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Posts from the ‘Stereotypes’ Category

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

Love and Longing In-Between Wars

I read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford for the 12 Months Classics Challenge Event (August – A Modern Classic) as well as my Women’s Classical Literature Reading event for the month of August. I am choosing to overlook the fact that I was supposed to read this in August, but finally ended up reading it in September. Like I say better late than never!

The Pursuit of Love is set after the end of World War 1 and follows the lives of the Radlett children, until the end of World War II, through the eyes of their cousin Fanny . Fanny is the daughter of the youngest sister of Aunt Sadie, being brought by her other aunt, Aunt Emily. Fanny’s mother is called “Bolter” and has had a string of affairs and marriages leaving her daughter to the care of her sister to be brought up. Aunt Sadie is married to Matthew Radlett, who owns Alconleigh, where Fanny spends her holidays in the company of her Radlett cousins, especially Linda, to whom she is closest too. Their childhood is spent hunting with their uncle and forming plans in the wardrobe, for their secret society “The Hons”.  The Radlett girl cousins are not educated too much, Uncle Matthew being of the belief that girls to retain their feminine virtues, must know some French, play instruments and read and write, but no scholarship is needed. Aunt Emily however beliefs in education of women and ensures that Fanny receives a good education, even moving towns to enable her to attend a good school. At the age of 13, their lives are disturbed by the news that their Aunt Emily is getting married. Davey Warbeck is introduced to their lives and this gentle brilliant man with hyponchdriac tendencies is soon an accepted member of the extended Radlett tribe!  Soon the young children grow up and Louisa the eldest of the Radlett tribes debuts in London and marries a solid, albeit boring Scottish peer.Linda and Fanny spend days dreaming of the “true love” and waiting for their time in the society circles. The years pass and Linda and Fanny debut and in one of the balls hosted by her parents, she meets Tony Kroesig a young banker, brought in the last moment, by the glamorous neighbor and Linda’s mentor Lord Merlin. This sets off an unprecedented chain of events over the next decade that sees Linda failing and then falling and finally finding the expected  promise land.

I had heard much and much and much about this novel. It was cried out as one of the best coming of age stories and its humor and sensitivity was to touch one and all. It is a good book, it has many humorous touches. I loved the initial years of the Radlett children growing up and I loved the well drawn larger than life characters of Uncle Matthew,. Lord Merlin and Davy. I loved the brusque humor and the simple nostalgia of days and nights of doing everyday things and finding pleasure. I loved the relationships not bound by social stereotypes which spring forth and bring heart to this novel,. like Davy’s unvarying love and devotion to his nieces and Lord Merlin’s constant watching over Linda and the kind of care Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew bestowed on Emily and even her truant mother! These were wonderful relationships and I wish we had stuck to them instead of chasing Linda and her happening and non happening love life across the length and breath of Europe. I am told Nancy Mitford wrote this novel from her own recollections and experiences and I don’t know what to make of it; anyone who reads closely, will find that there is no bigger chicken head than Linda Radlett! She pines for true love; hello! who does not? But because she does not find it, she spend a whole decade doing nothing – I mean nothing!! She does even bother to take care of her daughter! She becomes a social butterfly then a communist before settling down to become a Mistress to her one true love! In between she does absolutely nothing, she does not read, she does not cook, she does not do anything except shop and spend days in parties and moan about her disastrous life!!Goodness! You would think, she is most unfortunate under privileged woman ever!Then I have a serious problem with the War; I mean there is a war on and the only thing Mitford focuses on is Linda’s pining away for her lover! I understand that the society then was different form us and society women doing nothing was the norm, but history testifies to many many woman who pinned for their lovers and still drove ambulances, worked in communal kitchens and patched up the wounded. During the war, there was no time for indulgence of grief; there was so much to do just to survive and all Linda does is lie in her bedroom in the posh London apartment! Ms. Mitford’s treatment of the war comes across as minor civilian disturbance; I am not sure what genre she was trying to fit in because she does not manage to in any!  The plot that begins with so much promise ends in a ordinary cliche, which you know would have been the inevitable conclusion some 80 pages into the book.

I read the book and I now of read of “the books” but frankly I have read better and I am still bemused at the kind of rave reviews it has received over the years!

