Monday, 31 December 2018

My review of 2018



So another year has passed (I wrote these words without reference to what I had written last year, which was in almost identical terms, ha!) and what have I got to show for it?  Not much, alas, this year but let`s see what I can download from my diary.   That said, I have kept busy with writing, going to movies and concerts, attending a diminishing number of talks and other events and generally active for someone nearing the end of my 70s, though what I have learnt along the way is that many others are far more active.  Let me start with the books I have read:

Books

1) `A Legacy of Spies` by John le Carre – ISBN 978-0-241-30854-7 – Viking h/b 2017 – © D Cornwell 2017 – 264 pp – a masterstroke by a genius – takes one back to his early `The Spy Who Came In from the Cold` - so vivid in the narrator`s retrospective angst about who did what to whom and how, who was accountable for the botched operation of the early 1960s at the height of the cold war – enjoyable – should have been my holiday reading during the forthcoming cruise but will have to do with another now.

2) `Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa 1830-1990` by Lawrence James – ISBN 978 0 29787028 9 - W&N h/b – © L J 2016 – 391 pp – after a couple of abortive reads, I settled for this but found it disappointing. The short section on the Mau Mau emergency at pp 263-266 was a fair summary but elsewhere I thought his analysis and critique too generalised or superficial.

3) `Motherland` by Paul Theroux – isbn 978-0-241-14498-5 – HH h/b – © PT 2017 – 509 pp – Wow!  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.  (As it happened, I later posted a separate piece on this on the blog).

4) `Indian Doctors in Kenya, 1895-1940 : The Forgotten History` by Anna Greenwood and Harshad Topiwala – Palgrave Mac – isbn 978-1-349-68412-0 (p/b) – © AG & HT 2015 – 266 pp – a `study` book really but am including here because of its inherent historical significance – an absolutely engrossing work of `the forgotten history` indeed of the presence and contribution of Indian doctors in the development of colonial Kenya, more so because one had sort of known some of them and Topilwala is a friend.

5) `The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World` by Maya Jasanoff – isbn: 978-0-00-755373-0 - W Collins h/b – © MJ 2017 – 375 pp – fascinating and absorbing literary bio-critique of JC`s life and oeuvre – my other `study` book for this half of the year – thoroughly satisfying – and like the PT book, hoping to write more about this another time. (Sorry, have lost my notes and after the moment had passed other imperatives took over).

6) `The Times Great Letters: A Century of Notable Correspondence` edited by James Owen – ISBN978-0-00-824949-6 – Times Books h/b – © Times Newspapers – a selection of mostly lightweight letters in the paper`s famous letters columns but even a casual glance at those featured there over the period covered, roughly from the 1914-18 war to 2016, give a valuable insight into the social and political changes, preoccupations and developments that shaped the nation`s history - and I can`t resist adding that none of my letters were included in there, considering that I had at least one, or occasionally more than one, published every year, bar three, from 1980 to 2007 inclusive; clearly they were not considered `great` - ah well!

7) `History of Wolves` by Emily Fridlund – isbn 978 1 474 60294 5 – W&N h/b – © EF 2017 – 279 pp – disappointing read: pretentious, oversold, convoluted plot and narrative, time-waster, might appeal to the trendy 21st century literati, not me!

8) `The Analyst` by John Katzenbach – isbn 0593 050347 – Bantam Press p/b – © JK 2002 – 424 pp – picked out from one of our own bookshelves - a long and meticulously worded thriller about a NY psychoanalyst who is relentlessly pursued by the off-spring of a female patient of his bent on revenge for some unintentional but fatal neglect of their mother in the early days of his career so that his reputation is ruined and he goes into hiding to the extent of faking his own suicide, with an extraordinary and complex sequence of a deadly chase and a reversal of roles in the end – the technical details of the electronic and internet tools employed are impressive – note the book came out way back in 2002, at a time when these advances had just begun to bite and yet even now some 16 years later they seemed apposite and made sense – and even more extraordinary fact to emerge as I read through to the middle of the book was that I must have read it at the time, because tucked away in its pages I found a piece of paper with my notations, circa Oct 2002, about some aspects of the investigation into his professional record and alleged misdemeanour with references to `computer illiteracy`, `tracing back old clients` and `old diaries, appointments` etc - and yet I did not remember much of the detail right until I finished the book!  This is something has rarely happened, because after a while you soon realise that you are treading familiar territory – so am I getting old?  I see that the notations were done on the back of a courtesy bus schedule operated by a hotel in Funchal, Madeira – and that was in October 2002, so I must have taken the book as a holiday read then!

