Friday, 24 February 2017

REVIEW OF `HOME BETWEEN CROSSINGS`

                                               
                                           Home Between Crossings by Sultan Somjee
                                                             ISBN 10: 1508586373
                                             CreateSpace, Charleston SC 29418 USA 
                                                   (c) Sultan Somjee 2016 - 629 pp
                                                                       ------------



The `Home` of the title is Kenya, a longish stop-gap in the even longer journey of the Ismaili Khoja community from its origins in India to East Africa and then from there across to Europe and America, during which it has transformed itself into a very modern social species.  In this sequel to Bead Bai (http://opinionmagazine.co.uk/details/1181/--Bead-Bai--ખોટા-મોતી-ના-સાચા-વેપારી--by-Sultan-Somjee), which was about the original migration and settlement (the first crossing), the focus is on the Devji family`s locally born off-spring.  Here, their story spans virtually the whole of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of the country`s immense political and other fundamental changes as they were taking shape.  It is a fascinating and absorbing narrative, told most imaginatively and with great flair and fluency by an accomplished author.

The book is a work of fiction, but one that is best described as creative fiction, founded on historical fact and grounded in family and folk lore. And so we again meet Sakina, born in Nairobi`s Indian Bazaar in 1922 on the day Harry Thuku was arrested by the colonial government for leading an anti-pass protest, and are drawn into her life as it unfolds in bits and pieces, some familiar to readers of Bead Bai.

Njugu Lane, the Merali Bus Stop on River Road, the Kenya Broadcasting Station`s Hindustani Service, the overflowing flooded Nairobi River - the signposting of these long-forgotten names and places certainly resonates with this reviewer, who lived through most of the period in question as a second generation Indo-Kenyan. These early references morph into other later landmarks as Nairobi developed while at the same time Sakina`s family grew and her community`s tentacles spread further.

Woven through the book`s complex structure of her family`s trajectory is a veritable history lesson, of its Ismaili and Indian cultural heritage and of the making of Kenya as a nation out of its colonial past.  The chapter headings are grouped in sixteen parts, and under each of which we get a measure of what they contain. In Part Two: The Keeper of Stories, for instance, we have `My photo album` and `What love? What India?` where, while looking at some of the pictures, Zera Bai exclaims: “I wish my Rhemu would take me to the Taj Mahal for a picture.  I want to see India. Kacch and Gujarat”.  On this our narrator ruminates:

What Kacch? What Gujarat? What India?  … distant pictures … not even mine.  Vicarious pictures that stir my heart yet I have not been there.  Pictures like some witch`s crafted tales imagined from an ancient land.  Nor are they tales in my father`s head.  Hazy, frightful tales in Dadabapa`s malaria nightmares. Dark pictures in memory`s pulses of the orphaned child in him.  They live in pain of yearning, sighs of loss, and far away words of an immigrant. Words like dhow, Bombay, Saurashtra, Haripur, raj, Kala Pani, des, avatar and Taj Mahal.  They come from the motherland of Indian Khoja recalled in dying memories two generations gone by.  Yet the emotions live in the mist-like nostalgia.  Now the ancient is resurrected, made new and modern.  Beauty portrayed in love photos before the Taj Mahal, and in the cinema, the hideout of Indians of Africa to bond with the origins in half-hearted thoughts.

This neatly encapsulates the pre-history of the first migration, but Somjee gives us much more in terms of the detail, the minutiae of relationships and interactions and of the  emotions and practicalities involved in everyday living, such as in Part Three, under `Freda and Kamau`: 

I hear Kabir`s whispered voice from the washroom teasing Freda, calling her Farida, lovingly mimicking Ma who could not remember the name of our house help even after constant right name lessons from him.  During the day, I see how sixteen year old Freda, the Kamba girl from the Catholic Mission of Nairowua, plays with my children.  How happy they are when she sings to them while [giving] them a bath and then Looking at Freda, passing barefoot on the powdery red earth, I would often think of Hawa, our maidservant in Nairobi when I was little.  How she used to take me around Jugu Bazaar, sometimes on her back in a kanga wrap, sometimes, I walked by her side with her little finger hooked into my big finger

So reminiscent of one`s own childhood!  In Part Four (Land is a broken string of beads), there are close-ups on a fast changing Nairobi: how it `grew bigger and bigger with increasing railway and road traffic`, stone buildings replacing wooden ones, `as was the trend in the new elegantly planned capital of British East African Empire`, `Nairobi`s classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture, brought to perfection by fine Indian masonry in sand and grey granite stone`: `Law courts, railway headquarters, financial houses, the city hall, cathedrals, the European market and the post office … on garden avenues.` And then there was `the imposing Khoja Mosque, the jamat khana, the heart of Satpanth Khoja life where Government Road, Victoria Street and the India Bazaar come together … the hub of Indian commerce and fashion`.

