Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ruskin Bond (Ed) - The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

+Penguin India
+Amazon India
Ruskin Bond

Indian Railways are a marvel.  They criss-cross across our vast country and take you to nooks and crannies you never thought existed.  They have been transporting people from one point to another ever since 1853, even though the start was a modest run from Bombay to Thane.

I remember traveling with my family from Jamnagar to Delhi during the 60s.  We used to travel unreserved.  Being a large crowd, we would spread durries on the wooden benches and bag a compartment. Our bogie would travel from Jamnagar to Mehsana. At Mehsana we had a longish break and our bogie would go for a shunting and get attached to a train that was traveling to Delhi. We would embark on the train from Jamnagar at around 5 PM, spend two nights in the train and in the morning of the 3rd day, we would be at New Delhi Station.

The steam engine would pump soot into the air and my hair would be coated with it.  There was no chance of a bath, which would come only after we reached my cousin's house in Delhi.  There were high points of the travel we looked forward to. Dahi Bade at Abu Road, Rabri at some other station. We carried water in a small earthenware surahi.  There were no bottles of Bisleri, and we filled up the Surahi at any Railway Station that was handy.

Those days are gone. Now I turn up my nose at stinky poo Railway bathroom, don't drink anything but Bisleri and avoid local food.  If the travel is likely to be more than a day's worth, I look for flights. Yet, on my way to Delhi on the Shatabdi, the train often stops at a small station in Haryana called Diwana, waiting for a signal.  It is not a scheduled stop and I never see a soul there.  It is a single brick building built smack in middle of a farm.  It always brings back memories of sleepy stations that seem almost ghost-like from my childhood train travel.

Being Indians, I am sure almost all of us have traveled by railway, over long distances or short. There are many among us who love the slow chug chug of train travel.

In this collection of Railway stories curated and edited by Ruskin Bond, he brings us the best of the lot.  The first story is culled from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1875 Phileas Fogg passes through India in his quest to cross the world in eighty days.  He is let down badly by the Railways in India, but manages to hire elephants to continue his journey. There are two stories by Rudyard Kipling, one by Flora Annie Steel and some stories by anonymous authors, and one by J.W, Best. These stories are listed under Part I which are stories from the Pre-Independence era.

In the Post-Independence section, we have stories by Jim Corbett, Khuswant Singh, Ruskin Bond himself, Manoj Das, Intizar Husain, Satyajit Ray, Bill Aitkin, R.K. Laxman, Victor Banerjee and Manojit Mitra.

When I completed the Pre-Independence section, I thought, "There goes the best of it. Surely the Post Independence stories will not be as good."  Happily, I was proved wrong.  All the stories, start to finish are delightful.  I had no idea Victor Banerjee wrote such lovely short stories as well.  Bill Aitken's description of the POW (Palace on Wheels) is hilarious.  Khushwant Singh's story, Mano Majra Station is taken from his chilling novel, Train to Pakistan.

Ruskin Bond's preface to the book called Soot Gets in Your Eyes is alone worth the price of the book. At Rs.250/- so much goodness is a steal.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Khushwant Singh - Delhi A Novel

Khushwant Singh
+Penguin Books UK

Delhi A novel starts with the protagonist, A Sikh Journalist, returning to Delhi from abroad.  He is loafing around, visiting his cronies in Coffee House, going around the city when he is asked to escort around a woman who has come down from London.  She has to look over the architecture of Delhi.  Our hero almost has an affair with her.

However, his one enduring affair is with Bhagmati, a hijra whom he had once saved when she had fainted by the side of the road. Once on a visit to Shamsi Talab, he comes across a stone inscribed with the name of Musaddi Lal, devotee of Nizamuddin and resident in the era of Balban. In the next chapter, we zoom into the life of Musaddi Lal in 1280 and thereabouts.  Musaddi Lal was a kayasth whose father was a scribe in the court of Balban.  When his father died, he was offered the same job.  He became a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin and hobnobbed with Amir Khusrau as well.  The life in that era is described beautifully with Musaddi Lal as the narrator.

From here the novel takes turns describing successive eras (with big jumps in time - it would have become a huge tome otherwise) and coming back to present time (which is somewhere from 1970's to 1984). From Balban we jump to a first hand account of the massacre led by Taimur.  Then comes the very touching story of Jaitoo, the Mazhabi Sikh who had the sorrowful privilege of carrying the sheesh of Guru Tegh Bahadur to Anandpur Sahib after he was executed by Aurangzeb. Through the eyes of Jaitoo, we learn how life was like amongst the very poor during the reign of Mughals.

After this comes an account from the pen of Aurangzeb Alamgir himself.  How he found himself sidelined by his father who favored Dara Shukoh. How he tricked and killed his brother and landed himself on the throne of Delhi.  Nadir Shah relates how he came to Delhi and was captivated by a concubine.

Mir Taqi Mir lived from 1722 to 1810. He tasted everlasting fame, but had to live in penury for most of his life, like many other great artists did.  The chapter where Mir describes his life and time is one of the best in this novel.  It sheds light not only on the life of Mir, but also the tumultuous times he lived in.

