The Cabuliwallah, Rabindranath Tagore

This post is by way of being a thank you to Brona of This Reading Life. A few days ago she put up a review of a book in the Perveen Mistry murder mystery series which is set in 1920s India, and in the discussion which followed she “highly recommended” I read Rabindranath Tagore.

Not a name I’d ever heard before, so who is he? Brona’s consideration for my ignorance extended to linking to Wikipedia. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian, a Bengali Brahmin from Calcutta, “a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter … Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal.” Ok, enough quoting.

Tagore was well-known world-wide, his works were available in English, and he apparently visited all the world’s (habitable) continents except Australia. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first “non-European” to be so honoured. I wonder if that means the first person not resident in Europe or is just a polite way of saying the first non-white.

Brona’s Perveen Mistry novel was set during the royal tour of India by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1921/22 (another blogger has photographs) and in the context of Ghandi’s ‘passive resistance’ movement. Tagore was apparently a supporter of Independence, but was inclined towards world peace rather than nationalism.

The Cabuliwallah is the first short story from Stories from Tagore (1918) which appears to be an English language reader for Indian students.

The present Indian story-book avoids some at least of these impediments [the unfamiliarity of stories set in England]. The surroundings described in it are those of the students’ everyday life; the sentiments and characters are familiar…

Two of the longest stories in this book—”Master Mashai” and “The Son of Rashmani”—are reproduced in English for the first time. The rest of the stories have been taken, with slight revision, from two English volumes entitled “The Hungry Stones” and “Mashi.” A short paragraph has been added from the original Bengali at the end of the story called “The Postmaster.”

Preface

The Cabuliwallah of the title is an Afghani pedlar, working the streets of Calcutta. He attracts the notice of Mini, the author’s 5 year old daughter, and the author must leave the hero and heroine of the adventure novel he is writing swinging from a rope while he goes out into the street to talk to the pedlar. “I made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman, the Russians, the English, and the Frontier Policy.”

Soon Rahmun (the Cabuliwallah) and Mini are firm friends, to be found at some time every day in conversation. They have a little joke about the phrase “father-in-law’s house” which for a strictly brought up girl, which Mini is not, means the home to which her husband will take her; and which when applied to the pedlar is a slang term for jail.

Sadly, one day the pedlar really is taken off to jail, falsely accused by a customer seeking to avoid their debts. For eight years he is out of the author and his daughter’s thoughts. But at the end of that time he returns, to resume the friendship, only to find it is Mini’s wedding day (at 13!).

She is called, and comes, but is too shy to speak.

I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

This being a reader for schools there is at the end a short list of words to be considered (mostly pointing back to their Latin roots, which gives you some idea of what young Indians were taught. But then I suppose at that time they needed Greek and Latin to get into Oxford and Cambridge).

And at the end of the book there are notes, beginning –

“The Cabuliwallah” is one of the most famous of the Poet’s “Short Stories.” It has been often translated. The present translation is by the late Sister Nivedita, and her simple, vivid style should be noticed by the Indian student reader. It is a good example of modern English, with its short sentences, its careful choice of words, and its luminous clearness of meaning.

Cabuliwallah. A man from Cabul or Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

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Rabindranath Tagore, Stories from Tagore, Macmillan, London, 1918. [Project Gutenberg]

All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy

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All the Lives We Never Lived (2018) is an Indian novel narrated by an old man recalling his boyhood in the 1930s, when his mother, frustrated by the restrictions of traditional Indian marriage, ran off to Bali. The old man is called Myshkin, the name given him by his grandfather, after the epileptic prince in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

His mother ran off with the Russian-born German artist, Walter Spies – ran off with an ‘Englishman’ according to the townsfolk to whom all white men were ‘English’, or with her ‘German lover’ in many reviews, including the New York Times, though Roy is quite clear that Spies was gay.

Walter Spies (1895-1942) is a real person in this work of fiction, who lived and worked in Bali in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), was arrested in 1938 during a crackdown on homosexuals, and again when war broke out in Europe with the Dutch and the Germans on opposite sides, and who died in 1942 when the ship transporting detainees (ironically) to India was sunk by the Japanese. The community of Europeans to which Myshkin’s mother, Gayatri accompanies Spies was also ‘real’, and included Margaret Mead, “the musician Colin McPhee and his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, the Swiss artist Theo Meier and the Austrian novelist Vicki Baum.” (wiki)

As an artistic sixteen year old, Gayatri had been taken to Bali by her father and had there met Spies on a raft in a lake and he had taken them up ..

Over the next few weeks, he took Gayatri, her father and their friends to dance performances, concerts, to beaches, to painting schools … Different here, yet familiar. How strange that most of the people around her thought the whole of the Ramayana had taken place in Java and had no connection with India at all!

The story is told from three perspectives, Myshkin as an old man, a retired landscape gardener; Myshkin growing up; and Gayatri, ostensibly from stories she told Myshkin, and later and less satisfactorily, from a cache of letters whose existence Myshkin had been unaware of of. Although told by Myshkin, this is Gayatri’s story – of her rebellion against the carefully constrained freedoms allowed by her ‘tolerant’ husband.

On their return to India Gayatri’s father dies and her mother marries her off as quickly as possible.

What happened next was represented by my father as romance, and he loved retelling it, each time with new flourishes. My mother listened poker-faced, doodling with her fingers on her sari.

