddenly here. In a recent conversation with Samira Nadkarni about another myth/fantasy film, I described a marketplace scene as something that might fit into Xena, Warrior Princess (this is not a bad thing, obviously) and I think that’s true here too, but we’re also presented with a vision of an interconnected ancient world, full of trade and travel and stories and material goods being exchanged across vast distances, rather than the rather isolationist view of the subcontinent that is about as far as a lot of school history goes. 
  • I’ve said that the film rests at the intersection of history, myth and fantasy. Particularly considering it’s directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also made Lagaan, it’s worth thinking about its mythic aspects, and what story it’s trying to tell. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that denies any sort of political agenda, and refuses to take a stance on the historical questions of the Aryan invasion theory or connections between the Indus Valley and what we know as Hinduism. Fair enough, that’s a lot to burden a film with (and can only end in riots). The problem is, that it then goes on to tell what is pretty straightforwardly a Hindu origin myth. The movie ends with Mohenjo Daro destroyed, and its survivors, led by our two heroes, wander the earth North India until they find and settle on the banks of the Ganga, guided in this decision by Sarman’s vision of the unicorn that originally led him to Mohenjo Daro. There’s even religious continuity, if one wants it–our other hero is Chaani, blessed by the river goddess and destined to save her people. We’ve moved from Tarsem Singh to Cecil B. DeMille. Nationalist and religious-nationalist myths may have their place (though they’re always suspicious), but when that place is a 21st century India, where Hindutva has state sanction, they’re particularly alarming. It’s worth, also, looking again at the trailer which insists that we’re in a time “Before the British Raj / Before the Mughals / Before Christ / Before Buddha”– with the puzzling exception of Buddhism, all of these are routinely positioned as corrupting outside influences, and their invocation here feels like a pretty blatant sort of nativism.
  • In a forthcoming review of A Flying Jatt (and what a joy to be able to type that phrase), Samira Nadkarni talks about a similar beleagured-natives-vs-invaders framing of national history in that film as well; and I suspect a wider survey would show these aren’t isolated instances.
  • As alarming as it is, this origin myth is at least coherent (is that good, though?). One of the several problems with Mohenjo Daro is the muddled-ness of most of its plot. Nothing that is confusing in and of itself happens, but the whole is so trope-y that individual plot elements end up standing in for larger story structures, and those larger structures simply cannot co-exist together. So we have Sarman, the village boy of mysterious parentage, who comes to the city, feels a strong emotional connection to it, learns that he’s the son of the deposed ruler, and confronts the tyrant. And we also have Chaani, the Chosen One blessed by a goddess, who is destined to change the future of the city and save its people. And we also have the proud city whose citizens angered nature and which was lost underwater. Essentially, then, we have two saviours and a city that can’t be saved. To no one’s surprise Chaani’s story is the one that gets shortchanged–the big moment that will change the future of the city is taken out of her hands. What makes it the more glaring is that Sarman also very clearly (see next bullet) doesn’t know what he’s doing, most of the time. There’s a possible version of this story in which Chaani, knowing the city and its problems better because that is her job, steps into her father’s role of kingmaker, and uses Sarman’s parentage to get things done. It’s not the version this film gave us.
  • There are moments in this film where Sarman’s bumbling, tongue-tied, dazed demeanour is clearly deliberate and meant to signify how out of his depth he is–most of these moments are when he’s interacting with Chaani (and Pooja Hegde is astonishingly pretty, I’d probably gawp awkwardly at her too). At other times, I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s Sarman’s bewilderment I’m looking at, or if Hrithik Roshan just has a really gormless resting face. It’s an important distinction, I feel, because if we’re really meant to view the hero of the film as  lost and incompetent (as opposed to just smitten by the pretty girl), that’s … quite a bold narrative choice, and rather makes you wonder if Mohenjo Daro is deliberately undercutting some of its tropes.
  • Because, as I’ve said, the film is multiple contradictory stories at once; it’s Return of the King and the Akallabeth and displaced people founding a new homeland. And I’m curious about the possibilities of juxtaposing those subgenres–what happens to the (for want of a better term) beats of the story? Twice in the film there are dramatic moments where characters (Maham and Jakhiro) are cut off mid-speech, and I find myself wondering if this narrative KLPD is something fundamental to the film; whether in refusing to let the comforting restoration-of-order story play out, cutting it off with Suddenly, the Flood!, that sense of interruption is enacted on a larger scale.
  • (I mean, I know it probably isn’t, but “this is a shit film” is so boring, and this film was so interesting)
  • The language thing has been much mocked, but I think if the film had been able to commit to that genuine sense of alterity throughout it might have worked. The not-quite-Hindi  does frequently remind you that it’s not-quite-Hindi with some added vowels (and the frequency with which everyone says “कदाचित,” for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like enough. I enjoyed the choice not to translate when, frequently, travellers to the city spoke different languages, though it hits a low point when Sarman has to gladiatorially fight two cannibals from (as far as we can tell?) Tajikistan, who for some reason wear animal skins, and whose conversation to each other the subtitles rendered as “tribal language”.
  • No, really. One of the moments of genuine weirdness about the film is this one, when we learn that two humans are just kept, and possibly starved, under the city, to be brought out when a dramatic fight scene is needed; suddenly we’re in this horrific Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas scenario and no one seems particularly bothered. Maham’s persecution of Sarman is clearly bad, but the fact that he has enslaved and unhumaned these two men, Bakar and Zokar, is just left there. Their attempts to fight Sarman (or die), their lack of (to the viewer) language mean that this casual unpersoning belongs to the film itself, not just Maham.
  • It’s a pity because in its own way, and rather too blatantly, this is trying to be an ethical film in the way something like Jupiter Ascending tries. Informed that he’s the new rightful ruler of the city, Sarman denies the role and suggests trying democracy. In the earlier gladiatorial scene, he refuses to kill the second of his two victims because he has won and can’t bring himself to commit a murder. The film commits itself to evacuating all of the residents of the city, other than Jakhiro, who refuses to leave, and Maham. (Maham is tied to a stake and left to drown. He manages to almost work himself free, just as the deluge comes.) At surface-level this is a film that wants to insist that the lives of people not its heroes are important. It’s a pity that it forgets this whenever those lives cease to be sufficiently Indian. 
  • Those final scenes. when the dam breaks and the city is flooded, are some of the best in the film. Jakhiro’s dancing about and welcoming death, Maham has just begun to think he might get out alive; everyone else is lined up on a hill watching and waiting. I know I said above that the final scenes and the Hindu origin myth they suggest made the film coherent, but they also rob this scene of much of its power. Imagine if mohenjo daro artichokeGowariker had ended it here–had ended this story of heroes and chosen ones on Sarman’s traumatised, shivering face as he watches the city drown.
  • And here, a final reminder of all that glorious headgear. Watching this with a friend was very rewarding–we couldn’t work out what Moonja’s hat reminded us of until she whispered “Jamiroquai!” Later, as Chaani had replaced her usual headdress for a gold one, she turned to me and asked, “is she wearing an artichoke?” Reader, I think she was. —>
April 9, 2016

