A Mind @ Play

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Tag: India

Freedom Next Time

What you need to know about humans is that they are dicks. And if you give them any power their dickness prevails over everything else.

That beautifully succinct phrase comes from a review on Good Reads and is an understandable frame of mind to find yourself in after reading this book. Reading it ten years after publication, it’s almost surreal how little has changed in the intervening period, how the wheels of progress continue to grind on the gears of conservatism. In Freedom Next Time John Pilger surveys the state of peoples suffering under the weight of ignorance, ill-will, apathy and condescension in various theatres of the world, turning the spotlight in turn on Palestine, India, Afghanistan, South Africa and the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands is a pretty clear-cut test, and one which our western democratic system will likely fail miserably. In the dying days of empire, the British government swapped a conveniently located group of rocks in the Indian Ocean for a few bits of military hardware from the Americans. The people living there were forcibly evicted and will never be allowed to return to the place of their birth, never mind that their removal constitutes a crime against humanity. As Pilger attests, this buck will be passed back and forth, the Brits blaming the Yanks, the Yanks blaming the Brits, while the case is shuttled often enough through the courts until everyone affected by the travesty is tidily dead. Maybe in the middle of this century we’ll see an official apology to the victims’ descendants, similar to the likes given to victims of slavery and oppression elsewhere in the world. But the political establishment doesn’t give a rat’s arse, and those individual politicians who might are far too lightweight to go tilting at such windmills.

At least with the Chagos Islands, the case of moral virtue is clear and it is merely the duplicity of realpolitik which means that justice will never be served to the islanders. In covering Palestine, however, Pilger covers an area of the world which can only get worse until it gets better. The social equation underlying the political facts is a simple one, even if it remains unwritten: Jews > Arabs. Big mon Trump’s recent declaration of support for the occupying forces is just the latest embodiment of this, and indeed a rare case of someone being up front about reality. A two-state solution is a nice sound bite to be throwing around, the ‘peace process’ a wonderful phrase to pay lip-service to, but Palestine will presumably remain a problem zone until it is eventually eradicated, almost like Kosovo in reverse.

The more interesting chapters are also the less clear cut, more contestable issues, where Pilger investigates the lot of people left behind by political and economic change in South Africa and India. He points blame at the ANC for selling out the anti-apartheid movement and abandoning some of its core principles in cosying up to vested interests. However it’s hard to imagine how his occasional purported alternatives would have brought about more prosperity than the current situation. Similarly his chapter on India shines a beam to highlight the transparency of India’s booming economy, though the overall picture here is murkier than elsewhere, and there’s certainly been more positive change in this part of the world in the past decade than elsewhere, even if the problem of poverty remains a massively significant burden.

Obviously the style of this collection is journalistic and as such suffers from those usual pitfalls. Chapters are padded with random exemplary introductions, events highlighted which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the case at hand and indeed over time start to lose relevance and punch. But in particular, as Pilger has his agenda to pursue, the narrative isn’t drawn as broadly as it could be. Whilst happy interviewing the politicians and the victims of their policies, he does little to examine the opinions of the pillocks who put those politicians in power, which would have been of particular interest for example in the Palestinian conflict or the missed chances of the ANC.

Despite its advancing age, Freedom Next Time remains a worthwhile read since the political situation in many of these regions has barely evolved. The basic working principle which Pilger highlights time and again is that simple human trait, where political representation fails to defend the rights and interests of the downtrodden, whether it be through ignorance, apathy or occasional sheer malice. The book greatly attests to the prevalence of dickness in human nature.

A Passage to India

Passage to IndiaIn a world far removed from the one in which Forster was writing, is there any place for a novel like A Passage to India other than as an idle curiosity of a bygone era? Written based on first hand experience of the British Raj, this open critique of colonialism caricatures the Anglo-Indian in his element, questioning the morality and justification of the British presence in the subcontinent.

A Passage to India is built upon its characters, who are the led through a fairly mundane plot, a jejune stage for the actors to perform upon. Yet through their actions, we discover this world of Empire, where Anglo-Indians hold themselves aloof from the population, where relationships are grounded on the basis of ruler and ruled. Forster challenges the British Raj as it was then. But he also poses questions relevant to our everyday lives: can the cultures of East and West ever truly understand one another? is it possible even for two individuals to truly understand one another? can anything good ever come from a relationship in which one party dominates the other? and what can we really understand about ‘identity’ through the prism of nationhood?

There is no doubt much in this book which can be analysed and overanalysed to the nauseating degree that only a literature class can provoke, and I can imagine that many who studied this novel in a classroom environment learned only to hate it. Where the simplicity of the plot provides only a thread for the characters to follow, the imagery of India’s weather and terrain, her townships and cultural diversity, combine to provide symbolic tapestry lending itself to interpretation. Alone the echoes of the Marabar caves and its allegory in the evil of Empire doubtless provide enough discussion for a few hours of lessons. Yet there is no need to take a magnifying glass to this book to see its implications. Similarly, there has been plenty of criticism about using a work by an English author and mere traveller to the subcontinent as a lens through which to view the British Raj and colonialism in general. Whilst this may be for true scholarship a half-way justifiable charge, it retains its relevance as a novel and for providing insights into the British mindset of the time.

