Wednesday, 6 June 2018

On Mother Land by Paul Theroux



                                             MOTHER LAND by Paul Theroux
                                   Hamish Hamilton – ISBN 978-0-241-14498-5 (h/b)
                                              © Paul Theroux 2017 – 509 pp
  
This is a devastating denunciation of his own mother by Paul Theroux, scarcely disguised as a fictional portrait of the eponymous one of the title who rules her brood of eight children (including one long deceased but not erased from her and the family`s discourse) and a ham-fisted husband who was prone to use a hard fist when the mood seized him.  This is how I described it as an entry in my 2018 diary when I finished reading the book:

“My favourite author bares it all – his soul, his inner life, his family and above all his turbulent, viscerally destructive relationship with his mother! His heartfelt dedication says it all. Will have more to say about this perhaps later.  Finished it in record time of just two weeks.”

The epigrammatic quotes from Jim Jones` Jonestown `Death Speech` of November 1978 and a poem by William Butler Yates which serve as a dual prelude to the book at the very start give a flavour of this relentless 500+ page diatribe against his mater.  Then we are treated to an unforgivingly critical analysis of her character and how all through his growing up he felt unwanted, despised and useless as one of her offspring.  There is, as other critics have noted, much repetitive delving into his upbringing and the impact her biting tongue had on him.  These few lines from the middle of the book speak volumes:

“Knowing we would never find encouragement within the family – knowing in advance we would always be undermined – we sought it elsewhere.  This need sent us into the world.  Except for [two of his siblings, two sisters] who had tied themselves to Mother, all of us had looked for a welcome we never found at home. So some of us became travelers”, clearly including himself, reinforced by countless references throughout to the narrator as a well-known published author. And later, in the same vein, he examines a series of other writers` relationships with their own mothers:

“Edward Wilson`s mother said she`d never read a word of his.  D. H Lawrence`s father mocked his son`s writing and called it a kind of slacking.  Joyce`s wife famously jeered at his verbal ingenuity  ... and Joyce pointedly did not attend his mother`s funeral.  Hemingway`s mother hated The Sun Also Rises and called it `one of the filthiest books of the year`, with every page filling her `with sick loathing`, as she wrote to him.”  He also mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald`s short story called `An Author`s Mother` which portrayed her as a philistine and an unappreciative parent of a successful author.  These are just a few of the many literary examples of a dysfunctional mother-son dynamic that he gives as a pointer to his own angst!  (pp 390-391).  By an extraordinary coincidence, just as I finished reading the book, I came across a review of `Writers and Their Mothers` edited by Dale Salwak, a 2018 publication as it happens. It does not list Theroux among the writers featured in the book, but I have no doubt that in a future edition it probably will. 

Further, there is yet another biographical revelation (at pp 402-403): “In the early, searching part of my life, as a teacher in Africa and South-east Asia, when I read everything, including the small print on the labels of ketchup bottles, I`d happened upon The Death Ship and discovered a writer to my taste.  B. Traven was a rebel, a wanderer, a bitter satirist, an underdogger – and a mystery”.  “Hidden, productive, loved; living in Mexico, a restless man, a linguist, a photorgapher, an occasional explorer in the jungle – sought out but never found – he had always been a hero to me, especially now, as I reflected I was living at home near my mother and among my contentious family, deeply in debt, pitied by my children, unregarded, unproductive, unloved”. “Amen. Mother”! It is significant that Theroux himself completed his manuscript of Mother Land in 2015 at Villaflores, Chiapas, Mexico – a clear tribute, intended or not, to his literary hero!

And all this was so unknown to his readers! As a long term fan of his writing … that he harboured such a deep seated sense of grievance, hatred even, towards his own mother ...there was never a hint ... but did it matter, does it matter?  Not at all.  It took courage to confess, to the world at large, about his inner feelings: how he felt ignored, undervalued, belittled – there are lots of instances and accounts of his interactions with every member of his family, only one of whom he was close to - the sheer minutiae of these is staggering, even if, as noted above, at times repetitive.  His penmanship let loose; his anger vented. he must feel at peace now.  Let`s hope so.  My admiration for him as a writer remains undiminished.

RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2018

Surrey, England




 

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

A Passage to India debunked!