But the tri-partite racial hierarchy was an embedded reality, with `cinemas, play houses and international hotels plainly marked EUROPEANS ONLY at the entrances [while] Oriental temples, mosques, with tall minarets [and] Churches with bell towers stand in assigned denominational spaces for Roman Catholics and Anglicans [and the] Europeans only live on high ridges, the browns in-between like at the malarious swampland of Ngara and not-to-be-seen blacks in the new stone built kiosk type housing estates on the dry barren plains at outskirts of Shauri Moyo, Kariobangi and Mbotela`.

Then in `Who are they, the Mau Mau?` and `Man called Kenyatta, Father of the Nation`:

Every day we listen to the radio and want to know more about the Mau Mau, the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country.  It is not because we just want to understand that we ask each other … but because the tone of the newsman on the radio puts so much alarm in us that we seek comfort speaking out our nervousness to each other. 

While their menfolk talk of and parrot the negative things they hear the Europeans say about Kenyatta, the Khoja women react with cries of `kisirani` and `Misfortune coming`.  Sakina is conflicted: `Where do I belong?  Whose side am I on? A brown person, not white, not black.  Not a man`, either.   `Something is changing in Kenya` indeed. And `When elephants fight` (in Part Five) `Africa is Black and White  Brown is invisible`!

She recalls how the partition of India caused a rift between the Hindus and Muslims of Kenya, during which her own community became conflicted and became the butt of mockery as `Khoja Khoja centi moja` - reduced to being only one cent`s worth!  But she always remained steadfast in her reverential regard for Gandhi, even to the point of arguing with Haiderali her husband about Gandhi`s fight against the British.
 
Somjee quotes the African saying `Tembo wavili wapiganapo burusha fumbi`, translated into English as `When two elephants fight they raise dust`, with its Gujarati equivalent as જયારે બે હાથી લટે તયારે કીડી કચરાય whose English translation is given as `When two elephants fight ants get trampled`.  The correct Gujarati version however should surely read as જયારે બે હાથી લડે તયારે કીળી કચરાય? (Incidentally, in the Gujarati/English lullaby at page 29, the second line should really be પાટલે બેસીને નાય, the third line પાટલો ખસી જાય and the fourth  be હીરો મારો પળે હસી).

But as for `On whose side shall we be?  White or Black to escape the fate of ants?` the author is all seeing and objective.  He is meticulous and fair in his overview and deeper analysis of the dynamics of African nationalism. He remembers the part played by such stalwarts as Ambu Bhai and Makhan Singh, Isher Dass and Jaswant Singh, and `printer scholar Vidyarthi and grunting journalist Ahmed` in the struggle for Kenya`s independence. 

And yet of course there is suspicion, fear and hate all around them.  These are tricky times.  Independence is on the horizon.  Kenyatta is all sweetness and welcoming.  The chapter `Cowboys and Indians` begins with `True democracy has no colour.  It does not choose between black and white …`, says he on the radio.  He urges his Kikuyu menfolk not to drink if they want to increase their population and preaches `equal pay for equal work for all`!

But it is not all politics that is driving the Devji family. Sakina`s inner musings are a constant reminder of much else that was going on in their lives.  The children`s education, livelihood and marriage prospects occupy the elders as much as daily business and domestic concerns.    On the cultural front, Gujarati gives way to English: `Look forward.  Get educated`, but Sakina wonders

… if English would be better than Gujarati for our sacred texts … what I know is that Gujarati gives Vedanta a memory … Satpanth the wisdom I need to live through these times of changes when African voices and violence put fear in the heart [and most] of all, Gujarati gives ginan the melody … (t)he language that has preserved Saheb for six hundred years in the hearts of the Satpanthis? 

And the unmentionables also get an airing: for example, Riziki, Shamshu`s `kept` Swahili  woman in Mombasa with whom he has a son, Issa, and the resulting social complications are explored in `Of Cross Eyed and Sheep Headed Khojas of Mombasa`!      

But change comes and the mood turns ugly. Part Ten is devoted to the `Era of Great Propaganda Betrayal of Hate and Humiliation`, with the `Tyranny of Nationalism` as its centrepiece.  It took many shapes and turns.

In Kenya, interestingly, integration was reasoned as possible only through blood mixing.  But that was one sided … marriages of Asian girls to African men … the trump card of male dominated African nationalism that primarily targeted robbing the Asians of their marriages.