In which Rhodes falls and doesn’t, Britain faces its imperial past and doesn’t, several large cats are featured, and nothing is propelled into outer space.

One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:

 

April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his steampunk tiger2birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)

November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.

Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)

Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:

 

V&A Conservation in Action: Playing Tippoo’s Tiger Part 2 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.

Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).

January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.

January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.

January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.

January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.

Steampunk tiger

February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.

March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.

It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.

Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.

miss jenny

 

March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.

 

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(That unpublished column from November)

I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.

There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.

tiger toy machineIn India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.

Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.

This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.

None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?

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Coda

March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)

October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.

 

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Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.

 

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May 29, 2014

Anita Nair, Idris: Keeper of the Light

Another book that I really wanted to be able to champion but ended up being very disappointed by. It’s about a jewel-eyed man named Idris, so I feel like I have exercised great restraint in not illustrating this post with a picture of Mr Elba as Heimdall.

I have a short review of the book in this past weekend’s edition of The Hindustan Times (and below).

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The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction.

Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liason with a young woman. Twelve years later he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets. The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness—frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom, beauty and nobility (and superior height).

Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced (the maps drawn on the endpapers are particularly gorgeous), with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

December 19, 2013

Nicola Griffith, Hild

From this weekend’s column.

One of the many pleasing things about Hild is that large parts of it are set quite near where I am now (or it feels that way–England isn’t very big). It is possible that I highlighted those bits in my ebook with such incisive critical comments as “represent!”

 

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Is it still a biography when an entire book must be extrapolated from mere scraps of detail? That’s about all we know of the woman who would come to be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby; a few, scant details in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We know that her father was a nephew of Edwin of Northumbria and that he was poisoned, that she was baptized by Paulinus of York, and that twenty years later she became a nun, eventually becoming the abbess of a monastery at Whitby. It’s not much to go on, yet Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a novel of close to 600 pages and it ends decades before the most well-documented part of Saint Hilda’s life.

So if it’s not biography is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Griffith is known mainly as a science fiction writer, and she has claimed elsewhere that in creating this book she drew on techniques learned from that genre. The world of Hild is meticulously built up from what we know of the material and social culture of its time; it is remote enough from our own world to seem completely alien (there have been few popular culture narratives of the early middle ages to familiarise them), yet it makes complete sense.

