My reading is mostly restricted to everything published till 1950’s with a few exceptions here and there. I realize that this makes my reading restrictive in many ways but it is one of those personal prejudice type of thing and while I try very hard to overcome them, 9 out 10 times I would rather be in 19th or early 20th century when reading fiction. However, I recently read a post by Karen where she shares that she and Simon over at Stuck in a Book will be hosting a 1956 book club for week of October 4th. She mentioned that it was a bumper year vis-à-vis books published and intrigued I began to explore. And as always, Karen was right! This was an amazing year with all kinds of authors publishing from James Baldwin to MM Kaye to Georgette Heyer to C.S. Lewis to Elie Wiesel to Allen Ginsburg to just name very very few.
This was just too much of a great reading opportunity to pass up and I joined in. The principles are really very simple, read a book and discuss it on your blog. Reading the book and posting the book was the easy part, but considering this extraordinary literary year, the hardest part was choosing which books to read. After much deliberation I settled on the following –
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie – Once can say I am in a bit of murder mystery spin and considering RIPXV is also on, this book seemed a great choice to cover for both events.
Detective in Togas by Henry Winterfeld – This history mystery for adolescents seemed very interesting, especially the art work Charlotte Kleinert.
Imperial Woman by Pearl S Buck – There is a change of pace necessary in everything and this modern classic by Pearl S Buck retelling the story is a fictionalized biography of Empress Dowager Cixi seems just the thing to move away from mysteries and whodunits.
That is my list for the reading this week for the 1956 club. I am not fully sure if I will be able to finish all of them, especially Imperial Woman which is a 500+ page book, but I am going to try for sure.
I was very fortunate to get to read one of the books that had been on my TBR for a very long time by an author whom I admired and whose books had defined my formative years. I speak of none other than John Steinbeck and one of his last books, Travels with Charley.
In 1960, after recuperating from a heart attack, against the explicit instructions of his Doctors, John Steinbeck set off to explore America again. As a writer of people, he felt that he had lately lost touch with his own country and its people, about whom he had written prolifically at one time and he set out to correct this miss! He started with meticulously organizing for the road trip, which included a customized Camper which he named Rocinante , furnishing it with all the books and maps he could not possibly need, stocking up food and other essential supplies and then choosing a traveling partner, his 10 year old, extremely pragmatic French Poodle – Charley. The trip started from a ferry at Long Island which was to take Charley, Rocinante and him to Connecticut from where he would start his actual “road” trip. He drove through Maine, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, then onto Montana, through Seattle and Oregon and California, Salinas where he grew up. He then headed back home via Texas and Virginia and then New Orleans where heart sickened, he proclaimed that his journey was technically over and he was just now heading home. He saw Niagara Falls and drove through Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast and the Yellowstone Park. He met small store clerks and motel owners who yearned to take off like he did and he spoke to migrant farmers who came over from Canada to help out during the autumn pickings and the supervisor of a ranch who would be seduced away from the wild beauties of the land to a secure albeit boring job in the city, at the behest of his young wife who wanted luxuries. He wrote of the “plastic” culture that decorated each motel and of the upwardly mobile aspirations of the people he met. He drank coffee and whiskey with strangers in a trailer park and spoke to them about the country, the upcoming elections and their aspirations. He was saddened by the people at Sauk Centre, the home town of Sinclair Lewis who failed to appreciate his genius and at one time had treated him as pariah until his death, made the town a lucrative tourist destination. And finally, he was completely heartbroken by the hatred and venom he witnessed from people opposing a newly integrated school. He felt that his journey ended with this episode and he drove home to New York summarizing that the country and it’s people had changed dramatically, moving directionless, away from all that which was real and good into an industrialized and material living frenzy, that did not brood well for the future.