 `Asian two-facedness` became the mantra of political discourse, fuelling popular anger and resentment, most vocally expressed by Kenyatta himself at his public rallies, denouncing the Asians as `thieves, looters and whores` – blood sucking bedbugs!  So it was hardly surprising to be called `You Indian … Paper Citizens`, with threats of Africanisation and worse.  The Asians developed strategies of survival, as do all minorities everywhere. Some of them worked, while others were denounced as mere `window dressing`.  There was the notorious case of the young son of a petrol station owner who after personally filling up a minister`s Mercedes Benz to the full politely asked him for payment, the reaction to which was a slap on the face and a volley of insults (“You Asian exploiter!  Mhindi.  Out of Kenya, you Asian whore.  And leave this petrol station to me”!) as the MP drover off without paying, leaving him to nurse his cheek and feeling utterly humiliated before all his staff and others who witnessed the incident.  This was something that most of Nairobi`s Asians got to hear of on the grapevine within days and caused the Khojas talk of migration to Canada.

In Canada, you can keep your culture and religion.  You do not have to [intermarry] with the white people or the Aboriginals.  Saheb [the Aga Khan] is a friend of the Prime Minister and visits Canada.  They both like multiculuralism.

Kenyatta`s time passes, but not before the Asian emigration fever reaches `Exodus` proportions.  He is succeeded by Moi.  A more favourable climate in terms of business partnerships and economic expansion ensues and fosters a sense of complacency until an attempted coup brings back violent outbursts against the Asians seen by the Kikuyu elite previously powerful as his cronies and so there is renewed pressure to leave. For Sakina too, Canada beckons and, after getting immigration clearance and completing all the formalities, the book ends as she contemplates her departure from the land of her birth, on the second crossing to her new home.   

These are only some of the highlights of narrative.  There is a great deal more packed into it in graphic detail, weaving a complex web of relationships, interactions and historical happenings as they impacted upon the lives of the characters and their community at the centre of the tale. Home Between Crossings however is more than just a family saga in the classic tradition of, say, The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), One Hundred Years of Solitude  (Gabriel García Márquez) or The Immigrants (Howard Fast).  It is also an epic, albeit a fictional, account of a people`s passage across the oceans through time and space – that of the Khojas.  But although it presents their perspective – and Somjee writes as an Ismaili insider - it is also representative of other Asians in Kenya (and East Africa generally) during the time-scale in question. The people in the other communities could relate to everything that happened to the Devji family because they too went through parallel experiences at all levels and in more or less the same way. 

Above all, Home Between Crossings is not just a work of fiction, it is a personification of Kenya`s history of the twentieth century.  Somjee has undoubtedly used his first-hand lived experience to chart every significant turning point in the march of the country from colony to republic.   Together with Bead Bai, he has created a literary masterpiece that will also serve as a historical record of our time, of particular interest to those of us in the diaspora who share his Kenyan background, and one that will benefit future generations of scholars as well.  I was privileged to read the manuscript online and must say the published version is an impressive document.

RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2017
Surrey, England

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My review of 2016




Another year, same story: of a range of intellectual  and cultural  pursuits, albeit on a gradually diminishing scale but still worth noting.  Although this blog has not been updated since the last entry of 23 July, I have done a fair amount of writing elsewhere – reviews, papers, articles and other stuff – but for now let me start with  

Books


1) `Little Black Lies` by Sharon Bolton – ISBN 9780552166393 – Corgi Books p/b – © SB 2015 – 485pp – a long-winded thriller, only attraction for me was because it is set in The Falklands which I found to be a time-waster – perhaps I should have taken note of the blurb on the back cover which contained an endorsement by Paula Hawkins, author of `The Girl on the Train`, which also I had not enjoyed much last year. 

2) `The Streets` by Anthony Quinn – ISBN9780224096911 -  J Cape h/b – © AQ 2012 – 260 pp – an imaginative novel about Victorian England – poverty, deprivation, lawlessness, slum-dogs and millionaires – a fascinating tale, narrator`s nightmares and adventures expressed in graphic detail – the nineteenth century is my favourite period for historical literature and this fitted the bill perfectly. 

3) `And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa` by M G Vassanji –ISBN 978-0-385-67145-3 – Anchor Canada p/b – © MGV 2014 – 384pp – long awaited memoir (because of Amazon`s long delay to deliver it) by a much admired author – engrossing and enjoyable - his reflections on and recollections of people, places and a life-time of engagement with his roots, all of which feature in so much of his writings, kind of act as a literary travelogue and complete his self-portrayal as one who came out of there to what he is now – a master wordsmith.  I have toyed with the idea of countering the damning review of the book in AwaaZ (Issue 1 of 2016) by Karim F Hirji but inevitably other pressures have prevailed.