Griffith’s Hild is the clever daughter of a clever mother, taught from her youngest days to observe (“quiet mouth, bright mind,” her mother Breguswith’s constant advice to her). Breguswith claims to have foretold her daughter’s greatness, and from the beginning of her life Hild is believed to have supernatural powers. Whether her gift for seeing “the pattern” in things is divine in origin is both unclear and irrelevant; she becomes a valued advisor to Edwin. As her friend, an Irish priest, tells her, her mother has carved out for her a space inaccessible to many women in her circumstances; she’s in a position to speak and be listened to, to influence the larger political, social, economic changes taking place around her in ways other than through strategic marriage alliances.

And women and women’s work are at the centre of Hild. In the court both Hild and her mother subtly work to influence events, as does Edwin’s wife Æthelburg. But we also see women weaving cloth, doing manual labour, trading, tending to cattle, brewing mead and creating medicine. History, and historical fiction, often tend to treat as important only the more masculine spheres of activity. Here, battles are fought but we only see them when Hild is present at them. The political life of the court may be dominated by men, but a few powerful women are always present. And the centrality of women to this society, particularly their economic contribution, is never ignored or dismissed. Female friendship is elevated in the form of gemæcce, a sort of formalised partnership between two women. Women are free to have sex, with men or with other women (one of many striking dissimilarities between this seventh century Britain and twenty-first century India), without anyone seeming particularly surprised.

Perhaps Griffith’s greatest achievement here is in not giving Hild a modern mind. She may, as a result of her gift or her mother’s training, know more than most of those around her and she may manipulate events, but if she can discern the “pattern” of her world she’s rarely placed above or outside it. Other than one rather too pat moment when she describes Christ as merely another name for the pattern (religion until this point in the novel has worked in marvellous, complex ways), she thinks as a person raised in her world.

Hild is immersive and feminist, and believable. Whether this is historical fiction or fantasy (and Griffith suggests that perhaps there needn’t be a distinction between the two) it’s complex and intelligent.

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April 17, 2013

Indira Goswami, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar

Translated by Aruni Kashyap, whose first book (out this year) I am genuinely looking forward to.

I wrote about this for last weekend’s column. I’m still not sure what to make of this book, but I think I liked it.

 

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I had never heard of the Bodo heroine Thengphakhri until I came across Aruni Kashyap’s translation of Indira Goswami’s last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar. Apparently I’m not alone in this—although the character is mentioned in folk tales she has largely been forgotten, even in Assam.

As a result, not much is known of this legendary figure, and Kashyap’s introduction to the book suggests that Goswami had to weave together scraps of stories from local folklore with historical research. What we do know about her is that she was a Bodo woman from the Bijni Kingdom, and probably the first female revenue collector (or tehsildar) and that she would become a freedom fighter.

The first woman tehsildar, the only woman in the area to ride a horse, stunningly beautiful and the owner of a bronze sword, all of these mark Thengphakhri out as a heroic figure, as indeed she is. But Goswami chooses not to have her novel follow the trajectory of the traditional hero’s story. The bronze sword of the title is never used here, and the book’s focus is never on Thengphakhri’s anti colonial activities (surely the most obvious plot for a story about a freedom fighting heroine).

Because The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar isn’t really a hero narrative at all, but something quieter and more introspective. Set in the late 1800s during the years in which Thengphakhri is a revenue collector for the British, Goswami’s novel depicts a society in which the British presence may be cause for unease, but individual Britishers and the East India Company still inspire loyalty, gratitude and admiration among many. If their taxes are exploitative and their increasing control over the region worrying, they also protect the region from Bhutan.

For much of this story Thengphakhri is depicted as an observer rather than an actor. Her position as an official working for the British marks her as something as an outsider within her community. She has close friendships with two British men, and is particularly affected by the death of her mentor, Hardy.

Hardy, Macklinson and the other British characters in this novel are never mere villains and it’s perfectly possible to see them as decent men making a genuine effort to do what is right. Yet the British presence in the novel is a sinister one, made doubly so by the fact that much of the time the Indian characters from whose perspective we read have swallowed the party line. It’s Macklinson who teaches Thengphakhri to be hard-hearted while collecting revenue—and Thengphakhri’s silence will implicate her later when we see a family ruined by their inability to pay the state what it claims is its due. This growing unease with the role of the British is not just played out publicly, then, as revolts and raids increase and overly-political men are ‘accidentally’ shot; it is played out privately within the heads of its characters. And we are only privy to a fraction of those thoughts.