9) `The Book of Chocolate Saints` by Jeet Thayil – isbn 978-0-571-34149-8 – Faber & F h/b – © JT 2018 – 479 pp – a delightful, almost allegorical romp through the travels and travails of an Indo-American artist who has lived his life and practised his craft to extravagant levels – too rich in detail and historical and contemporary Indian points of reference which were beyond me or with which I was only superficially aware – the characterisation of the subject of the fictional biography of the narrative is superbly done – a lot of it was beyond my grasp but the brilliance of the writing was clear. 

10) `The Partner` by John Grisham – isbn 0 09 9410311 – Arrow p/b – © JG 1997 – 410 pp – picked up this old airport thriller for holiday reading during my USA-Canada trip – found it utterly dated, boring, irritating, convoluted + time-waster – persisted with it as a form of relief, for bedtime reading, and finished it as the trip ended – JG is passé!  Never again.

11) `Nostalgia` by M G Vassanji – isbn 978-0-385-66716-6 – (h/b) - Doubleday Canada – © MGV 2016 – 258 pp – presented to me by MGV himself during my trip to Toronto - this is best described as a mixed accumulation of past and ongoing memories, interactions and relationships amidst new global realities  – relived in an imagined future – a tale told with polished flair by one of my favourite writers - sci-fi + philosophy – different from his earlier works – the Toronto setting struck a note of familiarity – a delightful journey through time.

12) `Our Kind of Cruelty` by Araminta Hall – isbn 9781780898247 (Century h/b) – © AH 2018 – 354 pp – the author`s own description of this as a love story says it all – too much detail, too tedious, too convoluted, too tiresome, too pretentious!

13) `The Memory Chalet` by Tony Judt – isbn 9780434020966 – Heinemann h/b – © Estate of T J 2010 – 226 pp – read this during our second Baltic cruise – had always admired his stance on Israel through writings that appeared in the LRB syndicated from the NYRB – this lucid memoir as he lay struggling with a terminal illness gave an insight into his life and career, and his output as a public intellectual with immense intellectual and moral clarity.  

14) `Madam Speaker: The Life of Betty Boothroyd` by Paul Routledge – isbn 0 00 255531 I – Harper Collins h/b – © PR 1995 – 262 pp – this made a delightful read, also during the Baltic cruise, about someone whom I had always admired as the first female speaker of the House of Commons.

15) `A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership` by James Comey – isbn 978-1-5290-0082-5 – Macmillan h/b – © JC 2018 – 290 pp – this plus the next one – read selectively during the cruise focusing on his disclosure of Hillary Clinton`s private email server and his meeting Trump at a White House reception when he felt compromised, leading to his eventual summary dismissal.

16) `Fox Evil` by Minette Walters – isbn 1 4050 0109 7 – h/b – Macmillan – © MW 2002 – 415 pp – timewaster – had taken it on holiday as light reading, having got halfway it became increasingly tedious and towards the end struggled to finish it.  

17) `In the Midst of Winter` by Isabel Allende (translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson) – isbn 978-1-4711-6687-7(h/b) Scribner – © IA 2017 – 342 pp – a tale of the lives of a motley collection of characters, involving chance encounters, misdeeds and other accidents, set in the 1970s Chile and Brazil sliding into present day New York – passable.  