A fortnight ago, on Tuesday the 6th, I saw the resurrected 1965 BBCtv production of this play directed by Warris Hussein, adapted from its stage version by Santha Rama Rau of the legendary eponymous novel by E M Forster.  If that is a loaded introduction, then there is more: this was at the start of a Warris Hussein retrospective at the National Film Theatre, and the screening was prefaced by a wide ranging discussion, after a formal introduction, between Warris Hussein and the veteran Virginia McKenna who had acted the part of Adele Quested in the tv production. They reminisced about the essence of the plot and its impact on them, as well as their mutual interactions and those of the others involved in the project - a journey back in time.  But that was not all; for the next item in the evening`s schedule (after a very short interval of some 20 minutes) was an even more fascinating session, dubbed `Warris Hussein in Conversation with Samira Ahmed`, the renowned documentary maker and presenter of cultural and political programmes on tv and radio.  So it turned out to be a five hour plus long evening (including travel time) with just enough of a break for convenience and a hasty snack.

I had always admired Warris Hussein for his long and distinguished career - and his impressive credentials are a testament to that.  As for his actual work, though, I could only relate to this tv production of A Passage to India (`Passage`) (which I had not seen at the time as it was after I had left the UK) and his Glittering Prizes and the Edward and Mrs Simpson series of the 1970s (which I had, for by then we had settled back in here). But to be quite frank, until now I had also thought of him as pas!  But here he was live in person – dignified, focused, articulate, active, engaged, full of plans for even more to come!  His exchanges with Samira Ahmed were frank, informative, analytical, full of anecdotes and gave an insight into his enormous hinterland, both as a person and as a professional. There was nothing hagiographical in Samira Ahmed`s gentle probing. He was taken through a selection of his huge output dating back to 1962, revealing the depth of its range and reach – a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening exposure of his trajectory indeed.   

But let me revert to the `Passage` and explain why I felt disillusioned with it.  No Anglicised Indian (whether `desi` or diasporan) of a certain past era needs to be reminded that it is part of our bi-cultural heritage. Like all like-minded people of my generation, learning about it was a significant point in my intellectual awakening.  I well remember the time around 1960 when it was staged in London at a theatre not far from the British Museum to much critical acclaim, though as a poor student I only read reviews of it, full of praise for the sterling performance of Zia Mohyeddin as Dr Aziz. Later I read the book itself.  But the first time I actually saw it enacted on stage was at Nairobi`s National Theatre, around 1967, when an enterprising Kenya Asian BBC trained theatre guy produced it. I had even gone to the free-for-all mass audition out of curiosity, to see a long line of wannabe Indian actors (no female parts were in the reckoning, I think) being weeded out one by one. The one who I later learned was chosen to play the part of Dr Aziz was Vinay Inamdar, an insurance businessman, one of our close-knit local elite circle. He certainly did an impressive job of the role.
 
In those early post-colonial days, the reality of an altered state of relations between the rulers of the former empire and its subject people had not quite sunk in, and a sense of grievance for past wrongs on the one hand and a failure to embrace the change on the other still cast a long shadow over perceptions of `us` and `them`, in almost black and white terms!  It was this that seemed to have coloured our understanding of how the central plank of the play (whatever that did or did not take place in the Malabar caves between Dr Aziz and Adele Quested and its aftermath) was to be interpreted and so what mattered most to us was that in the end Aziz was cleared of the charge of molesting her, irrespective of the artistic merits of the play.

Not so now however! Seeing the revival of the Warris Hussein package, I felt repelled by the sight of Dr Aziz as a character right from the beginning. In the very opening sequence, he waylays Mrs Moore somewhat precipitously, more like an unsophisticated simpleton than a medical professional. He does not ask if she had taken off her shoes before entering the mosque but assumes so, though then has the grace to offer to, and does, escort her around. Afterwards, when the scene switches to Fielding`s home where he has been invited to tea, with Mrs Moore and Adele Quested, and Professor Godbole, what happens there also is an embarrassing series of gaffes and misunderstandings, largely brought about by his ignorance of basic social etiquette and an ingrained sense of racial inferiority. 