John Steinbeck as always is deeply observant of human nature and the book is replete with many insightful and in some ways prophetic remarks. On watching migrant farmers from Mexico, India , Philippines work on the crops, he is reminded of the lessons in history where Carthaginians hired mercenaries to fight their wars; Americans bring in migrant laborers to do the hard work and he hopes that one day, they are not overwhelmed by the hardier race, in mighty foretelling of the future. He captures narratives from people who are comfortable living in mobile homes and not worried about not having roots, for they are convinced that obsession with building roots stops progress and moving forward. He muses “Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else” The wonderful thing about the author is his ability to see two sides of the story; while he misses the more personalized way of doing things prior to the industrial boom, he also acknowledges that “I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days.” and therefore nostalgia is presented with a pinch of salt. The rediscovery of America is always sombre, but there is much humour that only a master craftsman like Steinbeck can bring to a book, that is a difficult narrative – his conversations with Charley are downright hilarious, filled with laugh out loud moments. Charley is an intelligent dog and Steinbeck never forgets this fact in his 4-month long journey and the intellectual parley’s he engages in with him. His sense of irony is equally powerful when describing a quiet and enjoyable Thanksgiving, at a Texas millionaire’s place, talking a dig that the incorrect representation of Texas as loud and ostentatious. The language is flowing and despite being a travelogue, not once is the reader exhausted wondering when this journey will end. In fact, his description of the landscapes he covers is vivid and lyrical that brings alive the places and the reader is swept away with them! There is so much I can say about this book, that to end, I would only say that I read some essays which state that Steinbeck took several artistic liberties in writing this book, and this work is more fictional in nature. Be that as it may, his insights about life and humanity holds good now as it did 60 years ago and his deep heartbreak at people not being able to internalize respect for fellow creatures and the mad race of consumerism holds true today more than ever!
When I had first started blogging so many moons ago, Stefanie, had introduced me to R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril; originally started by Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings) that was hosted every year during the Fall season. Over the years, R.I.P events introduced me to such classics like We have Always Lived in a Castle. But the last few years, like everything else life was became kind of crazy nightmare and though this year is hardly better bringing in it’s own surreal qualities, I atleast have the time and energy to look around and read! So when I saw the posts coming up about the 15th R.I.P. event, I knew it’s time again to pick up those things that I had to let go and start again!
The rules this year are extremely simple and the only expectation is to read books from the following genre during the September-October
I am *******trying****** to not buy more books after the splurging of the last few months and instead am digging up from my current TBR. I m not sure if in the end I will stick to this list, but for now this seems to be the plan of action –
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie – This is one of those few Christie books not to feature her regular detective quad of Poirot, Miss Marple, Parker Pyne etc. There is a dead body and strange neighbors, set in the Cornish Moors and a young woman who is out to prove her finance’s innocence.
The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne – The mathematical genius not only created the famous Winne the Pooh but was apparently wrote some very good mysteries. The Red House is one of them and set in over a weekend in the typical English country house where the host disappears suddenly, after some mysterious shorts being heard.
Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold – I was introduced to this book by Jane when she wrote a wonderful review of a cycling holiday gone wrong with one of the members being found dead at a quarry.
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo – A brilliant review by Helen got me to buy the book. Set in 1937 Japan, a newly wed couple’s wedding night is marred with a gruesome death
The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – I have tried reading Horowitz a few time but it never quite works for me. But again a wonderful review by Helen made me pick this mystery within a mystery novel
This then is my plan; I am sure I will deviate and pick something else along the way, but as a starting point, this is what it looks to be!
Are you participating in R.I.P ? Do you have some good recommendations especially in the Gothic/Horror genre?
In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.
The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?
The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”
If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!
Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!
Following up from my last post, the Classic Club has declared the number for Spin #24 and it is – ta da – 18!! What does that mean? It means I am overly joyed, completely excited and for a change not dreading reading the book that has been spun out – I get Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck ( Drum Roll Please!)
Steinbeck is one of those authors who was critical in my formative years and along with Jane Austen and Harper Lee has left an indelible mark on my character, giving me a set of values and creating my belief system. East of Eden is my most favorite and it’s closing lines of “Timshel” – you may overcome is one of my guiding principles in life, where the choice to overcome is yours and it’s is your action that drives your life. However despite this abiding love and admiration for Steinbeck, there are some books which I still have to read (the old problem of so many books and so little time ) and therefore I am over the moon that this one time I have a Classic that I do want to read!