All about Leaning Towards and In

I held of writing this review for practically 2 days because I did not want an outpouring of knee jerk reactions, especially since the subject of the book hit really close home. I am talking of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I know this book is the latest “in” book and I had for some time avoided reading it, primarily because, I do not like Management and Leadership yada yada yada books and secondly, I was convinced that Ms. Sandberg’s work could not possibly compare to feminist writings of Gloria Steinem, Emma Goldberg or even a Virginia Woolf. I did not believe that what these women had already written could be overridden and what could Ms. Sandburg possibly write that was original? However at a recent corporate event, I was given this book as a corporate gift, in fact it was given to all women participants and on the way back from work, out of curiosity, I began to read the book.

My assumptions were not wrong; this book is hardly literary or even scholarly. It is a Cosmopolitan to the Room Magazine. Like Cosmopolitan, every one’s heard of Lean In and like the Room Magazine, very few people have actually read The Second Sex, or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion. Those who have read any of the academic feminist authors will agree that Ms. Sandburg’s work lacks depth; it’s very narrow in scope and enumerates the challenges faced by a very narrow specific group – primarily white, educated (Ivy League educated) of upper class background. True feminist challenges are far more complex – women around the world have to struggle and overcome challenges with security, survival, socio-economic opportunities, just to reach the plateau from which Ms. Sandburg begins her hypothesis. She talks of supportive partners and bosses who will be open to communication – but for these to happen, there are certain “givens” which she assumes; partners who are not chauvinists and are not violent; bosses who do not indulge in sexual harassment or other discriminatory behavior. Her road ahead for equality and leadership is based on all things being equal and in equilibrium.

Having said all of this, I must acknowledge a deep respect for the home truths that she brings out if we reach that plateau or if things are in equilibrium. There is no getting away from the fact that women today in a corporate environment continue to be discriminated against and the “glass ceiling” very much exists. The leadership gap, which she succinctly points out, exists and I am in completely in agreement with her that unless women take up more and more leadership roles, the road to corporate equality will not be built and we will fight the same battles our mothers and grandmothers fought. Her understanding of corporate dynamics is par excellent – she writes that men are promoted basis potential while women are promoted basis past accomplishments; she dryly states that men are allowed to focus on their achievements but women are expected to be loyal to their organizations and leaders. She speaks of how professional ambition is expected out of a man, but is considered a non-complimentary trait among women. The women who has career aspirations is considered “too aggressive” , a “bit political” or “difficult or worse, much worse “a feminist” (Shudder! Shudder! Horror! Horror!!). I was absolutely bowled over when she wrote about work –live balance, an oft-repeated jargon of the corporate world. She is the first senior leader, regardless of gender, who points out the inherent dichotomy of the term – “Framing issues as work-life balance – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” She makes an extremely valid point about women “keeping their hand up” because inherently it’s men and not women who put themselves forward, and in the absence of raising the hand, even managers with the best of intentions miss out. She bares the fact out that women are emotional and cites the example of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, who believes that women cannot help but care when attacked and they should react accordingly and feel anger, sadness associated with such criticism and then move on. She lambasted the popular myths of Mentoring and Having it all – she categorically states that the new culture of seeking mentor may not be the best way to go – usually, mentoring refers to a senior person seeking and talented junior employee out and guiding them along the path. It’s not having an hour-long in-depth conversation. She also brilliantly calls out that no woman can do it all – it’s just important to get it done. I am absolutely floored by the fact, that she notices that single woman as well women married with children need a home life. It is important for the single woman to have a personal life as much as a married woman, may be in the end so that she herself can meet someone and get married and become the married woman with children herself. In the end, there are two very important things that she states, one , men also need to lean in as the women and become equal partners at home and at work and secondly women themselves need to band together to promote their cause and celebrate their success!

I work for one the biggest Fortune 500 conglomerates and I can truly say that my organization is an equal opportunity employer and truly promotes and respects women. There are stringent laws on sexual harassment with an HR team which has a hawk eye focus and an independent authority to make sure there are no powerful influences distorting truth. I have colleagues and bosses, who openly declare that women make better employees. Yet despite all this, I know it’s not a level playing field and unconsciously there are actions which bring the glass ceiling up all around us. The very fact that “Lean In” was given to only female managers is a case to the point. When Zig Zigler writes a leadership book, everyone gets it, but” Lean In” is for women?????This is a management book for both men and women, but because the tag line has women in it, it is instantly branded as a women leadership self – help book. I have seen men who have been guilty of some really bad indiscretions, being promoted, while the women with great results, flawless execution are told to improve their “peer management” skills. A colleague of mine is aggressive and a go getter – guess what happens? Promotion. I have another colleague who is aggressive and a go getter and this one is told to be more “sensitive” and less “aggressive” – I leave you to guess the gender of both. Time and again, I have been told that I am a “emotional” creature and this is a disruptive quality in my career progression – well I am a woman and I am wired to be emotional and I am going to be emotional when someone critiques my work because it’s my hard work, my sweat, my sacrifice of my Ph.D, which keeps getting prolonged because I spend 16 hrs plus at work, so yes, I am going to be emotional about it!!