Why was he trying so hard to please his host and the English guests and residents? This was the running theme of his relationship with them, all the way through to the Malabar caves outing and its tragic sequels, including the court scene and the sad denouement. I found his speech and mannerism repulsive, his whole bearing lacking in subtlety and restraintThe contrast between him and the dignified Professor Godbole was jarringly obvious. What troubled me was whether this casting of Aziz`s persona as a classic caricature of the proverbial Indian `babu` was based on the Forster original or Rama Rau`s dramatised version or indeed Warris Hussein`s tv reconstruction of it?  This is something I wish I had raised in the Q&A at the end of the Warris Hussein/Samira Ahmed conversation piece. It has troubled me that I didn`t – probably because the thought had not had time to crystallise in my mind during the tight timescale of the two programmes. 

But surely Zia M`s acting of the part, both on stage and in the tv adaptation, was lauded by the critics at the time?  That was indeed so but my gripe is not about the technicality of his performance but rather the portrayal of the Aziz character in terms of its conceptual construct. The way I rationalised it was this:  Forster`s wrote his novel in 1924, at a time when the Raj was a firm fixture in British Indian relations, even if the stirrings of independence had begun to surface.  His depiction of the respective Indian and British characters was thus rooted in the realities and attitudes of the period.  But even so, would a doctor in Aziz`s position have behaved in the way he did?  Granted that social intercourse between the two sides was conducted on an unequal footing or at best in artificially contrived situations, his antics seemed to be too raw and unbefitting his status.  But is this not where a writer`s imagination comes into play, to endow individual characters with their own unique personal strengths and weaknesses?  If Fielding was an uncharacteristic exception to the ruling genre, then surely Aziz too must be judged by the same criterion, ie. that he also was an oddity?  

It is a very long time since I read Forster`s `Passage` and to that extent am now merely speculating as to his intent.  I am also unfamiliar with Rama Rau`s stage play.  She wrote it nearly 40 years after Forster`s original, by which time the Empire had gone, though it is impossible to say whether that might have affected her portrayal of the Aziz character. But as, according to the programme notes, Warris Hussein`s production was substantially the same as Rama Rau`s, we have to assume that Dr Aziz`s part was based on how it would have been perceived at least some sixty years ago (when she wrote the stage play) or, if it stayed true to the Forster original then, nearly a hundred!  It is a pity I missed the Q&A opportunity to discuss whether the play might have been directed differently now, for example by toning down the histrionics of some of the Indian characters. 

But why am I so exercised about the Aziz character in particular?  Because our (meaning East African Asian) colonial experience was so different from that of the kind featured in the play.  In Kenya, the Indians were in contention with the Europeans about their rightful place in the colony`s governance on the basis of their claim for civil and political equality in light of their historical and continuing contribution to the opening up and development of the country. The Devonshire Declaration was the talking point of the day in 1924.  I wrote about it in my 2009 piece in AwaaZ titled `Mrs Naidu`s Eloquence` and quote this passage from it to sum up the mood of that time:  `She denounced racial segregation as an “insult” and was equally scathing about the Reservation of the HIghlands, asking why the “arrogant cowardly and selfish” white man “will not fight on equal terms with the Indians and Africans against the elements”`

I find it inconceivable that an Indian doctor in Kenya would have behaved in the obsequious and self-humiliating fashion that Aziz did in all his dealings and encounters with members of the English ruling establishment. This is not just because one is looking at what might have happened from our present day perspective, for in the mid-1960s I did know people who had been around some 30+ years earlier and from their accounts it was clear that the conditions then prevailing were not as stark as in India. The thrust of the `Passage` narrative was to underline the social gulf between the ruling and the subject peoples. There were all sorts of other anomalies in the play also which I haven`t touched on here; suffice it to say that I found it dated.  Nevertheless it serves as a historical literary masterpiece.

RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2018

Surrey, England
 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My review of 2017



So yet another year has passed, and while the pace of life has slowed down a little there is much that has happened which I should like to record here.  Actually, I can repeat the second sentence of my review of last year more or less word for word thus: [a]lthough this blog has not been updated since the last entry of 24 February [yes as long as that], I have done a fair amount of writing elsewhere – reviews, papers, articles and other stuff – but for now let me start with  