I just ordered my copy today and hope to post a review of the book soon! So what was your Spin number?
The Classic Club Spin is one of my most favorite reading activities. Over the years it has forced me to read books, that I was not sure I wanted to read and tackle texts, which I thought would be beyond me! Naturally the result has been wonderful, I fell in love with so many books that I had been hesitant to read; of course, there were one or two odd ones, that I could not and still do not like, but most of the times, the result were way more positive, with discovery of books and authors to cherish forever. Lately however, with all the tumult that life has thrown up, I have missed many of these events, but now that I am slowly settling back in, it is time to turn to those things that gave me a sense of joy and achievement. Therefore, I am all set to participate in The Classic Club Spin # 24
The rules are as always, extremely simple and I quote from the site directly –
Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday 9th August.
We’ll announce a number from 1-20.
Read that book by 30th September 2020.
Thus, without further ado, I present my list of 20 and look forward to August 9th with both excitement and some trepidation (not all books are up there in I-want-so-read list!)
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarrington
Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy
Wives and Daughter by Elizabeth Gaskell
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin & Chi-chen Wang (Translator)
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon by Emile Zola
The Bucaneers by Edith Wharton
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
And Quiet Flows The Dawn by Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov
The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons
A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem
I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!
So what all did I read in July?
Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.
The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.
Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!
Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.
Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.
High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.
The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.
That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!
JB Priestley in a wonderful book called Delight said that “there are times when we do not want anybody’s social criticism or deep psycho-logical insight or prose poetry or vision of the world: we want a narrative, an artfully contrived tale.” And such narratives he believed were only available in a good detective story! I have never heard of a better description of this genre and my recent read, The Blitz Detective, checked all the boxes to be considered a a good detective story by the maestro himself!
The Blitz Detective by Mike Hollow was first published in 2015 and is the first in the series of 3 books. The novel is set in 1940’s England, West Ham to be exact, just as Germany starts its Blitz, the bombing of London and her suburbs, every night. Detective Inspector John Jago, a veteran of the First War and a tenured detective, who has worked his way from a beat cop, is summoned along with the newly inducted Constable Cradock to investigate a body found lying one of the streets. Though there is no identification on the body, the Detective Inspector recognizes the man, as the local Justice of Peace, Charles Villers and what befuddles the policemen is the fact that it looks like a murder and suicide at the same time. As Jago and Cradock start to dig through the matters, stories emerge and suddenly, it seemed that there was more that met the eye in the case of this particular JP.
This book is published in 2015 but no one, can fault with the atmosphere, the language and the everyday scenes of a nation and her people at war. London in 1940s came alive through the pages, with her bombed out buildings, rationing and politics of rich and poor. Mr. Hollow does a brilliant job of resurrecting the past with in-depth research and small subtleties that makes the novel feel grounded and real. In the creation of character of John Jago, he follows the same grounded approach and tries to create an every man hero. Jago is irritable and is traumatized by the bombs, living through the nightmare of the past, where he survived and many did not. At the same time he is considerate and patient with Cradock, understanding of the follies of people stuck between devil and the deep blue sea and honest enough to apologies for his mistakes. He does not have flash dash style or astounding intelligence, what he is a plodder, who keeps at it until he finds the truth. Craddock is a perfect foil to the senior Jago, looking up to his superior, enthusiastic, and smart enough to not lose temper, when people try to bring him down. The other characters are also deeply etched out and stand on their own merit; my favorites were Charles Viller’s brother and Son. The murder mystery is linear but not boring, there are very few complexities and by the middle, you clearly know that of the few, one should be the murderer so, you are not completely surprised. However the plot is well arched to pull it off and you keep turning the pages; and if the culprit does not take you by surprise, the motives and the fall out does. The only flaw that I found in the book was the introduction of American journalist and I found that angle unnecessary and distracting from the main plot of the book; though it did provide an interesting back story to Jago’s war. However, this is just one strand in this extremely rich attempt to provide a good yarn while being historically accurate, and this success of this remarkable feet makes this book a must read, for those times when you want an artfully contrived tale!