So where does it all end? I don’t know – I am too small a fry to real solve the big problems, but a nano step can be a move in direction, when men read a “Lean In”

 

All The Grand Ladies….Please Stand Up!

I know March is the month of well…so many things (Remember Ides of March!!). It is also a month that celebrates Women and their empowerment. Yup! I am talking about March 8th – International Women’s Day. Now I am not a bluestocking feminist, though I have read all my Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem; but I am somebody who is inherently conscious of the fact that all the privileges that I enjoy and things that I take for granted are there for me because, many years ago, many women and a significant number of men stood up and said – hold it! That’s wrong and we need to change it! There were innumerable sacrifices along the way and many suffered so that I and all of us could breathe freely. While the glass ceiling continues to exist and each day a woman has to fight to protect herself – physically, emotionally and mentally; there is no getting away from the fact that we are in much better place than our grandmothers or even mothers! Whether it is education abroad or a tour of duty to a violent war-torn location or even a night out with the girls, we are able to do this and much more because, in our past there were women who stood and fought so that their daughters could have better lives.

Therefore for the month of March, I propose something unique; I would urge all my readers to share with other and me, stories from their families, of men and women who rebelled and went against the then social norms so that our lives would be vastly improved. It could be your grandmother or your teacher or your neighbor or just somebody you had heard off. The unsung heroes who did their share and more, but were never recorded in the history books; yet as their inheritors we know, the battles they must have fought and won!

I would request all my readers to go back and search their family troves for tales which would show us how small actions lead to big results. This is part of our history, our identity and we owe it to all our ancestral warriors to not only keep their memory but also share it to make the world a better place.

Please send your stories to cirtncee01@yahoo.com, along with a brief on yourself and I will publish the same on my blog with your credits the very next day. This is an event that I plan to host through this month, so send me your entries! The idea is to share and make people and ourselves aware of the change that so many had people sought around the world!

Do not worry too much over the length (either long or short) of the entry; the story and not the paragraph is important.

I will kick-start this event by sharing a tale from my own family trove, which I will post in my next post.

Until then, I leave you with anthem from my mother and aunt’s graduate school days, which they said inspired them and which they played for me when I barely of an age to understood what it meant!!!  But now, I have to agree with them is the best anthem ever for all women, all over the world!

 

 

Copyright : You Tube and Helen Reddy

In the Twilight of British Raj…

Two books both set in Colonia India; both set in early 20th century, in era of World Wars and Mahatma, told in the back drop of Himalayas and both written by women in 2000s!!

The first book is my long overdue review of “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas. To begin with grammatically, the name is incorrect – like the French Perfume is called the French Perfume and not the France Perfume, it should be “The Kashmiri Shawl”. That in itself put me against the novel, since the very name displayed a very superficial understanding of the land and not a lot of in-depth research. Anyway I soldiered on and I cannot say the story was all bad. After the death of her father, Mair Ellis discovers a shawl belonging to her grandmother. Exquisite in the riot of bright colors and hand-woven embroidery, Mair realizes the shawl is completely out of sync with her missionary grandparents’ lives and characters and sets off to India to discover the story behind the shawl. It is 1941 and Neyrs Watkins is a newlywed bride when her husband is assigned a remote missionary posting in Ladak. In order to recover from a miscarriage, ill-health and address some of the issues that is creating a distance between herself and her husband, Nerys moves to Kashmir in the company of her friends Myrtle and Evan McMinn. In Kashmir, she discovers the true life of British Raj – Shikara’s of flowers, houseboats on Dal lake, the social events at the Regency and new friendships which would change her life and course of  Mair’s life as well. The description of Kashmir is beautiful and from the back cover I gleaned that the author has spent several months in Ladhak and Kashmir which would account for the some lovely word portraits of the land. The friendship between Neyrs Watkins and Myrtle McMinn is warm, humane and alive only in the way women who have close girlfriends would understand. Kashmir in British Raj comes alive with all its gaiety and social hierarchies and hypocrisies even at the height of World War II which is as genuine a description as it gets! But despite all these redeeming factors, the story is bordering of improbabilities and fantasy. There are Swiss citizens walking about Kashmir during World War II and that in itself is a questionable fact. While Switzerland was not officially at war, all citizens who did not belong to the Allied Nations were treated as Alien Citizens with limited movements, especially in the border regions, like Kashmir. Then there is a “magical” disappearance of an Indian child and her “adopted” mother and how she was brought up in Switzerland! I do not think there were too many Indian children growing up in 1940s in Switzerland. All lot of this seems like taking the tale too far and while there is something to be said about poetic license and liberty, it leaves the reader feeling slightly incongruent with the plot line. This especially becomes highlighted as there the very epitome of stereotypes – the evil Indian Prince – Yawn! Indian Princes are soooooo evil and the only good Indians are the menials and underlings! And of course, the very old and boring reason for being unfaithful – your husband swings the other way! I mean why? Why cannot we come up with a more plausible reason for an illicit affair between a British Memsahib and an Indian Prince? I mean she could have just fallen in love or does the author still lie in the morasses of colonial mindset where the Memsahib cannot sink “so low” unless there is a very good reason for it! Otherwise it’s all very “Chi! Chi!. All in all, not a bad yarn but not a good one either ….your literary endeavors will not be incomplete if you give this one a pass!