18) `The Life and Times of a Very British Man` by Kamal Ahmed – isbn h/b 978-1-4088-8918-3 – Bloomsbury – © KA 2018 – 327 pp = a very frank autobiography – a vivid portrait of contemporary Britain – his mixed race background (white British mother, Sudanese father) was a constant and conscious factor in his childhood and adult experiences – being brown in a predominantly white culture and society of the 1970s and 80s as he grew up to maturity shaped his undoubtedly strong character – his critique of Enoch Powell`s `Rivers of Blood` forms a running thread in this well rounded bio-narrative of a `very British` man indeed - his history and trajectory to national prominence as an influential journalist and broadcaster in our time. 
       
And as for what I am currently reading? Michelle Obama`s `Becoming`; I am at p 340 out of 426 and am thoroughly enjoying it.  It is a good feeling to end the year on, but I will now have to list it next year.  I should add that all this is part of my bed-time reading, which includes the London Review of Books and other bits and pieces, so it is not bad going really.

Films, Plays, Concerts etc

1) Sun 13 Jan – Odeon Epsom - `Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri` (Dir: Martin McDonagh – Frances McDormand; Woody Harelsson; Sam Rockwell) (UK/USA 2017) – acclaimed by critics and winner of the Golden Globe and other international awards – an unpredictable and unstructured narrative, full of Tarrantino like random acts of raw violence - a modern revenge western with an ambiguous ending - one thing that the expert critics seem not to have asked is what was driving the mother, so hell-bent on venting her grievance and seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter – was it a sense of guilt  for putting her in danger in the first place by not giving her permission to drive the family car for an evening`s outing? -  the exact circumstances of her death are not spelt out – ok technically well executed but I found it disturbing nevertheless for its amorality – its cinematic perfection in terms of projection, montage, economy of dialogue, imagery and detail is certainly impressive and many episodic encounters and scenes linger on in one`s memory long afterwards – so yes, on balance, the plaudits are well deserved for a cinematic rendering in the `Gone Girl` genre - 8/10

2) Sun 21 Jan – Odeon Epsom - `The Post` (Dir: Steven Spielberg – Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks) USA 2017 – an absolutely brilliant film, gripping narrative, superb characterisation, rounded portraits of the two principal characters and of the main supporting ones too – all aspects of the well-known story handled with balance and insight – most enjoyable -  9/10

3) Fri 02 Feb – ICA - `Gukoruku -Traces of Sin` (Dir: Kei Ishikawa – 2016 Japanese Eng Subt) – an intriguing tale of mystery, murder and indeed `traces of sin`; required close attention - intense – full of unpredictability and tension – all characters in their 20s immersed in their social milieus mostly set in a university campus – but towards the end I wanted out! - 7/10 

4) Tue 06 Feb - NFT1 - `A Passage to India` (the 1965 BBC1 tv production of the play by Santha Rama Rau based on EM Forster`s novel, directed by Waris Hussein) – the first of a series of programmes at the NFT looking at Hussein`s long career – his retrospective – but this I found dated – because of its subject, because our (EAAsian) colonial experience was so different, and it all seemed too distant and remote; also, if anything I simply could not relate to the character of Dr Aziz and other Indians except Prof Godbole!  The underlying plot and the English club milieu reminded me of George Orwell`s Burmese Days (listed in my annual review of 2017) in which the character of the liberal Flory resembled EM Forster`s Mr Fielding  - 7/10   

5) Thu 22 Feb – Dominion Theatre – `Shen Yun` - Live music/dance show about Chinese legends, heroes & miracles – not my cup of tea!   4/10 

6) Sat 21 Apr – QEH – Indian concert - Pandits Kushal Das and Tarun Bhattaharya –                                                               8/10 

7) Sat 02 Jun – ICA - `L`Amant Double` (dir: Francois Ozon – 2017 – French - Eng subt) much hyped French erotic thriller with Hitchcockian overtones involving twin psychiatrists treating the same young beautiful woman with deep emotional and relationship problems – found the sex scenes too clinical and their interactions somewhat contrived and overdone, with a disjointed narrative that straddles the line between fantasy and reality in a weirdly challenging fashion – slick cinematic architecture and allusions to other works -  towards the end it became too long – not impressed      4/10 