Finally, a quick comment about the style. Some other reviewers have complained that the book hasn’t aged particularly well, and that the writing gets a bit muddled in conversation. On the former point, it would seem fair criticism, in as far as that this book clearly has more in common with books written in the half century prior to its publication than after it. That doesn’t make the book’s style particularly less readable today, but the content might need some occasional explanation.

Despite his modest assertion that he was ‘not a great novelist’, A Passage to India lives up to its reputation as one of the more important works related to British colonialism. Alone for its historical portrayal, the book is worth a read, but the questions posed (and the answers Forster subtly implies) with regard to issues of cultural identity, acceptance and understanding, are still as relevant today as they were at the height of the Raj.

The Indian Finnegans Wake

All About H. Hatterr

All About H. Hatterr

It’s difficult to know what to make of G. V. Desani’s ludicrous autobiography, All About H. Hatterr. As a pure work of literature, the confusing employment of language has led to its comparison to Joyce, and as an author Desani has been compared to the likes of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov for his use of English instead of a maternal tongue. Yet it is also a work of continued interest to the post-colonialist in its epitome of cultural interchange, Desani being described erroneously as a métèque author.

However it is telling that the book is sporadically out of print, 1Although it is reported that the book will be reprinted next year. despite acclaim by such luminaries as Salman Rushie and Anthony Burgess, who wrote a preface to the 1969 edition of the novel. This should not be seen as a reflection of the work’s growing inaccessibility; many terms and phrases used were probably much more understandable in 1948 than they are now, but it does not suffer from the overt use of Indian words which course through many other literary works of the period.

While the key motifs of the book can be interpreted as the exploration of dislocation, loneliness and the search for meaning in life, of much more interest to the colonialist are the references and allusions to relations between British and Indian, cultural, real or hidden. There are innumerable references to the English literary canon, the most obvious of which is the comical Shakespearean portage of Hatterr’s trusted friend Bannerji, presumably symptomatic of a literary heritage that does not fit the user. Bannerji represents the very finest satirical embodiment of Macaulay’s “brown Englishman”, and his frequent expounding of facts reminds us of a student of Mr. Gradgrind. Yet Desani seems to avoid any such criticism being weighed upon himself. In his preface, Burgess decried any labelling of Desani as a métèque author (derived from μέτοικος—the immigrant); he should rather be placed alongside the ranks of Conrad and Nabokov as authors with a remembrance of learning English, but who were not in the act of learning when writing—his English therefore, “gloriously impure”.

Indeed Desani’s novel therefore offers a staunch alternative to the English literary tradition that had progressed through Kipling (who indeed gets a mention) to Forster in the shadow of the Great War, no better illustrated by the eloquent portrayal of the absurdities of English society and culture in English from a foreign voice. 2Desani, G. V., All About H. Hatterr, (London, 1970), p. 106. The language of the oppressor then, can not only be appropriated but can be employed so eloquently and so satirically to the detriment of the former.

The novel is also riddled with the theme of illusion, deception and imitation. This is most pointedly directed at the sahib Anglo-Indian of the Club. The “wish man…must master the craft of dispelling credible illusions” teaches one of the sages in Hatterr’s travels, 3Ibid., p. 41. perhaps the greatest of which is the power of the British overlord. Indeed great fun is made at the expense of the Scot from Dundee, who infers the secret of acceptance in British society—the necktie! The employment of Faust in the illustration that deception and imitation are evil things suggests some moral judgement of Macaulay’s brown Englishmen. 4Ibid., p. 200. Yet one wonders what alternative there could be to the solidification and codification of what it means to “be” British within the context of the Empire. There can be little doubt that the need to export British culture only required that it was very much more concrete in form, and there is no better example of its existence than in the bastion of etiquette witchcraft, the Club!

Interestingly, Desani’s investigations into imitation lead to further insights into the very meanings of Truth 5Ibid., p. 283.—with interesting legal implications—perhaps best illustrated by the Sage of Delhi’s wise words for Hatterr “all Appearance is false. Reality is not Appearance.” 6Ibid., p. 198. And of course who can forget Desani’s thoughts on language itself as a means of communication, and with it translation—will you aa or baa? 7Ibid., p. 284.

Confusing perhaps, All About H. Hatterr offers some interesting insights into the cultural ramifications of colonialism. Further, its autobiographical nature lend some insight into the character of its author, who went on to travel widely in India, investing time distilling Truth from Hinduism and Buddhism—attend! a very mad-as-a-hatter, Mr. H. Hatterr kind of thing to do. We can only hope that as a work of literature it will not be consigned to complete oblivion. And there is hope after all—it is listed in the 1001 books to read before you die meme.

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1. Although it is reported that the book will be reprinted next year.
2. Desani, G. V., All About H. Hatterr, (London, 1970), p. 106.
3. Ibid., p. 41.
4. Ibid., p. 200.
5. Ibid., p. 283.
6. Ibid., p. 198.
7. Ibid., p. 284.

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