4) `Exposure` by Helen Dunmore – ISBN 9780091953942 (Hutchinson h/b) – © HD 2016 – 391 pp – an absolutely brilliant and gripping spy novel a la John le Carré – set in 1960/61 – in a part of London that was familiar to me (Muswell Hill, where I lived in student digs for a while then) – the intrigues and the interactions between middle-class Cambridge young men recruited into working for the secret service – graphic details of social and domestic life and of the period generally by an accomplished author.

5) `The Other Hand` by Chris Cleave – ISBN – UK – 978 0 340 96342 5 (Sceptre p/b 2009) – © CC 2008 – 378 pp – a superb mini-saga of the travails of an asylum seeker as a metaphor for the intricate dynamics of the process in the present day – the  Nigerian proverb quoted by the author as the end-piece serves as a perfect epigram: `If you face is swollen from the severe beatings  of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man`!  This is a highly imaginative and intricately detailed fictional narrative of the central characters, British and Nigerian, whose lives get entangled in fortuitous circumstances as a metaphor really for the late 20th/early 21st century phenomenon of Third World migration to the West.  The plaudits the book received from a cross-section of literary critics and reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic were well deserved.

6) `Go Set A Watchman` by Harper Lee – ISBN 9781785150289 (Heinemann h/b) – © HL 2015 – 278 pp – best described as a sequel to `To Kill A Mockingbird` (tkamb); it had remained hidden for over 50 years since the publication of tkamb and its iconic screen version; now Jean Louise Finch aka Scout returns to her home town as a 26 year old to visit her ageing father and all hell breaks loose as she relives the past and tries to fit it into the grim realities of the beginning of a consciousness of civil rights and against the painful discovery of her own family and father`s complacent and collusive condoning of the inequity and injustice of the system and indeed resistance to any changes to the status quo, with her own inner moral conflicts reflecting the prevailing mood of dark forebodings – so the reader as much as the narrator is left to reappraise the character of Atticus Finch and the message of tkamb!  It was difficult to get into and to identify the principal characters and plot-line but persistence paid off in the end.  

7) `Swahili For The Broken-Hearted` by Peter Moore - ISBN: 9780553814521 (p/b) – other details missing because I left the book on the plane back to Gatwick from our holiday in Sicily in early May after finishing reading it … an enjoyable light weight travelogue of the Australian author`s journey from Cape to Cairo towards the end of the 1990s (around 1999) by public transport (dodgy buses, dodgy hotels/hostels, dodgy encounters with dodgy people) everything imaginable that happens to a white backpacker travelling on their own;  not quite in the same class as Paul Theroux but with enough wit to engage the reader.

8) `The Man Who Forgot His Wife` by John O`Farrell – (no ISBN) – a Black Swan p/b – 393 pp – a light-hearted satirical look at a modern man`s journey through life and marriage as it gradually unfolds after he has lost his memory … most amusing and acutely observed take on our contemporary concerns.

9) `Shakespeare in Swahililand - Adventures With The Ever-Living Poet` by Edward Wilson-Lee – ISBN: 978 0-00-814619-1 – William Collins h/b- © EW-L 2016 – 288 pp – a truly fascinating and gripping account of the Bard`s impact on East African history and culture through the Victorian era of British explorers and adventurers and the whole colonial period to the post-colonial present, interspersed with selected references to the author`s own personal life story – an extremely well researched and documented work of erudition and expertise – the author is a Cambridge academic steeped in the subject – see my separate review posted on this site on 23 July and a later, shorter, version in AwaaZ Issue 2/2016 at http://www.awaazmagazine.com/volume-13-issue-2/book-reviews/item/817-shakespeare-in-swahililand-adventures-with-the-ever-living-poet - and I also had the pleasure of meeting Edward at his presentation and discussion of the book at the Tara Arts Centre in October.

Post Script:  And as it happens, I have this week been listening to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown`s masterly evocation of five Shakespearean plays in a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4 past the midnight hour, the last of them last night, in which she explored the theme of `Love Across the Racial Divide` with measured contributions from a range of theatre producers, actors, critics and academic experts.  The plays under scrutiny included Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Anthony and Cleopatra.  This seemed to be a fitting end to this year`s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare!

10) `Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age` by Tom Fletcher – isbn: 978-0-00-812756-5 – © T F 2016 - 310 pp – from an insider, a practitioner of the craft, some useful advice tracing the history and present day practice of diplomacy and statecraft with a look to the immediate future, interspersed with personal and secondary anecdotes – not much by way of original sources cited; more a journalistic piece than an academic critique.      

