Monday, November 19, 2018

Patna Blues - A Breath of Fresh Air in Troubled Times

In dramas from Korea and Japan, older woman-younger man love is a popular theme. On Indian screens or Hollywood, the man has to be a little elder than the woman. Not by too much. Or he becomes villain. Who sets those barriers? Who shall love whom is an issue that plagues us. The issue is mostly social but powerfully legal at times. And most people cannot let go of thinking this is good and that is bad.  

Long Vacation

Much that has evolved faster elsewhere needs changing in Indian mindsets. More liberal laws are a hallmark of progressive civilisations. Laws that evolve to suit reality rather than archaic moralities. Abdullah Khan brings us an Indian story that dares to challenge the status quo in more than just the question of age and love.

 Dream says the first chapter and we enter the world of young Arif:

Arif shivered when a gust of wind hit him. I should have worn a jacket, he thought as he stopped his bicycle in front of a two-storeyed yellow building. He had just returned home from college. Parking his bicycle in the stairwell of the building, he pulled a notebook from its carrier and climbed up a flight of stairs. The banister of the staircase was broken in places and cobwebs hung from the ceiling.

We are transported into an India, both authentic and larger than life.  A small town youth slogs and crams for a popular Indian exam, one which holds symbolical keys to the 'kingdom' - the right to administer to the diverse needs of this unwieldy demography and geography. 

Interspersed with forbidden romance and politico-religious chaos, the novel croons the reader through all kinds of nightmare scenarios with compassion. 

Patna Blues Sings Rights, Riots, and Rites

Riots dot India's history with religious regularity. Most Indians experience one or know someone who has. Once the riots are over, we bury the issue of their being endemic. And, we have, in our vast cultural arsenal, a host of ways to never look a thing directly in the eye. Patna Blues steps delicately and warily over the debris of actual and fictional riots with a rare maturity and subtle humour that does the author much credit. The book has passages where a near riot situation simmers, evoking the ambiance without hurling brick-like judgement.  

Communal riots - Ahmedabad, February / March 2002
The picture reminds me of my only view of a riot - the one in Delhi in 1984.

Around the world, riot rate has been an uneasy marker of democracy. However, we would all rather not be present at a riot. Many countries become desirable to visit or reside in where riots are rare or only seen as news from distant lands. To create a riot free environment is surely the work of good administration. In India, the IAS exam is one way to such responsibility.

Hordes of young Indians embark on this pursuit in a manner not unlike that of students in the ancient Chinese exam system. It's a kind of do or die. Years of life are wasted in unsuccessful attempts. And Patna Blues is the ballad of one such attempt.

While riots across the world erupt for a variety of reasons, in India, they are frequently due to religion. And, while much of the rest of the world has chosen to try and underplay the power of religion over day to day life, we have emerged increasingly pious and surly as a race, ever ready to riot. Here, too, Khan has used a tender touch, just enough to bring us the beauty of that cultural phenomenon: religion. And, let's not forget that, in India, even academics are undertaken as rites! With much religious 'chanting' of study material!

In urban India, it was, to some extent, quite popular to be 'secular' or even outright agnostic. However, that has rapidly changed over the past few years. In rural India, religious rites rule rigidly. The state of Bihar does not boast high literacy rates. So, one can imagine the average Bihari to be much more pious than, say, a person from Kerala, where literacy has boomed. Again, today, I'm not so sure about that. Today, in India, it pays to be pious. While religious ritualism is fascinating as cultural phenomena, we observe less crime in regions where religion is low key. Consider Japan or some of the Scandinavian lands.

In Patna Blues, there are vivid and memorable encounters with dreaded bandits. The sad truth is that this piece of fiction reflects what is daily life in much of India. Even more so today than ever before.

A historical account of life in small town India, the novel showcases the aspirations and tribulations of an average Indian small town male with gentleness and sweet candour.

Patna Blues is a must read, across the globe, for insights into the Indian psyche. Though written from a Muslim's perspective, it could just as easily be the tale of a Hindu or Christian family in India. Veiled under a tale of unrequited and forbidden love, the story sings the blues that afflict India today and, while no fingers are pointed, the message is clear: rather than complain, , it is time the average Indian studies national policies as assiduously as an IAS officer. Riots and gangsterism will become myths from the past when rights and not riots guide us.

In the meanwhile, read Patna Blues today. Abdullah Khan is a pioneering voice in Indian writing in English. A rare ease and flow make the book a page turner.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Gabriel Hounds - Mary Stewart's Damascus, now much dog-eared?

Gabriel Hounds, according to some legends in the UK, were human headed dogs. If they fly over a home, it is an omen of death or bad luck. There are many colourful stories around these airborne canines. In Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds, a character says:
I think myself that the idea must have come from the wild geese - have you heard them? They sound like a pack of hounds in full cry overhead, and the old name for them used to be 'gabble ratchet'. I've sometimes wondered if the'Gabriel' doesn't come from 'gabble', because after all Gabriel wasn't the angel of death...
And, from those legends, we leap to a more personal myth in the story. Young Christie Mansel is rich and twenty-two. She has come to Lebanon to look after an aunt. Aunt Harriet is an eccentric lady who lives in a rundown palace called Dar Ibrahim.