A big part of what makes the novel interesting, then, is what it doesn’t tell us. Beyond a couple of fleeting references to a husband we know nothing about Thengphakhri’s status as a widow. We don’t see her in the moment when she finally chooses her side. And we don’t see her in what is arguably the most heroic phase of her life. As a result, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is odd, and often abrupt. Filled with descriptions of the beauty of the local landscape it’s also surprisingly impressionistic.

Aruni Kashyap’s translation feels a little uneven. The vivid imagery of the novel comes across clearly, but the interactions between characters feel awkward and stilted, as if everyone were speaking in a language unfamiliar to them. None of this hides the fact that The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is nuanced and consistently surprising, and I’m glad it’s finally available in English.

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January 8, 2012

Kunal Basu, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure

Historical fiction that isn’t just historical fiction and isn’t necessarily set (when written by an Indian author) in India. There isn’t enough of it around. I like a lot of Basu’s earlier work, and I’m a big fan of how wide-ranging it is. But The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is not his best work.

I reviewed the book in Saturday’s Indian Express. An edited version below.

 

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugese doctor Antonio Maria discovers that his father is dying of syphilis, for which there is no known cure. Antonio is unable to accept the painful and ignominious (syphilis sufferers are social outcasts) death that awaits his father. He looks to China for a cure, placing all his hopes in the rumour that few Chinese have syphilis and in the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal medicine.

In China he is established in a part of the Queen’s Summer Palace, though the Queen herself is never seen. Antonio is placed under the care of a doctor named Xu who undertakes to teach him the whole of the Nei Ching school of medicine, since it seems that the cure for syphilis cannot be applied without knowledge of the whole.  He divides his time between the Legation, a nearby colony of Europeans, and the Palace where he rapidly falls in love with Fumi (for his own reasons, Xu seems to prefer to leave his student with his assistant).

Through all of this, larger political events are taking place in China. The Boxer rebellion is brewing through most of the novel, breaking out properly in its final third.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure looks back to a fascinating moment in history. The delicate equations between the great powers at the dawn of the twentieth century may not be the subject of this book, but they are ever present. This is particularly evident in the interactions of the various foreigners (Americans, Japanese and an assortment of Europeans) at the Legation. In addition, there’s a strong sense of an end to power in both of the novel’s main locations. Portugal’s colonial prominence is all but over, and in China the almost phantom Queen (never seen, though when Antonio trespasses into the forbidden parts of the palace there is the implication that she has only just left) does almost nothing to assert her power.

Portugal and China are also notable for being relatively unusual settings for English language fiction. This has its disadvantages though, and over and over again one gets the feeling that the text doesn’t quite trust the readers to keep up without being fed quantities of historical context. Particularly in the early stages of the novel, we are subjected to many scenes in which things are painstakingly explained. It’s hard to do such a thing without being awkward, and here Basu’s writing is at its least elegant.

 

Antonio’s perspective is another difficulty. His impressions of China are entirely in line with those one would expect from a nineteenth-century European man. The problem, however, is that many of these assumptions also colour a great deal of later literature which takes them perfectly seriously – we’re all too familiar with the “inscrutable” Chinese, or the European who bothers to learn his native servants’ names being morally superior to his fellow countrymen. At times it is easy to remember that Antonio’s vision is imperfect. The Legation scenes recognise this with deadpan humour. And when his internal narrative comes up with “lovesickness, a disease no less mysterious than the rarest of female disorders” or “the secret workings of the Chinese mind, how it went about solving puzzles and inventing things” we’re being invited to roll our eyes at him. But all too often in his interactions with the natives the only thing reminding us of this is a prior faith in Basu’s abilities as a writer. And the binaries the book sets up are predictable and uninteresting; in Xu’s words “Western doctors deal with simple cause and effect …the Chinese look for reasons that might even lie outside the body”.

The search for the cure that lies at the heart of this book is an elusive one. Syphilis, a disease associated with sin, comes to mean more than itself. “What if it was immortal?” asks Antonio’s friend Arees, speculating that syphilis is “the price we must pay to be alive”. Antonio himself connects the mystery of syphilis to that of his lover Fumi, “two symptoms both arising from the same condition”. Even the name of the disease reflects this endless deferral of meaning; the “French Disease” in Portugal, it is named after the Portugese elsewhere and in China is “Canton Rash” (historically it has also been “the German sickness” and “the Christian disease” among others). In the real world a cure for syphilis would be developed within a decade of the events of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure; within the novel, this seems almost inconceivable.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure skilfully weaves together its various historical strands, resulting in an unusual, intelligent novel. Yet it is let down by its own simplicity in places, and (particularly when placed next to some of Basu’s earlier work) is eventually a little underwhelming.

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