8) Mon 04 Jun – RFH – `Bill Murray, Jan Vogler And Friends : New Worlds` - an absolutely brilliant presentation/performance of live music, literary readings, dance and stand-up entertainment by Bill Murray, Actor, as the anchor and his ensemble of Jan Vogler (cello), Mira Wang (violin) and Vanessa Perez (piano). The works played included pieces by Schubert, Gershwin, Van Morrison, Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini and Ravel, and the readings were from Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, James Thurber and Billy Collins – an altogether a most enjoyable evening – Murray`s singing was simply superb!  It was all worth the £70 ticket!  -   9/10
       
9) Thu 23 Aug – ICA - `The Heiresses (Las herederas)`, Dir. Marcelo Martinessi, Paraguay+3, 2018, 98 mins, Spanish with English subtitles – didn`t live up to its blurb – not well edited, nor particularly animated – disappointing – 3/10

10) Tue 02 Oct – ICA - `Wajib` (dir: Annemarie Jacir – Palestinian/France + - 97 mins: Arabic with Eng ST – a brilliant portrayal of life, with all the social niceties and complexities, of a close-knit Arab community network in Israel – son of the family returns from Italy on the occasion of his sister`s wedding – the plot basically involves him and his teacher father going from house to house to deliver the wedding invitation, as is customary among them, and in the process their life stories unfold – the mother had left years before to live in America with her lover, abandoning the father (plus their two children) who is still bitter about it – but what is so endearing in the slow-paced narrative is how all their interactions with the many different households the father and son visit and how they are received with warmth and traditional hospitality and above all the underlying emotional tensions which come to surface as they navigate their way forward - all this is most endearing and superbly done 9/10                                                                                                                                                                              
11) Thu 11 Oct to Tue 16 Oct – LFF (London Film Festival) – saw 5 movies in all at different venues : (1) `Border` (11 Oct) Swedish – misled by the blurb hype … disappointed is an understatement -  2/10; (2) `Manto` (12 Oct) Indian – dir: Nandita Das, she was there, engaged in Q&A afterwards, biopic of Saadat Hasan Manto, renowned short story writer in pre-independent Bombay who involuntarily migrates to Lahore after partition but longs to return – low budget film – maybe I will say more about this later - 8/10;  (3) `Rafiki` (13 Oct) Kenyan – controversial and banned in Kenya because of its portrayal of a lesbian love affair – well done - 8/10;  (4) `The Little Drummer Girl` Episodes One and  and Two of a new espionage series by John le Carre –UK – 7/10; and (5) `Out of Blue` (16 Oct) – UK – pretentious thriller – rubbish - 1/10 (       

12) Fri 30 Nov – RFH – LPO Concert: Blacher (Variations on a theme by Paganini); Bruch`s Violin Concerto No1; Mussorgsky (arr. Ravel) Pictures at an Exhibition – cond:Andres Orozco- Estrada; soloist: Ray Chen – good, enjoyable – 8/10    

13) Wed 04 Dec – NFT Studio – `Shoplifters`  (dir: Koreeda Hirokazu – Japan 2018 – Eng s/t) Excellent, gripping, social realism of a made-up family of underprivileged mixed bag of adults and young children living on the margins of society, thieving and generally on the borderline – the parts of the two young children, Shota and Juri, are played superbly by Iyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki – brilliant – one of the three or four best of this year – 9/10

14) Fri 28 Dec – NFT3 - `Tokyo Story` (dir Yasujiro Ozu – Japan – 1953 – Eng s/t) Legendary Ozu`s masterpiece depicting the inner lives of an aged couple who on a visit to Tokyo to see their grown up offspring come face to face with certain realities – of the generational distance and dynamics between them and their children and their concerns and preoccupations and everything to do with their urban/country divide - most of all what comes across is the deep attachment to their traditional culture in a changing post--war society (the film was made only 8 years after the end of WWII) - Ozu`s treatment of all these underlying issues is stark and direct, with no frills or subtlety – it was fitting I thought that I should end this year`s film-going with this particular Japanese film classic from yesteryear to follow on immediately from one from our own time, `Shoplifters` – above!      