Many Thanks to NetGalley and Allison & Busby Publishers for providing me a copy of this book!
One of the best things about blogging, which I sorely missed during my hiatus was the pleasure of discovering books you never read or authors you did not know wrote! While this does create some issues in terms of TBR *****ahem! ahem!****** the fact still remains, that most of us Bookish people would rather have overflowing TBRs than scout around for what to read next! Recently Karen over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings discussed a brilliant little book called Delight by J.B. Priestley and I knew I had to get hold of it immediately!
J.B. Priestley is far too well known for any introductions; a prolific writer, he has written books and plays enough to fill shelves after shelves. I too have read many of his works and loved them and like Karen mentioned in her Blog, enjoyed the slightly grumpy tone of his writings.Delight however is a departure not only from his more famous works of fiction, but actually focuses on the those small everyday items that bring joy to the author.
J.B. Priestly begins this slim volume by offering a context of writing this book. He offers his defense for always appearing to be grumbling including that authors have the unique privilege and therefore obligation to speak the truth, especially those truths that may be costly for others who have jobs and other dependencies, because no will fire them from their job with mortgage and impact on his family. Therefore he feels it incumbent for writers like him to speak of the unpleasant. He then goes on to share in small concise Notes like format all things that bring him “Delight” and they include a vast range of small everyday items that often get missed by most. He begins by describing the joy of Fountains and the synchronized way they sprout out water in varied hues and colors. He talks of the joy of reading “Detective Stories in Bed” at the end of a long hard day, where a good narrative instead of some “improving literature” actually provides relief and reset’s the mind for a new day! He also talks about the joy of reading or watching other artists including the works of H.M.Tomlinson and the Marx Brothers. No item is too mundane or small in helping the author finding delight, like Mineral water at a foreign locations after all the struggle of travel, or waking up at the right moment, when the breakfast is being prepared, so that one arrives right on time, when it is still hot and fresh or the joy of inventing games for his children.
I cannot say enough good things about this book! The author in an effort to share his joy forces all of us to think all those little things in life that bring us joy but we often ignore in our search for the big things! He remained me about my undiluted pleasure Reading in bed while it rains cats and dogs outside, of buying books, or Chamber Music etc. Only the brilliance of J.B. Priestley would have managed to convey such outpouring of joy in sparse, concise and at the same time witty prose. Here’s an example, on discussing the effectiveness of Marx Brothers as entertainers – “Karl Marx showed us how the dispossessed would finally take possession. But I think Brother Marx do it better.” Or on the subject of people seeking advise from him ” But because I am heavy, have a deep voice, and smoke a pipe, few people realize that I am a flibbertigibbet on a weathercock, so my advise is asked. And then for te minutes or so I can make Polonius look a trifler. I settle deep in my chair, 200 pounds of portentousness, with some first rate character touches in the voice and business with pipe, I begin “” Well, I must say, that in your place _____”” And inside I am bubbling with delight! There is so much fun and self deprecating humor, that not only does one remember to appreciate small things in life but also approach life understanding that not everything can and should be taken seriously! And through all these notes, never far way, is the author’s appreciation of the inequalities, of the struggles that come in everyday for the common man and his appreciation of the good things in life!
This book is a must have in everyone’s collection and from now on it is my Go – To book whenever I need a pick me up!
In a globalized world of free markets and open economy, the idea of a multinational subverting the national interest of a country where they are expected to only conduct business is not new. Infact these days, they hardly seem to make news, after the initial furor. It’s almost an expectation that a large for profit organization almost always, may indulge practices that cannot be accounted for in the books and which will propel the interest of certain few in power, while subjecting the larger populace to many inequities and struggle. However despite such organizations being larger than ever in 21st century, not one of them can quite match the sheer greed and treacherous conduct, that led to the subjugation of a nation for nearly 200 years, all to enrich another nation and the company stockholders – The Honorable East India Company!