The second book with similar heritage is “Ragtime in Shimla” by Barbara Cleverly. Set in 1922 Shimla, the Summer Capital of British Raj, the book follows Commander Joe Sandilands who is heading to the hill station in the company of a famous Russian Opera Singer, when he is shot dead. Why would anyone kill a Russian Opera singer in a part of the world, where he had apparently no past acquaintances? Joe Sandilands begins to discover all is not what it seems and just as he seems to have unraveled  a knot, a new one appears! From Shimla to South of France, Joe finds surprising connection between a brutal train accident and the death of not only a famous opera singer, but also a lost heir and a political plot! Now for the review, British Shimla is live and throbbing through the pages of the book – there is the famous Christ Church, the Cecil Hotel and The Mall. There are Residency balls and fashionable shops and rickshaws!  And then there are the majestic Himalayan Mountains – borrowing heavily and acknowledging the sourcing of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the author describes the land beautifully with its conifers and pines and lovely houses, which, for all their beauty seemed a higgly piggly motley crew, much to the disgust of Lord Lytton, the architect of New Delhi. The tale in itself is a very good whodunit. Just when you figure out, oh! I knew that all along, a new twist comes along and you are thrown off the rock again. The characters though not really written as multilayered or with depth in some cases, are nevertheless believable – they are neither very good nor very bad, mixture of all that is humane – wanting success, wanting better lives, angry of past actions/injuries, believing in the joy of future.  Very real and very endearing, and even the morally wrong ones are fun. Thank fully there are no justifications for the whys of a fallen woman and no need to expatiate her past of make her sound like a victim, a la “The Kashmir Shawl” style – they are what they and no apologies. There is the clichéd Indian Prince Villain – charming, seductive and crooked! Yawn!! At least, there is not too much time spent on him. Like in the naming of “The Kashmir Shawl”, a minor flaw revels the lack of complete of understanding of the India on the author’s part – the Indian Prince is a Pathan and a Muslim; son of King of a princely state on the North West Frontier Border – the author calls the Prince’s father the “Rajah” which is Hindu epithet and not used by Pathan rulers of the North West Frontier Border – they rather used terms like Shah or Amir.  However the overall book is very good read, for the mystery alone, if not the era. Again your literary endeavors will not be enriched by this book, but some time one reads for fun and this book us great fun!

Normans and Murders ….

As part of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, I recently completed two books of two wholly different genres and different times – the only common theme: It’s all about the English….

I begin in a chronological manner, though I read them in reverse order

Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal: Set in 1270, more than 200 years after Normans have conquered the Saxon England, tensions between the two groups still run deep. On the East Anglian cost, the Priory of Tyndal, sits amidst this uneasy peace and prepares itself to receive the extremely new, extremely young and extremely inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethope as the new Prioress. The fact that she has obtained this position as reward for staying loyal to King Henry III is not lost on the young Prioress, but she is determined to succeed and use all her intellect and her learnings from her aunt, the Prioress of Amesbury. However as she starts to realize that the Priory is not only in dire financial straits but is also severely mismanaged and duties are given not basis skills but rather per the need of teaching “humility” to its denizen.  Before she is able to resolve the strained circumstances of the Priory, the place is rocked by two brutal murders and an attempt at a third. Together with the help of sub infirmarian Sister Anne and the newly inducted Brother Thomas who is the confessor of the Sisters of the Priory and Ralf, the King’s Coroner, Eleanor of Wynethope, must quickly track down the murder before an innocent man is hung for a crime he never committed.

