India

Stories of empire

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Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

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Ilkley litfest: Tim Smith photographs Gujarat

This evening in an eerily deserted Ilkley I went to see Bradford-based photographer Tim Smith talk about his Gujarat project. I learnt a lot about the history and geography of that part of India, for instance I had no idea it was about the size of the UK (both in area and in population) or that more than half of British people with Indian backgrounds have their origins there. Interestingly there are specific localities connected, so that Gujaratis from Batley are predominantly connected to one part of Gujarat which is a different area from those who live in Bradford, different again from those in Leicester or Wembley.

Tim began his career in Bradford in the mid-eighties working with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (oral history and documentary photographs), and it was from the large numbers of migrants he photographed in Bradford’s mills that he eventually worked so much on documenting migration to Britain. As he said this evening, the textile work was the ‘pull factor’ that encouraged people to come to the UK, but he wanted to see the story from the other end. Hence he spent 2 months in Gujarat in 2014.

His style is photographing ‘ordinary people doing everyday things’ whether that’s in Bradford, Leicester, London or Surat. There was a nice symmetry to some of the pictures he showed: Indian restaurants in Bradford and English-style restaurants or food stalls in India; the interior of a church in Mumbai that could have been anywhere in England, and the interior of a mosque near Bradford that could have been India. One of my favourite pictures was a woman in a shalwar kameez playing cricket on a beach, which happened to be in India but could just as easily have been Blackpool.

Unfortunately an hour proved to be too short a time to fit everything in and sadly Tim had to rush through the last half-dozen photos, but it was an interesting evening with some wonderful photos and I’m sorry I missed the exhibition that arose from this trip (though there is of course a book).