From Mir we go on to the events of 1857 which are described through the eyes of Alice Aldwell.  She was the daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim girl and an Englishman.  She shed her Anglo-Indian identity by marrying a 50 year old Englishman Aldwell.  She has to scrimp and scrounge to crawl up in the English world. Just when she has made it, the mutiny breaks out.  The English identity that she had built up so painstakingly is now shattered. Along with Alice Aldwell's account, we are also treated to the views of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the Mutiny.  We also go on to read about Nihal Singh, the Sikh orderly under the command of Major Hodson.

In the next historical segment we get a glimpse into the building of the Lutyen's Delhi.  For this who can be better than an eyewitness in the author's own family.  His father was at the forefront of action when Delhi was named, for the final time, the Capital of India.  To the author's credit, he spares no criticism, even of his own forebears and gives us a candid account of the way contracts were handed out.  How his father and grandfather maintained contacts, bribed, presented inflated bills and made a lot of money.  He also lauds them for their thrift and hard work that was also necessary.

The last historical chapter is about Ram Rakha, who becomes an RSS activist in Delhi for the lack of any other employment.  He has to instigate violence against Muslims in 1947-48.  He is also required to spy on Mahatma Gandhi as he fasts.

From the dark times of 1947 we jump to 1984.  Starting from Operation Blue Star in June to the Sikh Massacre in November, when humankind showed that it was not civilized yet.

The book does a very good job of traversing through 700 years of history of Delhi.  The best part is, of course, describing the events through the eyes of a contemporary.  I like the accounts of ordinary citizens much better.  In the story of Musaddi Lal, he does not like Amir Khusro initially. Older and mellower years later, they become good friends.  In the later story of Jaitu the untouchable, we are given a piteous account of how they live.  After he carries the head of Guru to Anandpur Sahib he is known as Rangreta Jaita.

The author does a very good job of getting into the skin of the characters and makes the era they lived in come alive. He lets the warts of his characters show, be they Kings, Commoners or Poets.  Bhagmati, the hijra the main protagonist is enamored of, is the emblem of corruption that Delhi has sunk into.  There is even a story in the book, in the form of a joke that foretold that hijras would inherit Hindustan in the year 1947.

Khushwant Singh claims that he spent twenty-five years writing this book.  I can imagine the research it entailed.  I remember reading an extract from the book that was published in a magazine. It was about Nadir Shah and his tryst with Noor, the concubine.  Typically the focus in the press was on the salacious bits of the book.  When I read the book first about a decade ago, I was very impressed.  I liked the juxtaposition of modern and ancient times. I liked the way he does not mince words when indicting the actions of people throughout history, whether they were Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians.  They were merely frail humans who wronged each other grievously.

In general I am not fond of Khushwant Singh's books.  He claims to be irreverent, and that is a good thing, but the substance of his books was rather thin.  But with Delhi A Novel, he has come up trumps because his subject is so sound.



Sunday, January 01, 2017

Carrie Fisher - Shockaholic

+Simon & Schuster Books
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Carrie Fisher was best known for playing Princess Leia in the legendary movie series Star Wars.  She reappeared recently in the episode VII, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and seemed all set to appear in further Star Wars series. Unfortunately she died on 27 December 2016.

For a girl who did not care for fame, Carrie Fisher garnered a sort of an undying fame. Her appearances in the Star War movies ensured that. A movie star may be forgotten after a couple of decades, remembered only when the movies are re-run on television or played on online forums. Not so for Carrie.

Once you achieve the admiration of the Nerd-Herd, you never die.  A couple of generations have passed since the first airing of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977, but the movie has not been allowed to die.  Despite the less than worthy continuation of the original trilogy and Jar Jar Binks, they have a special place in the hearts of all fans. No wonder even Carrie Fisher's books have her on the cover as Princess Leia.

Carrie Fisher, despite what seems to us as a charmed life, actually had it tough as a celebrity kid. She was the daughter of the beautiful and very successful Debbie Reynolds.  Her father was Eddie Fisher who was later married to Elizabeth Taylor.  Her parents divorced very early and her father was barely present in her life.  Her mother was working all the time and dealing with bad marriages of her own. Carrie had drug related issues and also a big problem with her weight.

However, instead of going under all these problems, which celebrities usually face, she came up again like a tough survivor.  She wrote eight books, three screenplays, did a lot of theater and worked in movies.  She took care of her sick father, mended fences with her mother and always presented a humorous and a positive face to the world.

In Shockaholic, she writes about Shock Therapy, which is now known as ECT, that she had to undergo as the result of her depression.  Despite all the scary references to it in movies like 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest', 'Frances' and such like, she found it was not really bad, and really helped her cope with her problems.  She goes on to mention her relationship with her father, her step-father Karl, Elizabeth Taylor, Micheal Jackson, and one very memorable dinner with Ted Kennedy

She writes with such humor and such deep feelings that the people she is writing about come to life. Her father, despite his numerous failings, springs to life as a charming man who lived life king size. Micheal's need to recreate his childhood and befriend people who will treat him as a human and not take advantage of him is so well depicted.  Elizabeth Taylor's love of jewellery and her superstardom, her fart happy Step-father Karl and the obnoxious Ted will stay in your mind for a long time.

I don't hardly hate ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.
This is the essence of Carrie Fisher and her warm heart springs out of the pages of her book.  She writes fondly of a ring she 'inherited' from her father.  Rumors were that the ring was a real heirloom, an expensive piece of Jewellery until an Opal merchant revealed the truth.  She has such a talent for story telling that it is a pleasure to turn the pages of her book.

I am going to get and read all her books.




 
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