Now for the book….let me not hold back and shout it out loud – I am DISAPPOINTED!!! The book is set in one of my favorite eras and culture (Catholic Culture) and it’s a murder mystery…..it had potential to be such an amazing tale! But it fails and that too miserably. The book is flat, the mystery is flat and everything is clichéd. Let’s begin with the characterization, young Eleanor of Wynethope is witty, calm and has complete confidence. She is completely unperturbed on seeing a viciously murdered body and does not bat an eyelid when the second murder happens or she meets a wild man in the middle of nowhere all alone. No doubt there were woman who had nerves of steel and who knew whats and hows of sex, but a 20-year-old, who had spent all her life save one year in a convent, should know so much about it makes one wonder on the plausibility of the tale. She is always telling people that they will not be punished for being honest and that is the only thing she ever says of any result through 200+ pages. The only human thing is her feelings for Brother Thomas which are anything but holy, but then she wisely summarizes that love of all kind elevates a person to be better. The problem with Eleanor of Wynethope is that she is quite a likeable character in 21st century, but somehow to endow her with the foresight and liberality of understanding of this century and replace it 13th century is just too much to digest. While I know there were very strong and powerful women in medieval Europe, the kind of worldly understanding and ability that Eleanor of Wynethope displays, would have earned her a place on the stake in 1300s. Then let’s get to Brother Thomas – somebody explain to me why was he needed? The illegitimate son of an Earl, he was caught in a compromising position with his best friend. He was then jailed and only released by an unknown benefactor on the condition that he becomes a tonsured monk who will work per the dictates of this benefactor. He is then sent to Tyndal to find out why such a fertile priory is bleeding in finances and who was stealing all the funds – which he never discovers because he is chasing the elusive Brother John with green eyes and has non holy feelings as well. Through the book we are aware that Brother Thomas admires Eleanor of Wynethope but only he has given up on women!!! I mean what? The good brother is constantly confused about his sexuality and that is all that one comes across through the book. He is introduced as a highly intelligent person with acute mental powers who had in past worked as an informative, but where these powers were during the 200 pages, one wonders!

Then the plot – oh! Lord!! The good is so good and the bad is so bad and our world can only be black or white. Just because the sub prior does not like Eleanor of Wynethope, he has to be the villain. The fact that a man who had ruled the Priory single-handedly for many years may dislike being usurped by a woman half his age is enough for the author to make him the true denizen of hell; a natural feeling of jealousy which is far more human and often the case in many such circumstances is not enough!(Spoiler Alert)  No! We have to endow him with all the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony!! One is not enough to paint him black, let’s do it in seven different layers! Could there be a blacker character? And what is the plot – superfluous sex and violence. Complete sensationalism and nothing more. That too sensationalism of the worst kind! The book seems to be written because I think the author just wanted to write a book! There is no other reason for it. The characters are unreal, there is no plot and if there is something called a flat storyline, then this must 10 feet under and still digging!

This I know has to be one of my most caustic reviews and I know I am in no place to judge anyone’s talent, especially considering that Ms. Royal has published this and several more works, while I struggle to still find a foothold; however as a reader I can say that it’s a shame that such promise was laid to waste.

I need to quickly read a Susana Gregory or a CJ Sansome to restore my equilibrium and faith in the genre of medieval mysteries!!!

P.S. I will review The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas for the next post, considering this vitriolic was long enough!

A Stormy Night Adventure!

It was late in the day and I had not yet decided the book I was going to read for The Classic Club Readathon 2014. I had specifically declined all social engagement and had cooked enough food to last the entire weekend on Friday, so I could devote January 4th for the Readathon. I had piled up enough coffee/tea/wine and nuts to see me through the day and I was all set – except for the book. I just could not decide on what book to read! I wavered between re-reading Daphne Du Maurer‘s “Rebecca” which I had not re-read in a long time. I also mulled over reading Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone” or I could try something new like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Other Side of Paradise”. While I wavered and thought and re-read the synopsis of all the books and discarded one in favor of the other, only to return to the original again, Fate or God or could be both, I think disgusted with my indecision, decided to take matter in their own hand and raged such a storm that all wires went down and the valley where I stay was plunged in darkness. Inquires reveled that we would be stuck in this powerless/internet less world for next couple of hours to come! Oh! Joy!