11) `A Quiet Life` by Natasha Walter – isbn: 978-0-00-811375-9 – © N W 2016 – The Borough Press h/b – 442 pp – loosely based on the notorious real-life spy scandal of Maclean and Burgess, focusing on the wife`s character in this fictional tale – her Anglo-American background and voyage to Britain just before the outbreak of WWII and how she found herself drawn into the gilded circle of the metropolitan upper middle-class while secretly hobnobbing with a coterie of communist activists and how she married and lived the life of the wife of a soviet spy, his eventual defection and exposure of his network and all that followed – the social detail of the period is astonishing. 

12) `Charles Dickens : a life` by Claire Tomalin – isbn:  9780670917679  - © C T 2011 – Viking h/b – 527 pp – an authoritative and tremendously 12absorbing and powerful biography of the great literary figure, second only to Shakespeare in English history – this was my principal choice of book  reading during our 14 day Baltic cruise and I managed to finish it just in time. The 19th century spanned before me day after day, charting the course of his hugely eventful life from birth to death. Tomalin`s narrative superbly captures Dickens`s multi-talented genius as a creative writer and critic, theatrical producer and actor, public performer and political commentator and activist, through his immensely complicated personal, family and social life – with warts and all. This kept me thoroughly absorbed and fitted in well with my daily cruise routine – a very satisfying and fulfilling read indeed. 

Note: The near juxtaposition of Shakespeare and Dickens in this list leads me to quote from Tomalin`s book.  In Chapter 9 `Conquering America 1842`, at page 128, she mentions that Dickens`s friend `Forster presented him with a pocket Shakespeare for his travels`, as he was embarking on his momentous first trip to America.  This was of course de rigueur for 19th century English travellers abroad, as noted in relation to the Shakespeare book.  And as Dickens later wrote to Forster, he constantly carried it with him: `an unspeakable source of delight that book is to me` (p 135).  Indeed, we are told (at p 129), in the context of the enormously enthusiastic reception that Dickens got from the American literati on his tour, that Cornelius Felton, Professor of Greek, was firmly of the opinion that Dickens rivalled Shakespeare in his powers of invention and invited the Dickenses to dinner at once and became a friend for life.   

13) `The Wicked Boy – The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer` by Kate Summerscale – © K S 2016 - Bloomsbury h/b - 377 pp (isbn: 978-1-4088-5114-2) – and this was my companion piece for lighter reading (!) during the cruise – the story of a real life murder and its aftermath that began in the last two decades of the 19th century and therefore with Dickensian echoes as far as the social setting of the tale was concerned – meticulously and extensively researched, as indeed the Claire Tomalin book was – both authors being renowned for the brilliance of their writing.   I had on a previous holiday trip read and been thoroughly engrossed in Kate Summerscale`s `The Suspicions of Mr Whicher` (see my review of 2009) and subsequently had read her Mrs Robinson`s Disgrace also and so knew what to expect, though this one turned out to be not so thrilling! Even so her detailed description of prison life in the late 19th century had resonances with those of Charles Dickens in so many of his works, and of Oscar Wilde`s De Profundis!

14) `The Couple Next Door` by Shari Lapena – isbn 9780593077382-cased- Bantam Press – © 1742145 Ontario Ltd 2016 – 302p –  overly praised by reviewers probably in their 40s; not literary fiction by any means – a so-called thriller but badly patched up and with an improbable underlying scenario – reminiscent of `The Girl on the Train` (again!) because of the physical proximity of the principal characters and their interactions.  This is the kind of book that has a fashionable appeal but has no long-lasting merit for me.      

15) `Heroes of the Frontier` by Dave Eggers – isbn 978-0-24128993-8 (h/b) Hamish Hamilton – © DE 2016 – 385 pp – this was a better read than the previous one – an actual as well as a metaphorical road trip through the Alaskan wilderness of a single mother with two small children fleeing her abusive relationship with a husband and litigation following her failed dental practice in a battered old RV – the landscape and the inevitable hazards and mishaps of the trip are well depicted – the end of the journey might or might not be a wish fulfillment – at any rate a good piece of entertainment.   