He was 33, a teacher, an Anglo-Indian from the north. She was 17, a well-off Bengali Hindu from Delhi, but flighty, artistic, fatherless. They married, moved in with his father in his combined junk shop/doctor’s surgery in a country town in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Spies, and I could not find this in his bio’s, visits India with a friend Beryl de Zoete, in 1937, seeks out Gayatri, and stays on, boarding nearby, befriending the whole family, taking Gayatri on excursions. One day Gayatri begs Myshkin to be home from school on time, but he is held up, and by the time he gets home the three are gone. Sailed to Bali. Myshkin and his mother write, letters arrive intermittently, but war intervenes and contact is lost.

The father is distraught, shamed, becomes even more involved in the anti-British Independence movement, spending some years in jail. Eventually he finds a single mother to marry and bully and over very many years Myshkin and his step-sister become friends. In the latter part of the novel, from her letters to a friend in India, we learn that Gayatri has become a respected artist in Bali, but has fallen into poverty with the war and Spies’ arrests – she was living separately from, but near him.

I have done some research. A little. And as far as I can see, this is a fiction based around a real community of Europeans on Bali. Reviewers in prestigious magazines can’t take the risk of making mistakes, but I can (or do) and have chosen not to read them too closely, so it is still possible that Gayatri is based on a famous Indian of whom I am unaware.

Now. Anuradha Roy. “One of India’s greatest living novelists” it says on the cover. I bought this thinking it was by Arundhati Roy, surprised that she should have a new novel to release so soon after The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and it was some time before I discovered my mistake. Having read this, I prefer Arundhati whose writing is much grittier. Anuradha Roy, on the basis of All the Lives We Never Lived is solidly middle-class, less political.

Anuradha Roy (1967- ) has written four novels including this one, and they have all won or been shortlisted for various prizes. I’m not sure that’s enough to make her “one of the greatest living” etc., but neither is it to be sneezed at. All the Lives We Never Lived is a good maybe not excellent book, but worth reading, and despite the sometimes less than convincing old man narrator, an interesting, feminist account of Indian life, the difficulties of traditional marriage, and the end of the British Raj.

 

Anuradha Roy, All the Lives We Never Lived, MacLehose Press, London, 2018

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is just the 56 year old Arundhati Roy’s second novel. Her first was the phenomenally successful The God of Small Things (1997) which I read years and years ago and of which I remember very little, and that probably wrongly – a train ride, a woman marries an untouchable, an uncle molests a child – but nevertheless I bought this one as soon as it came out last year and have been determined to read it ever since.

With only odd hours for reading, mostly standing out in the weather waiting for my truck to load or unload (tankers don’t require much physical intervention) I initially found that I was not remembering much more of the second than I did of the first, but around the 200pp mark it began to come together and I think now that I might have a handle on it, though a proper analysis would require multiple readings and reams of notes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an intimate novel inside a great sprawling novel, a novel of India, not the India of our casual acquaintance, of tourism, and brief stories in the business and foreign news pages, but the unseen India of the poor, the homeless, of gradations of skin colour, of untouchables, muslims, trans-sexuals; a novel with not 1.2 billion characters but nearly, all the oppressed of India and Kashmir ground down by a monolithic and indifferent upper class and their violently out of control military and para-military forces.

The ‘outside’ novel contains the story of Anjum, a woman born with a man’s parts, a hijra, who leaves her muslim family to live in a refuge for other hijras and then in mid-life leaves the refuge to construct another, which grows into the Jannat Guest House, little cabins built of scraps over graves in a disused cemetery. During this journey she acquires one daughter, Zainab who prefers to be brought up by another hirja, Saeeda, and then later a second, Miss Jebeen the Second, and a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances from all the minority language groups in the sub-continent living on the streets and in the slums of Delhi.

The ‘inside’ novel is a love story, the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo) a young woman from Kerala in the south who is loved by three men whom she meets when they take part in a play as students. Arundhati Roy’s wikipedia entry says that she

“was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India [in 1961], to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother. For a time, the family lived with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.

“Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

This is also more or less Tilo’s back story. The three men are Biplab Dasgupta who becomes a senior public servant in the Intelligence Bureau, and who sometimes gets to tell his own story; Nagaraj Hariharan, a journalist and for a long time, Tilo’s husband; and Musa (Commander Gulrez) a freedom fighter in Kashmir and always Tilo’s lover.

The story is told in fragments, some from the present, some from the past. Quite early on we see Commander Gulrez’ mutilated body displayed as a trophy by Major Amrik Singh, of the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir, but we also see reports of the murder suicide of Amrik Singh and his wife in America. We meet Miss Jebeen the Second before we meet Miss Jebeen; and we don’t meet the real mother of Miss Jebeen the Second until right at the end when she writes posthumously of her life as Maoist insurgent fighting to protect the tribes in the Bastar forest whose land was/is wanted by mining companies.

At one time Tilo must have an abortion and wakes in a government hospital to find a sick child in bed with her –

There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one – the war of the rich against the poor.

The power of this novel is in its depictions of poverty in Delhi; of the petty and not so petty tyrannies suffered by the many minorities; of the consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism for members of the 21 other nations who weren’t Hindu; Of the consequences of capitalism for people without capital, without recourse to justice – do you remember the Union Carbide disaster?; of the many individual acts of resistance, typefied by Dr Azad Bharatiya and his ten year fast; of the horrific violence in Kashmir; of the many, many individuals whom we get to meet and love as they pass through the Jannat Guest House; but above all the power of this novel is in the language, in all the Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Malayalam (and English) that washes over us.

Tilo ends up one of Anjum’s many friends, a Ustaniji, a teacher of children, in the Jannat Guest House in the abandoned cemetry. More than that I will not tell you, cannot without spoiling this marvellous story of love and war which unfolds unpredictably in all directions at once.

Jis Kashmir ko Khoon se sencha! Woh Kashmir hamara hai!

The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood! That Kashmir is ours!

 

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2017. 445pp