The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence and The Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple looks at this very phenomena that led to the rise of a group of merchants who had to work long hard years to simply be allowed a trading outpost in India to becoming the very rulers of that nation, in less than 100 years. The story of East India Company, and those of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Bengal and Oudh are well known to every child in India; drilled in from grade 6 history books, with the Battle of Plassey as the day of infamy; a nation conquered through bribe and betrayal. But Mr. Dalrymple goes much beyond this epoch making time of Indian history, to bring to the readers, the very events that led to the creation of East India company; her initial and mostly unsuccessful forays into India. It traces in parallel the history of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperors inter-played with merchants, starting from grant that led to creation of a trading outpost, to being defeated and expelled from the country by Aurangzeb and finally the fall of the House of Timur that led the great grandson of Aurangzeb, the very talented but ill fated Shah Alam to become a pensioner and a puppet ruler of the Company. The book also sheds light to the rise of local powers like the legendary Marathas and the valorous Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the sultans of Mysore as they fought each other and the company is a gallant effort to keep their states sovereign and were defeated each time by conduct of bribes and other underhand means by the Company. It showcases the economic and aesthetic prosperity of almost all parts of India under these local rulers, through the 18th century and the consequences, of Company conquest leading to famine, destruction of native art and trades and displacement of the local populations. Further the book delves deeply into the kind of administration that the company set up from taxation to justice under the name of the Mughal Emperor but really running an independent nation state with the help of a private army. The books also looks at the rise and fall of such iconic British statesman like Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley and spin to the conquests and settlement that each of these Governors brought to the country, until it became a suzerainty of a multinational corporation. Finally, in a succinct manner, the author also manages to illustrate, how as a multinational corporation, East India Company set a precedent for all such companies in future, from corporate lobbying, to the unholy government – company nexus for military action to government bailouts; all well before, any of these terms were actually invented. In the usual style of the author, the book is filled with nuggets of wonderful information, that historical books usually do not contain, including some wonderful Urdu couplets and Ragas now all lost. It also has some rare paintings drawn from a wide variety of sources, once again shedding light on the fact that the so called “dark age” of India was anything but dark and it was the really the interpretation of few westerners who did not understand the country or its history that led to such a narrative.
Let me start by stating the obvious, Mr. Dalrymple never is never disappointing. Filled with quotations and citing, the book is a work of meticulous and thorough research. The author has exhaustively used both primary and secondary resources to tell a story that needed to be told, in the most interesting, easy and lucid manner. The Bibliography and Notes alone stands at nearly 100 pages and talks of the extensive reading done by the author to present this work. It shows in the almost neutral tone of the book; I say neutral, because I have always felt that Mr. Dalrymple like the very Warren Hastings he quotes in the book, loves his adopted country, i.e. India a little more than his birth country. He writes with all the fairness that must be accorded to historical events, balancing good with the bad; but his righteous indignation at the way India was exploited and complete destruction of her trade, commerce and art, for the enrichment of few merchants several thousand kilometres away, speaks volumes about his sense of justice as well as his love for his adopted nation! The language is easy and free flowing and for a chunkster history book, it is also remarkably a page turner. The battle scenes which I usually skip, are described flawlessly, with suspense and thrill, without being long winded or boring. Like always, Mr. Darlymple introduces us to books, long forgotten; in his Age of Kali, he re-introduced many of us with a remarkable and now almost forgotten novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. Similarly, in this books, he re-introduces us to historian Ghulam Hussain Khan and his remarkable Seir Mutaqherin or the Review of Modern Times, a book that is first hand account of the last years of Aurangzeb to the Battle of Buxar. In the end, the author states, that the “story of East India has never been more current“; one has to agree and only add that this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand India, England or multinational companies.