Considering the situations, Du Maurer, Chopin and Fitzgerald were out as they were all in my Kindle and the battery was low and would not last me through the night. I could go for Dicken’s  but the print was too small for reading in candle light and I have enough Myopia to last me a lifetime without tempting it more. So it was Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone”. As I hovered at my bookshelf to draw out the Volume in a la Lady with a Lamp style, I noticed a slim volume, right next to “The Moonstone”. I drew it out and realized it was H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solmon’s Mines”. Now shocking as this may sound, I had not read this book. I had read “She” by Ridder Haggard and I had read “The Lost World” by Author Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” but I somehow had missed reading the very first of the lost settlement writing. The original Africa adventure tale! So without further debate, I settled down to read this much neglected and overlooked book, discarding all the original thought through options! Ah! Such is life – man proposes and God/Fate disposes!

Anyway, enough philosophy, here goes the tale of reading the tale –

Allan Quatermain, a nearing 60 Elephant hunter is the narrator of the tale and he describes of an adventure that began about 18 months ago when aboard a ship that was sailing to Durban, he met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. They are in a quest to find Sir Curtis’s brother, who was last seen by Allan Quatermain couple of months ago, heading for the mysterious mountains across the desert in search of the fabled Solmon’s diamond mine. It was said that no man survived the journey and no one returned alive from the mountain. Sir Curtis and Captain Good solicit Allan Quatermain’s expertise in the journey; along the way a Zulu named Umbopa who though acts as a servant and general man Friday joins their journey. It is clear that Umbopa has some mysterious questof his own that he seeks to fulfill through this journey.  Travelling through the desert and after various adventures and desperate condition, they reach the Kukanaland; through some glib talking and the magic of modern science including the set of false teeth and use of a gun, the three white men convince the Kukanaland people of being godly creatures from “the stars”. Kukuanaland though extremely organized and well maintained is ruled by the cruel King Twala with the help of the witch Gogool. Twala gained the throne after murdering his brother and running out his brother’s widow and young son out of Kukuanaland into desert where they both are presumed death. After many blood shedding ceremonies which were apparently in honor of the “white men from the stars”, Umbopa reveals his identity and order is restored in Kukuanaland by killing of Tawala. The original three then continue their quest for the mines and the consequences there off forms the climax of the story.

Needless to say this is one thrilling adventure tale, more so when read through a stormy dark night, especially when cut of s from modern civilized amenity like electricity and internet. However, taking away the ‘atmospheric’ element of the story, there is no getting away from the fact that this is wonderful yarn. I am not generally in favor of hunting Treasure Islandy tales, but this book is so much more than that. To say the King Solmon’s Mines is an adventure tale, is over simplification of the worst kind.

Though written in simple direct everyday language (it is the everyday language of 1880s), the tale grips the reader by the collar and does not let go, with its turbulent highs and lows. There is enough humor to break the tension and it is woven through the tale in such finesse that its breaks the tension just when the reader is about to bite off his fingers (by now you have chewed through your nails!) with some laugh out loud moments. It also raises some very interesting questions that have more than a shade of political and social commentary in it. For instances, right at the beginning Allan Quatermain describing himself, asks “What is a gentleman?” and then debates through this question in some way or form through the tale. Then when talking about African, he writes the word “nigger” and then scratches it out saying that he will never use such a term to describe African race. There is also the question of equality when Allan Quatermain upbraids Umbopa for use of imprudent speech when talking to Sir Curtis and Umbopa replies that how does Allan Quatermain know that Umbopa is not of equal rank as Sir Curtis in his own land and may be enen a superior? Though there is stereotypical barbarism of the Africa in the blood rites and cruelty displayed by Tawala and Googol, it far limited and written from the 19th century perspective hardly any commentary is passed on the superiority of the Europeans over Africans. In fact, there is much to admire that comes through Ridder’s description of the level of organization of Kukanaland Army or the noble conduct of many of its inhabitants. He even includes an inter-racial romance between Foulata a girl from Kukuanaland and Captain Good; but is candid enough to question how it will survive in a conservative 19th century England society, though he is full of admiration for Foulata. There is enough questions raised on the relationship between Europeans and Africans at economic, political and social levels and goes beyond the pale of the standard cliche of superior white race showing civilization to backward communities.

As a predecessor to many such tales and adventure stories, I cannot help but say, it rightly stands out the original masterpiece. I am just very sorry to have read this so late in my life!

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