Books 

1) `The Underground Railroad` by Colson Whitehead – ISBN 078-0-7088-9839-0 – h/b Fleet 2016 UK – © CW 2016 – 306 pp – hard hitting and starkly revelatory but imaginary tale of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, who follows the eponymous escape lifeline for slaves fleeing their harsh and inhuman fate from the American south across hostile territory all the way to the north and Canada – the cruelties, the punishments, the degradation and the sheer inhumanity of their very existence – all this is so graphically described as to numb the reader`s sensibilities – the narrative however is not linear, nor is the railroad of the title which is a virtual construct of an escape route for fleeing slaves.
2) `Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir` by Ken Clarke – isbn 978-1-5098-3719-9 – Macmillan h/b – © KC 2016 – 498 pp –  an independent minded liberal Tory of the old one-nation school - a delightful read – written in characteristically easy-going off-the-cuff style with self-deprecating humour and unpretentious frankness – we get to know from the horse`s mouth, as it were, exactly how his political commitment and career absorbed his adult life, from his Cambridge days until more or less the present – he attended his first Conservative Party conference in 1962 – his easy-going nature shaped his politics – one thing of note: according to him David Cameron did not consult the cabinet about holding the EU referendum.  As he says (at p 477): "My sense of political ease within the Cameron government never fully survived the lurch into a referendum.  But there were other problems, too, including the declining level of collective responsibility with the government.  Little serious discussion was now taking place at the short Cabinet meetings, which were sometimes taken up with ministers making presentations on routine aspects of their departmental policy.  Actual decisions were being taken by the gang of four led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg."  He left the Cabinet in a reshuffle but on mutually good terms, successfully fought the 2015 election at a time when his wife was seriously ill, returned to Parliament for his final term - lots of glimpses into how government works in the 21st century.   

 3) `Burmese Days` by George Orwell – original © 1934 G Orwell – this Penguin edition p/b reprinted 2009 with a new Introduction under isbn  978-0-141-18537-8 – 300 pp – Orwell`s cynical portrayal of the shenanigans of the colonial Brits in Burma then part of the Indian Empire in the 1930s – the interactions between the Brits and the native characters Dr Veraswami and U Po Kyin, the sub-divisional magistrate at the remote station of Kyauktada, and indeed the broader physical setting of the novel are reminiscent of E M Forster`s `A Passage to India`- made enjoyable and pertinent reading during our Myanmar trip – had to buy this from a bookseller in Yangon on the first day of our arrival as I had left the book I had taken with me (`The Sympathizer` by Viet Thanh Nguyen) on the plane at Dubai on our transit stop there!  According to Orwell (at p 296) “Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town – it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes” – well that may have been then, but what we saw of Mandalay was impressive (pagodas and priests, yes, but also many environmentally attractive features). 

4) `An Impressive God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America` by Henry Wiencek – isbn 0-374-17526-8 – pub: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York – © HW 2003 – 404 pp – this was my `study` book during the SE Asian cruise that followed our cultural tour of Myanmar – a fascinating biography by an accomplished academic and writer whose depth and breadth of research was evident all through the text and the detailed notes, references and index – GW owned slaves, defended slavery and saw to it that it was enshrined in the US Constitution, though in his will he set his slaves free, once his widow had died – the book`s graphic accounts of how slavery was so intimately intertwined with the lives and fortunes of the slave owners and how it gave rise to mixed race relationships within respectable families pointed to only part of the whole story – there is so much more in terms of factual detail – coming on top of my reading of the Underground Railway and other literature and films such as the ones mentioned below seen during this trip, the book made gripping reading. 

5) `The Afghan` by Frederick Forsyth – a Corgi p/b 9780552155045 – © FF 2006 – 462 pp – a spy thriller in the post 9/11 world – a good holiday read.

6) `Nutshell` by Ian McEwan – ISBN 9781911214335 – Jonathan Cape h/b – © IM 2016 – 199 pp – a 21 century McEwanish take on Hamlet – combining the poetry of a narrative by a foetus – from within the confines of its embryonic casing – who is witness to the unfolding drama of a conspiracy to the murder of its father by the mother and his uncle who is her paramour – unconventional but readable!

7) `The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life` by John le Carré isbn 978-0-241-25755-5 - Viking h/b – © D Cornwell 2016 – 310 pp – a delightful and kaleidoscopic journey through the author`s personal and literary life – he is very forthright about the character of his father and his relationship with him, warts (and a lot of them) and all, and not much warm about his mother either, though he had lost touch with her for most of his childhood and only came to know her as a mature adult – he is also frank about his professional background and history – but all is told in an unassuming and disarming way.  I had booked to go to his appearance and presentation at the Royal Festival Hall on September 7 (at £75 for the ticket) but then decided that this book was a good enough substitute and so cancelled the booking.