Lectures, Talks, Events etc
              
1) Tue 06 Feb – NFT1: `Waris Hussein in Conversation with Samira Ahmed` - the follow up to the re-enactment of `A Passage to India` earlier – fascinating  (see my blogpost of 20 February, below) - 9/10

2) Wed 30 May – Tara Arts: `Girls Are Coming out the Woods` - Tishani Doshi – performance & conversation with Kamila Shamshi – superb, world-class – Q&A – 8/10

3) Tue 25 Nov – LSE: `Gandhi – the Years that Changed the World 1914-1948` - Ramachandra Guha (ch: Mukulika Banerjee) -- the sequel to `Gandhi Before India` and the talk he gave in Nov 2013 – this was as fascinating – the new book seems to be double the size of the previous one (going at £40 at the counter, picked up by quite a few overseas Indian students who were also keen to make rambling contributions during Q&A) – a great deal of original and previously unpublished research material –Guha`s presentation lacked the vigour and clarity of his performance in Nov 2013 when he talked about `Gandhi Before India` but it was impressive nevertheless-  the chair however not – 8/10

4) Thu 27 Sep – OAUK – `Do you know who I am?` – an evening with Ritula Shah – a prime time presenter of the BBC Radio 4 late evening news and current affairs programme talking about her life and career – 9/10

5) Tue 23 Oct – RFH – `Salman Rushdie: From Midnight`s Children to Trump`s America` (Erica Wagner – ch) absolutely brilliant – 10/10

Miscellany

Looking back to what I wrote in my review of 2017, on the travel front things didn`t quite go as expected.  The Canary Islands and Morocco cruise had to be cancelled, to be replaced by another Baltic cruise in September, which gave us an opportunity to revisit such places as Tallin, Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg that we had been to in 2016.  My trip to Japan in the spring too had to be abandoned; instead I did a fortnight`s tour of the US and Canada in June/July, visiting old friends in New Hampshire, Vermont, Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee.  It was a real pleasure to meet and interact with them all, to enjoy their warm hospitality and rekindle our bonds.  

Here is what Benegal Pereira wrote about my USA trip on A/O, with the link to the pictures below: 
  
"62912 A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION - Ramnik Shah's Visit to The USA

Jul 1, 2018
 
An few pictures for your interest.  We were pleased to host Ramnik Shah in New Hampshire last week.  Amongst other activities, we drove up to Vermont to meet with Harjit and Amarjit Rakhra, visited The Harvard Law School in Boston and also met with Anil and Rosan Madan who hosted us the Harvard Club in Boston.  Some of you may know of Anil Madan, who is also the son of the former and late Chief Justice of Kenya - Chunilal B. Madan. Ramnik is on his way to Canada, where he is meeting others, including Indra Trivedi, Moez Vassanji and others ...

Regards
Benegal Pereira".


https://galleries.benegal.com/Namaskar/Ramnik-Shah-Visit-to-USA-Summer-2018/n-xXnhCQ  

As for my book project, it was a bit premature to think of publication by the end of this year, but the book is now in the production stage and should be out by around April/May.  So let`s see.      

Other than that, I remain generally active, both in physical and intellectual terms.  I still see  as many films as I can; the pattern of my movie going has not changed much.  Lectures and Talks outings have certainly gone down – a sign of selectivity and disinclination to make the effort to hear people whose views one is familiar with or can be accessed through the electronic media.  However, I value and enjoy writing my regular columns and other pieces in the AwaaZ magazine, and continue to contribute book reviews and other material to the IANL Journal and A/O and other forums. As for Facebook, I am a passive participant, occasionally reading other people`s posts and occasionally commenting on them.  Well, at any rate, another year has passed.  Happy New Year!


RAMNIK SHAH
(c) 2018
Surrey, England  


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