16) `The Sultan`s Spymaster: Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar` by Judy Aldrick – isbn 978-9966-7572-0-3 (p/b) Old Africa Books – © JA 2015 – 291 pp – a fascinating biography of the eponymous subject – a 19th century super aide to successive Sultans of Zanzibar – a jack of all trades and confidant of the rulers of this island empire – see my separate review at http://opinionmagazine.co.uk/details/2272/the-sultan-s-spymaster--peera-dewjee-of-zanzibar

17) `Before The Fall` by Noah Hawley – isbn: 978 1 444 77975 2 (h/b) – Hodder Stoughton – © N H 2016 – 390 pp – a much hyped thriller about  current socio/political dynamics among the rich American NY/Boston elite, cleverly constructed plot but the climax is poorly handled with a disappointing ending.
18) `Paris Spring` by James Naughtie - isbn: 9781784080198 – h/b – Head Zeus – © JN 2016 – 378 pp (dedicated to everyone on the Today programme, his broadcasting alma mater) – nice to be ending the year on this spy thriller in the John le Carré mode set in the eponymous Paris of 1968 when a revolution was in the air – his characterisation of the principal players in the extended East-West spy network, through complex relationships, is superb but the problem is with the narrative and the plotline – which are buried in the dialogue between the different characters and descriptions of their conversations often full of pointless chatter, recalled in retrospect and with oblique allusions to sex and sexuality – and so  the reader is compelled to pay close attention to their exchanges and interactions, some of which lead to blind alleys – the world of espionage depicted however has a contemporary feel with the volatile politics of East and West today.
 
Note: 

How would I rank the books?  Certainly `Shakespeare in Swahiliand`, `Charles Dickens: a life`, The Sultan`s Spymaster, and `And Home Was Kariakoo` were at the top, followed closely by `A Wicked Boy` and `Go Set A Watchman` but with an eclectic collection like this it is not always easy to place one above another.    Not counted in my reading list above are books and professional papers for review or research, The Observer New Review and other magazine articles plus the huge and increasingly pervasive amount of online stuff in terms of critiques, blogs and op-ed pieces, nor my bedside reading of the paper edition of the twice-monthly London Review of Books.  Reading in short is a daily occupation!
Films, Plays, Concerts etc

1) Tue 02 Feb @ NFT Studio – `Innocence of Memories” – dir: Grant Gee – filmic representation of Orhan Pamuk`s 2008 novel `The Museum of Innocence` - (Turkish/English) - 7/10

2) Tue 08 Mar @ The Regent Street Cinema – London Asian Film Festival presentation of the film-documentary `Continuous Journey` about the (in)famous 1914 `Komagata Maru` episode in Canadian immigration history –Director/Producer/Writer:  Ali Kazimi – 2004, Canada – 8/10

3) Sun 13 Mar @ Cineworld, Wandsworth - `Feast of Varanasi` - London Asian Film Festival – Dir: Rajan Kumar Patel, with a cast of well-known Indian and British actors – set in Varanasi – a serial killer on the loose and the police chase to catch him, with an underlying theme of both Hindu philosophical and social interactions + dark psychological profiles of the two English characters – 7/10

3) Sun 10 Apr @ Odeon KT1 - `The Man Who Knew Infinity` - Dir: Matthew Brown, based on the 1991 book of the name by Robert Kanigel about the life of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan  – starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, Jeremy Irons as his mentor and collaborator G H Hardy, with a host of other Cambridge luminaries, among them Bertrand Russell, played by Jeremy Northam – the Empire backdrop as well as the period setting (eve of WWI) of the drama is well captured and more importantly its mathematical underpinning is put across in a non-academic language that is easy to understand, though to the experts and the critics this was overdone in a simplistic way, but very well acted by all nevertheless - 8/10 
                                            
4) Fri 20 May @ RFH – Zakir Hussain concert (including performance of his table concerto Peshkar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zain Dalal) absolutely superb - 9/10
                                                                                                                          

Note: After the concert, I wrote to Zain Dalal via his website, drawing a parallel with the special concert inaugurating the Festival of India that took place also at the RFH on 22 March 1982, conducted by Zubin Mehta and in the presence of Prince Charles and the British and Indian Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.  We were actually sitting just below their box! That concert had also featured a specially composed piece by Ravi Shankar (Raag-Mala: a Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra) which was having its European premiere.  He was pleased to read that and replied that any concert with Zakir Hussain was always a momentous occasion.
  