8) `based on a true story` by Delphine de Vigan (translated from the French by George Miller) – isbn 978-1-4088-7880-4 – Eng lang © GM 2017 – bloomsbury h/b – 374 pp – a pretentious plot – fictional author chasing and being stalked by her own alter ego – the supposed mystery is wrapped up in a mass of introspective narrative – a timewaster – lesson learnt: be wary of reviewers` recommendations, most of which (like so much else) are targeted at people much younger than oneself and easily impressionable, as in this very case!

9) `Black Water` by Louise Doughty – isbn 978-0-571-27867-1 – Faber p/b – © LD 2016 – 360 pp – brilliant, gripping, mystery about the travails and trajectory of `Nicolaas De Herder, born (during WWII) on the island of Sulawesi in the Dutch East Indies, to a white Dutch mother and an Indo officer in the Dutch Colonial Army` (p 154) who had undergone several changes of name but then been assigned (and so assumed) the simple name of John Harper by his superiors at the `Institute` (a coded description really of a cryptic intelligence organisation based in the Netherlands) when he graduated from their training course to become a field operative.  He gets posted to Indonesia in the mid-1960s, where he could `pass` as a native if needed be but otherwise remained a westerner, and lives through the 1965 coup that brought Sukarno to power.  He gets caught up in the bloody purge of communists that followed.  The plot thickens and we are taken through both his past and present in a complicated series of flashbacks and agonising detail about his personal and familial life through to 1998 when, after an absence of more than 30 years, he is sent back to Indonesia to confront that year`s sequel to the 1965 revolution and when his professional undoing that follows. Throughout, he is referred to as plain Harper - a really great piece of literature, by an established author. 

{Note: reading this made me look up the case of Perez v Sharp, where the Supreme Court of California decided, in 1948, that the state`s ban on interracial marriages violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.  Andrea Perez (a Mexican American woman) and Sylvester Davis (an African American man) met while working in the defense industry in Los Angeles.[2] Under the state of California law, individuals of Mexican ancestry generally were classified as white because of their Spanish heritage.  This was germane to Harper`s story – and see further down under Special Note for more on the case, which has relevance to the film `Loving` noted below under Films etc.}

10) `William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner` by William Hague– isbn 13 978-0-00-722885-0 – HarperPress h/b – © WH 2007 – 515 + Notes Bibliography Index = 582 pp – a fascinating, gripping, comprehensive biography, narrated in the same easy-going style that we associate with Hague as an effective and persuasive speaker and communicator – WW born … in the family home on the High Street (in Hull) on 24 August 1759 (p 4); in May 1780, not yet twenty-one, began canvassing in expectation of an election the next year – June 1780: the Gordon Riots … election followed … got elected and on 31 October 1780 … took his seat on the backbenches (p 36) … died Monday 29 July 1833 … The Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in August 1833; thus was his life-long campaign accomplished at his death, after nearly 50 years of struggle - the first breakthrough having been in the form of the Slave Trade Abolition 1807 Act.  

11) `The Mile End Murder: The Case Conan Doyle Couldn`t Solve` by Sinclair McKay – isbn 978-1-78131643-6 (Autumn Press h/b) © 2017 Quarto Publishing – 312 pp – fascinating reconstruction of the trial of James Mullins for the murder of Mrs Mary Emsley, a wealthy widow aged 70 at her house in Grove Road in London`s East End one August day in 1860, with the aid of the extensive coverage of the case in The Times and other papers and related literature.  We get a huge insight into the make-up of the population, local culture and history of the period.  Very soon after the case was concluded, doubts were raised about the conviction of Mullins, and forty years later Conan Doyle wrote about it with his own take  on the subject in `The Debatable Case of Mrs Emsley`.  The Times`s archives can be searched to verify the many references to its reports from August to November of 1860 – key words: The Stepney Murder, eg report of the proceedings of the preliminary hearing at the Thames Police Court on 26 Sep 1860 in the following day`s paper, and of Mullins`s execution on 19 Nov 1860 in the following day`s paper. This true life setting was indeed Dickensian/Victorian – my favourite period of literary history.   