Now, in that region, there are some well known hunting dogs such as the Saluki. And Lady Harriet loved going hunting with them. 

Saluki dog, CC BY-SA 4.0 

But it is said that, if Gabriel Hounds run around and howl in Dar Ibrahim, there will be death. The palace is full of secret passages and strange servants - an excellent setting for murder and mystery.

Bayan Almaarawi - Maktab Anbar - Old Damascus
The deep blue oblong of sky above the open court was pricking already with brilliant stars. No ugly diffusion of city light spoiled the deep velvet of that sky; even hanging as it was above the glittering and crowded richness of the Damascus oasis, it spoke of the desert and the vast empty silence beyond the last palm tree...
The story takes place in the nineteen-sixties. Christy Mansel, touring Syria and Lebanon, bumps into Charles, her cousin. Since they are in Damascus, why not meet Great-Aunt Harriet who lives near Beirut. She is over eighty and lives in a decrepit palace by river Adonis. She dresses like the famous Lady Hester Stanhope.
Lady Hester Stanhope on horseback, via Wikimedia Commons

Harriet does not meet anyone other than her servants and a young Englishman. Christy feels unwelcome but spends a night there. She senses something is wrong and, with Charles, decides to investigate.

The novel is rich with twists and turns as well as poetic descriptions of the beauty of the region. With an action-packed ending, The Gabriel Hounds will make nice reading this autumn, taking the reader down the highways of the history of a troubled but once very beautiful region. 

Alas, like the ill-omened flying Gabriel Hounds, planes from some countries have brought death and devastation to the place, once known as the Paris of the Middle East.

Sneak a preview:

The chapters of Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds open with quotes from The Koran and from Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat

Given the times, we have to excuse a certain degree of racism in the novel where Arabic is said to sound like 
an angry cat spitting. However, it will be a pity if we turn away from such historical phenomena. We not only deprive ourselves of a sense of history but also become no less prejudiced. 

This post concludes the Mary Stewart journey. The next one tackles a contemporary novel from India where forbidden love flowers in a region rich with gangsters.

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Monday, October 01, 2018

Airs Above the Ground - Circus, Smuggling and Stallions

Some stallions are specially groomed to perform stylized jumps called 'airs above the ground'. Airs Above the Ground, yet another romantic thriller from Mary Stewart, takes the reader galloping airily through adventures in Austria, home of a famous training school for Lipizzaner stallions.

A Lipizzaner Stallion performing the levade - Sean

Vanessa March, having tea with a school friend of her mother's, hears some distressing news. Her husband, whom she thought was in Stockholm, appears to be in Austria! As luck will have it, her tea companion asks if she would accompany her teenage son to Austria, assuming Vanessa is going there to join her husband.

Harrods of London cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ann Harrison -

And, thus, she's plunged into an adventure of a lifetime. Lewis, supposed to be in Sweden, appears in a documentary about a fire in a circus in Austria!

All at once there it was. ‘Circus Fire in Austrian Village . . . Sunday night . . . Province of Styria . . . An elephant loose in the village street . . .’ And the pictures. Not of the fire itself, but of the black and smoking aftermath in the grey of early morning, with police, and grey-faced men in thick overcoats huddled round whatever had been pulled from the wreck. There was the circus encampment in its field, the caravans, mostly streamlined and modern, the big top in the background..

A village in Styria - Bernd Thaller 

When Vanessa and the teenager, Tim, reach Vienna, they find out that that Tim's real purpose for the journey is to work in the famous Spanish Riding School. Vanessa, in turn, reveals the truth behind her reason to be there. They hire a car and set off for Graz. Near Graz there is a Lipizzaner stud farm. Also, Vanessa thinks the circus she saw in the documentary was there.

Castle mountain Graz - Ralf Roletschek - Wikimedia Commons

Vanessa and the boy find themselves mixed up with drug runners and missing horses. The novel is packed with action scenes, car chases and chases through old castles.
Next moment we in our turn were sweeping over the crest of the hill, and there in front of us, as Lewis had said, was the sprawled darkness of the wood, an avalanche of thick trees spilled down from the mountainside above, and flooding the valley right to the river bank. Beyond this, clear in the moonlight, shone a cluster of white painted houses, and the spire of a village church with its glinting weathercock. Only a glimpse we had of it, and then the car dropped quietly down the hill with a rush like that of the castle lift, and we were whispering through the dark tunnel of the pines. The road slashed through the forest as straight as a footrule, and at the far end of the wooded tunnel we could see yellow points of light which must be the lamps in the village street.
Preview Airs Above the Ground below:

Austria is not as cheap to visit as Greece but it is a place rich in culture. Apparently, it is the next big romantic destination for Indian tourists

In the meanwhile, the best thing to do is to read Airs Above the Ground! With the next post we conclude our tours with Mary Stewart novels, visiting Damascus with The Gabriel Hounds.

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