5) Tue 31 May @ RFH – RPO Concert (Beethoven`s Overture Prometheus; Mendelsohn`s Violin Concerto; Orff`s Carmina Burana) – conductor: Charles Dutoit; Chloe Hanslip violinist -  9/10                                                                                                     
6) Sun 31 July @ Odeon Epsom - `Jason Bourne`: the one in which he (Matt Damon) says very little – Dir: Paul Greengrass  – 6/10

7) Thu 01 Sep @ RFH - `Mandela Trilogy with Cape Town Opera & Chorus` and Cape Town Philharmonic, cond: Tim Murray – exciting - 9/10

8) Sun 04 Sep @ RFH – Chineke! Orchestra (con: Kevin John Edusei; cellist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason) (Sibelius` Finlandia; Saint-Georges`  Suite from L`Amant anonyme; Hayden`s Cello Concerto in C & Dvorak`s Symphony No. 9) absolutely brilliant - 9/10  - Chineke is Europe`s first black and minority ethnic orchestra
                                                                                                                                                                                
9) Thu 08 Sep @ NFT - `Julieta` (dir: Pedro Almodóvar - Emma Suárez Adriana Ugarte): gripping, superb – 9/10

10) Fri 16 Sep @ RFH – Darbar Festival opening concert: `Universal Notes` - Rakesh Chaurasia/Nildari Kumar -  9/10

11) Sun 18 Sep @ RFH – Darbar Festival; Shubha Mudgal /Ustad Amjad Ali Khan+Pandit Anindo Chatterjee/Pandt Kumar Bose – 8/10

12) Thu 05 Oct – LFF @ Embankment - `Mirzya` (dir: Rakeysh Mehra +* Harshvardhan Kapoor/Saiyami Kher/Art Malik – scr: Gulzar) – spectacular … familiar theme (Romeo/Juliet) dressed up in Bollywood style extravaganza – plot dependent on a morally dubious foundation and characterisation – but fine archery and battle scenes -  6/10      

13) Fri 06 Oct - LFF @ Embankment – `The Handmaiden`   (dir: Park Chan-wook – South Korea 2016) – inspired by Sarah Waters` Fingersmith relocates the setting to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule – a fascinating tale of lust and power with most explicit lesbian sex scenes which seemed pretty authentic – echoes of Stanley Kubrick`s `Eyes Wide Shut` – a surreal experience  - 8/10 
                                                                                                                                      
14) Mon 10 Oct – LFF @ NFT Studio - `Junoon` (dir: Shyam Benegal + Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Naseeruddin Shah  - India 1979  - digitally  restored) – absolutely brilliant – in terms of period detail of landscape, battle scenes, history and  characterisation – superb acting – a gripping tale that drew the viewer into its fold with no holds barred - 9/10  

15) Fri 14 Oct – LFF @ Embankment - `Brimstone` (dir: Martin Koolhoven – NL – 2016 + Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning etc) –stark and unrelentingly grim – basically an anti-biblical tale about the close-knit Dutch Christian fundamentalist migrant community in an unspecified pioneering location in the American west, where the head of the family (Guy Pearce) rules with an iron fist both as a dour preacher and a violent husband and father – not since `The Color Purple`, some 30 years ago, where Oprah Winfrey played the part of the downtrodden and abused wife, had I felt desperately  wanting both his wife and daughter (Dakota Fanning) to rise up and either break away or fight the devil that he was, but this is a complex plot with lots of tragic twists and turns – the end was a release - 9/10 

16) Sat 15 Oct – LFF @ Embankment - `Neruda` (dir:  Pablo Larrain - Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda; Gael Garcia Bernal as his pursuer Oscar Peluchoneau - about when Neruda went on the run circa 1948 after the President of Chile ordered his arrest; a bio-pic of the man that exposes his character, warts and all – he comes across as a vain and arrogant man who is conscious of his fame and name as a national poet – before the chase is on we get a fair glimpse of the political background of the period and then with flashbacks into his personal life – the physical and period settings are well captured – the policeman`s introspective musings and conflicts are a running thread – the whole movie is done in a semi-documentary style and stays focused on the subject – recognised the fleeting shots of the presidential palace in Santiago (which we have visited twice)  - 8/10

Note: LFF = London Film Festival.
                                        
17) Sun 16 Oct – Odeon KT1 - `The Girl on The Train` (dir: Tate Taylor+Emily Blunt as Rachel) based on the highly acclaimed book of the same title (see my Review of 2015) – stayed true to the text – at the beginning difficult to make out who was who (but that was also with the book) - 7/10

18) Sun 27 Oct – Odeon KT19 - `A United Kingdom` (dir: Amma Asante + David Oyelowo; Rosamund Pike) an absolutely brilliant production based on the true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams and of their romance and marriage that had so shaken the British establishment with dire repercussions in South Africa – superbly acted by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, who actually shines as the newly wedded wife starting out on a new life so fraught with political overtones – her gradual `naturalisation` into a respected and beloved queen of Khama`s Botswana people is touching but not oversentimentalised – a film deserving of the highest plaudits – let`s see what awards it will get – 9/10