12) `Home Fire` by Kamila Shamshie – isbn 978-1-4088-8677-9 (hb) – Bloomsbury –© KS 2017 – 260 pp – on contemporary  theme of British Muslim youth radicalisation in response to the spread of Islamophobia – a clever plot involving a wealthy Muslim Brit (how he acquired his millions is not exactly clear), a child of immigrant parents brought up in Bradford in humble circumstances and in a traditional religious/cultural household who makes it good in politics to become Home Secretary, along the way marrying an American heiress from New England – somewhat incredible this – his son, a posh boy with a public school/Oxbridge background who first meets a young postgraduate woman student, a Muslim like himself from England, in Amherst though their romance never materialises – back in England gets entangled with her sister and a complicated scenario emerges – I got the book and had it autographed by the author at her Tara Arts appearance in September (see below) during which she talked about her deep underlying concern about the effect of citizenship deprivation laws aimed at jihadist Muslim Britons.  

13) `The Fall Guy` by James Lasdun – isbn 9781910702833 – Jonathan Cape h/b – © JL 2017 – 266 pp – a clever 21st century mystery set in the upper crust milieu of upstate New York – too much pretentious detail about the cooking ability of the central character who meets his comeuppance in a thrilling denouement – light reading during the extended Xmas season. 

(Note: am currently reading (1) `Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World` by James Evans and (2) A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre - more about them next year!).

(Special note about the significance of the case of Perez v Sharp extracted from Wikipedia:

By its decision in this case, the California Supreme Court became the first court of the 20th century to hold that a state anti-miscegenation law violates the US Constitution.[6] It preceded Loving v. Virginia, the case in which the United States Supreme Court invalidated all such state statutes, by 19 years, and antedated the civil rights milestones such as Brown v. Board of Education from which Loving benefited. Indeed, in Loving, Chief Justice Warren cited Perez in footnote 5, and at least one scholar has discussed the extent to which Perez influenced his opinion.[7]

Perez was much of the basis for the California Supreme Court's 2008 decision In re Marriage Cases (2008) 43 Cal. 4th 757, which declared that the California law restricting marriage to be between a man and a woman to be unconstitutional [in effect allowing same-sex marriages, RS].

Films, Plays, Concerts etc

1) Sun 22 Jan – Odeon Epsom - `Lion` (Dir: Garth Davis – Aus – 2016 – Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar) R & K – Brilliant - 9/10

2) Thu 02 Feb – Odeon Epsom – NT LIVE: `Amadeus` - Lucian Msamati as Salieri in P Shaffer`s play + Southbank Sinfonia - 9/10 

3) Tue 07 Feb – ICA - `A Stitch of Life` (Dir: Yukiko Mishima – 2015 - Japanese with Eng Sub) elegant, endearing, slow-paced – but then  it seemed to lose momentum with an inconclusive ending –  part of the UK wide Japanese Foundation Touring Film programme – 7/10

4) Tue 14 Feb – Curzon, W`don - `Denial` (dir: Mick Jackson; Screenplay: David Hare; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson + others (based on Deborah Lipstadt`s History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier) absolutely superb; impressive background and legal scenes; the drama of the court sequences was gripping; well-acted throughout with a perfect re-enactment of the case  -  9/10    

5) Sun 19 Feb – Odeon Epsom - `Hidden Figures` (Dir: Theo Melfi; starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner) absolutely brilliant – hidden history of the crucial role of black female mathematicians in the US space programme of the 1950/60s revealed in an unsensational manner with no overt sentimentality – superbly acted by all -  9/10    

6) During our various flights to and from Singapore and Yangon, saw the following in-flight movies:

    `Fences` (2016 - dir: Denzel Washington – starring DW and Viola Davis) - 7/10
     `The Salesman` (2016 – dir: Asghar Farhadi – starring Shahab Hosseini and  
                                Taraneh Alidoosti (Persian with English subtitles) - 7/10
    `Loving` (2016 – dir: Jeff Nichols – starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) – 8/10
    `The Birth of a Nation` (2016 – dir: Nate Parker – starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner – 8/10
    `Queen of Katwe` (2016 - dir: Mira Nair – starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong`o) – 7/10

(Normally I do not list such movies or those seen on tv or dvd, but these were all marked on my list for viewing in the cinema during these months and the opportunity to see them in-flight was most welcome – I wrote about Loving in detail in my AwaaZ column in issue 1/2017).