                                                                                                                                                                     
19) Tue 29 Oct – RFH – Mahler Chamber Orchestra (conductor & piano soloist: Mitsuko Uchida) : Mozart PCs No. 17 & 25 with Barok`s Divertimento in between –  all well played to an enthusiastic audience  - 7/10 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
Note: Going through the above list, I am rather pleased that almost all the films that I saw merited high praise.  In addition, of course there were several others viewed on tv and DVDs - Hitchcock`s `Rear Window`, seen umpteen times and a favourite, springs to mind – but these I have not noted specifically in my diary and therefore remain unlisted.  And a great deal of my daily routine is devoted to listening to many excellent literary, cultural and historical programmes on radio or watching them on tv, but there is no time to go into details here.

2016 Diary - Lectures, Talks, Events etc

1) Wed 20 Jan – KCL Chapel - `In Different Skies: Music and Writing of the First World War`  (an evening of songs, music and writings inspired by WWI, performed by among others James Gilchrist, Matthew Cammelle, Reeta Chakrabarti etc) - 7/10

2) Thu 11 Feb – SOAS – book launch: `Indian Doctors in Kenya, 1895-1940: The Forgotten History` - Anne Greenwood & Harshad Topiwala – Q&A – 8/10

3) Wed 17 Feb – RFH - `Among Giants and Ghosts` (Kazuo Ishiguro & David Mitchell in conversation) – 7/10

4) Wed 11 May – Lancaster Hall Hotel, W2 3EL – Book launch of `The Sultan`s Spymaster: Peera Dewji of Zanzibar` by Judy Aldrick – intro by Jatinder Verma of Tara Arts – Q&A

Note: It was a pleasure to meet both Judy Aldrick and Jatinder Verma again after many years.  Later, I much enjoyed reading the book and did a review of it – as noted under `Books` above – and see also below, entry for 12 Nov.

5) Sat 21 May – RFH – Jaipur Literary Festival – attended 3 sessions – stimulating - 8/10 - https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/southbank/jlf-southbank-program-2016/    

6) Thu 02 Jun – Wellcome Collection event: `Travels Through Indian Medicine`: Aarathi Prasad in conversation with William Dalrymple about her new book `In The Bonesetter`s Waiting Room` (serialised on Radio 4`s Book of the Week programme from 23 to 27 May)   - 7/10                                                                                              
7) Wed 12 Oct – IofCS @ UCL - Cultural Rights and Constitutional Change in Kenya: Progress and Challenges   a colloquium with papers presented by Lotte Hughes, Harriet Deacon, Nicola Stylianou, Steve Ouma Akoth, Mark Lamont & John Harrington and participation by attendees including Victor Lall, Edward Clay and self - 9/10  

8) Wed 19 Oct – Tara Arts Centre - `Shakespeare in Swahililand : An illustrated Talk` by Edward Wilson-Lee – excellent, enjoyable - 9/10

9) Mon 24 Oct - RFH – The Booker Prize Readings (all six short-listed authors, boringly chaired by Sara Pascoe) - 5/10

10) Sat 12 Nov – Willesden Green Library – Judy Aldrick`s talk about The Sultan`s Spymaster – GLA – chaired by Bhadra Vadgama - 8/10 –so again had opportunity to interact with Judy

11) Thu 15 Dec – RSA – 1pm – Review of 2016 (panel: Peter Frankopan, Sarah Churchwell, Matthew Goodwin – ch M Taylor) – disappointing- 3/10

Miscellany

Once again, I can truly repeat what I wrote in the concluding paragraph of my review of 2015.  The pattern of life described there has not changed much.  But to that I would add a sad reflection on the passing of at least two dear old friends, Tilak Johar, my fellow lawyer in Leicester, and Stanley Meisler, ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, writer and critic, in Washington DC, a most kind and generous soul.  This past year is also when many people one has known for long are dying one after another – a sign of old age taking its toll.  But that is another story. 

What else?  We spent a week in Sicily in May and were truly enchanted by the place - there is so much history buried there!  Then in August we did a most wondeful 14 day Baltic cruise that took us to, among other places, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, and Copenhagen, the climax of which was a two-day stay at St Petersburg. There just wasn`t enough time to visit all the fabulous museums, palaces and other historic buildings and sites in that great city, but we came away thoroughly satisfied.  

Anyway, this annual review is a useful exercise to go over all that one did during the year. To say that on the broader political and global front, we are indeed poised on the threshold of a new world order and an uncertain future is an understatement.  The immediate future looks gloomy and so what 2017 will bring is an unknown gamble.  There is nothing to do but wait and ride it out.  With best wishes.

RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2016
Surrey, England