7) Fri 21 Apr – ICA - `I Am Not Your Negro` (dir: Raoul Peck, France/USA 2016, 93 mins) – a powerful documentary on the life, literature and activism of James Baldwin with historical footage of his appearances/interviews/interactions etc – 8/10

8) Fri 05 May – NFT2 - `Crosscurrent` (dir: Yang Chao, China 2016, 116 mins, Mandarin with English subtitles), a cinematic voyage down the Yangtze River, with reflections of the captain of a barge on his life and loves – atmospheric – 7/10

9) Thu 11 May – Odeon Epsom – NT Live : `Obsession` (dir: Ivo van Hove; starring Jude Law, Halina Reijn etc) – superbly acted and with impressive stagecraft but towards the end the play seemed to lose its marbles, as it were -  6/10 

10) Fri 19 May – RFH – Ravi Shankar`s Sukanya The Opera (RPO, Royal Opera, Curve, large cast) – simply superb - 9/10 

11) Wed 31 May – Chestnut Grove Academy SW12 - `Bedroom Farce` by Alan Ayckborn (A Southside Players` presentation, dir: Julie  Weston; well acted by Kanan Barot as Delia) - 6/10 

12) Sat 2 Jun – RFH – Grand Opera Gala (The Great Choruses) Philharmonia Orchestra – cond Stefan Beviar - 5/10

13) Fri 04 Aug - ICA - `Railway Sleepers` - dir. Sompot Chidgasornpongse, Thailand 2017 -  a fascinating documentary about a real time train journey from the north to the south of Thailand – we learn the history of the railway in Thailand going back to 1893 when the line in question was inaugurated – more importantly we see the train in motion as it speeds through its route, with real life footage of the passengers and all that goes around them through different stages of the journey – young and old, men women and children, how they interact, what they do, the condition of the carriages, the seating and eating and sleeping and basically everything that people do on board, with passing shots of the stops along the way and glimpses of the country the train traverses and the stations and their immediate vicinity it passes through (reminded me of the train journey from Chang Mai to Singapore that we had done in 2009) - 7/10 

14) Thu 07 Sep - NFT2 - `Hotel Salvation` - dir. Shubhashish Bhutiani, India 2016 – (cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Palomi Ghosh, Geetanjali Kulkarni); The Guardian reviewer described it as “This beautifully rendered Indian arthouse film (that) enacts a subtle family comedy-drama”, but it is much more than that.  It is a deeply philosophical exploration of an ageing parent`s journey towards death that he wants to be in control of.  The social setting is a nuclear family of his son Rajiv, daughter-in-law Lata, and their mischievously delightful daughter Sunita, all of whom are greatly fond of him and reluctantly let him go to Varanasi to await his final departure from this earth.  The acting and the direction are simply superb.  Bhutiani is an incredible 26 year old, who had already won an award in New York for his short film Kush in 2013, and now has won a Unesco award from the Venice Film Festival for this movie and no doubt in line for many more - 9/10    
                                                                                                                               
15) Fri 06 Oct – NFT2 (LFF) - `Razzia` - dir. Nabil Ayouch – France 2017 – subtitles – Moroccan setting – 4 narrative streams – a dedicated young poetic teacher who is cruelly put down by the education authorities for teaching in the Berber dialect instead of Arabic, the official national language – he migrates to Casablanca – where fast forward to 2015 the rest of the action takes place – repeated references to Casablanca the movie classic - 5/10

16) Mon 09 Oct - Haymarket (LFF) `Lucky` - dir: John Carrol Lynch – USA 2017 - `Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky` - so he is – and his last performance too!  Absolutely brilliant – superb performance by Stanton as Lucky who is defiantly coming to terms with his age and the relentless march towards death - 9/10

17) Thu 12 Oct – Embankment  (LFF) `Sweet Country` - dir: Warwick Thornton – Aus 2017 – a stark Aussie Western – with the aboriginals as the `Indians` or, more appropriately, like the negro slaves of the American wild west at the receiving end of every kind of raw racism and brutality that was possible – we see the scenes of violence against them with increasing horror – leaves one cold  9/10

(LFF = London Film Festival – this year was able to see only three films; one I had to forgo, despite having pre-booked, to attend Raila Odinga`s disappointing talk at Chatham House – see below!).

18) Thu 02 Nov – RFH Concert (Philharmonia Orch – cond: Karl-Heniz Steffens; Esther Yoo violin – Beethoven Overture Egmont; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Brahms Symphony No 4 - 8/10  
                                                                                                                 
19) Thu 16 Nov – Odeon Epsom – NTLive screening of `Follies` - excellent musical – thoroughly enjoyable – 8/10

20) Fri 24 Nov – NFT2 - `Body Double` (Dir: Brian De Palma) – USA 1984 – Craig Wasson; Melanie Griffith -  historical, thought would see it again after so many years! - 7/10

21) Sun 26 Nov – Odeon Epsom - `Murder on the Orient Express` - (Dir: Kenneth Branagh – himself + other celebs- USA 2017 – 5/10

22) Thu 21 Dec -  ICA - `Prince of Nothingwood` - (Dir:  Sonial Kronlund) – the eponymous Prince is Salim Shaheen)  -  this 85 minute documentary is about Afghanistan`s film industry personified in Shaheen`s prodigious output of over 100 films produced in the most inhospitable environment (social, political, physical) of the country where everything is stacked against the art – the absence of women in the public view is only one, though important, element of that - the French producer/director follows Shaheen and his team as they persevere through all kinds of odds and obstacles – the shining star is the charismatic Shaheen, whose frank description of film-making in Afghanistan as `nothingwood`, relative to Hollywood and Bollywood, is both damning and satirical – all in all most enlightening and yet it leaves one with pessimism about the fate of Aghanistan where modernity and enlightenment will remain beyond reach for a long time - and yet one has to admire the likes of Shaheen and his team for their bravery and persistence - 8/10                          

Lectures, Talks, Events etc

1) Thu 02 Feb - RSA - `The Age of Anger` - Pankaj Mishra (ch: Anthony Painter) - good analysis; short on prognosis        
   
2) Thu 09 Feb - RSA - `On Corruption` (Laurence Cockroft & Anne-Christine Wegener + Matthew Taylor, ch)

3) Sun 09 Apr - Ickenham Village Hall – Gujarat Literary Academy event to mark 80thBirthday of Vilas Dhanani

4) Sat 20 May - London Jaipur Lit Fest @ BL – attended 2 talks (The Dishonourable Company & Migrant Words)

5) Tue 04 July - RFH Talk - Naomi Klein: No Is Not Enough (ch: Jude Kelly) – ok. predictable, being on a book tour

6) Fri  15 Sep  -  RFH Talk – Orhan Pamuk – (ch: ?) – talks too much and too long without breaks – Good English

7) Thu 28 Sep -  Tara Arts – Kamila Shamshi in conversation with Razia Iqbal – Re: Home Fire - excellent   

8) Tue 10 Oct -   Emmanuel Centre SW1 – Salman Rushdie in conversation with Mark Lawson - excellent

9) Fri 13 Oct –   Chatham Hse - `Kenya`s Next Test: Democracy, Elections and the Rule of Law` - Raila Odinga

10) Mon 16 Oct - RFH : Man Booker Prize Readings – (ch: Gemma?) – good but didn`t stay on for the Q&A

Miscellany

This year again I have lost some dear friends, relations and acquaintances - and that is going to go on. As for foreign travel, we did a major trip to South East Asia - a wonderful tour of Myanmar, followed by a 12 day cruise from Singapore and back, up and down the coast of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand touching at ports we had visited before a couple of times, but lovely to visit again.  Another cruise is looming ahead, in the next four weeks, skirting the north west coast of Africa through the Canaries and Morocco down to Madeira and back up via Portugal, after which I have booked another exciting trip to the Far East - looking forward to that.

The most important development however is my book project - a collection of my selective writings. This has been keeping me busy and there is much work still remaining to be done but I am hoping to have it published by the end of 2018.   I know it is a bit premature to talk about it, but I have to give myself a deadline and an incentive to do that, for otherwise inertia will triumph.  As things are, I am definitely slowing down, even though it may appear otherwise from the above. I continue to write my regular columns on the AwaaZ magazine and to contribute to the IANL Journal, the A/O and other forums but I don`t think I can keep up the same level of activity and output for the coming years.  Well, we shall see.

Thank you and best wishes for 2018.

RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2017
Surrey, England