A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

Review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

A year ago I read The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and decided it was so good I would have to read all of the others. And so recently I finished her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In this, Anuradha Roy tells the story of three generations of a family who have moved from Calcutta to live in a huge, rambling mansion in Songarh, a small town in the hills of Bengal.

Amulya’s wife, Kananbala, hates the isolation of the town, with its lack of fashionable shops and social life, and longs to return to Calcutta. Their oldest son, Kamal, longs for children, and his youngest, Nirmal, is widowed and longs for his unmarried cousin.

Everyone appears to long for something that proves unattainable, and at the centre of the story are two children, thrown together by chance circumstance and then separated by the cultural fears of adults, but who have formed an unbreakable bond that endures through years of separation.

Mukunda is an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family, and his only companion is Bakul, daughter of Nirmal. They pass their time playing in the grounds of their home or in the woods and fields around the town.

As Bakul and Mukunda grow towards adulthood, their friendship slowly begins to become something more, and Mukunda is sent away to Calcutta by the family, suddenly fearful of the consequences of this.

As the years pass, Mukunda graduates from college and becomes prosperous, even through the years of Partition, without ever returning to see the family who raised him, although he thinks frequently of Bakul. But then chance sends him to Songarh, and he realises he must find out what has happened to her.

The pace of this book is deceptively languid, but this enables Roy to paint the characters and settings in exquisite detail, and for the plot to unfold at an easily assimilable rate.

I feel you always gain more from re-reading a book, and I am longing to do this, to immerse myself again in the rich landscape and characters Roy has created.

Most definitely a five star read.

Nice To Meet You!

It’s been a difficult time. There’s been stuff. And we all know what stuff does, don’t we? Well? Don’t we? Yes, you at the back, boy! Tompkins Minor! Well, what does it do?

‘Gets in the way, Sir.’

Louder, boy!

‘GETS IN THE WAY, SIR!’

That’s right, Tompkins. It gets in the way.

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Stuff getting in the way.

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Stuff not getting in the way.

And with all this stuff flying around, stuff I’m finding it rather difficult to deal with, sometimes it’s as much as I can do just to leave a ‘like’ on a post. Even posting a comment seems too much like hard work, although I want to. So I press ‘like’ to simply show my appreciation of the post.

But I’m working on it. I haven’t gone away, I’m just a little snowed under with…stuff.

And because it’s a new year (oh yes, Happy New Year to you all. Have you broken all your resolutions, yet? I have.), I’m thinking it might be a good time to re-introduce myself to the blogging world. So, this is me:

I have published one novel, Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in rural Northern India and is about the way society treats women there (and, by extension, in most places still). This has had good reviews, and I’m especially pleased with the ones from Indian women, who obviously know a thing or two about the subject! It is available as e-book as well as Print On Demand paperback.

The first draft of my second novel, provisionally titled A Good Place, is completed and I shall begin to edit it at the end of February. This story is set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India populated by a mixture of the English who remained in India after Partition, a few English travellers, and, naturally, the indigenous Indians there. In the meantime I am also working on another novel, the first in a series of 3 or 4, provisionally titled The Assassins Garden and set in both Persia and India in the 1600’s. This one I like to think of as being a mixture of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and Neil Gaiman. It starts innocuously enough, but rapidly becomes darker. The later books will also have elements of Gothic fiction and Victorian Detective stories in them. Possibly rather ambitious, I admit, but I have already written quite a large proportion of several of them.

I also write short stories and occasional poetry. At least, I call it occasional, but I do seem to be writing more of it than I used to.

And then I paint. I try to sell some of these through my shop on Etsy, although in the past I used to exhibit regularly at exhibitions and in various galleries (and sold quite well!). Perhaps I should investigate that route again.

There are links to Etsy and to my books on the sidebar, if you wish to go and have a gander.

And, when I can, I travel. Preferably with my wife. India and Nepal are favourite destinations, but so too are places closer to home in the UK, especially long-distance walks.

But, that’s enough about me for the moment. Possibly a little more next time.

The First Draft

It’s November. And I’ve set myself the target of finishing the first draft of ‘A Good Place‘ by the end of the month.

What is a first draft? No one seems to agree with anyone else on this one. And my use of the term here is a little different to most of the definitions I have come across.

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A hill station in Northern India photographed by my father during WWII. How is this relevant? read on…

Ideas of what constitutes a first draft seem to vary from, at one end, a sketch of the story arc with most of the characters written in, a mixture of great and awful writing, plot holes and loads of inconsistencies to, at the other end, the story pretty much as the author imagines it, but with minor inconsistencies to iron out, prose to polish and some information dump to delete.

I imagine that any single writer’s idea of a first draft will depend upon what type of writer they are. Being a pantser myself, i.e. NOT beginning with a carefully planned storyline and characters, but making it up as I go along, I think the first draft has to be closer to the finished article than if I were a plotter. This is because it is a little harder to see when I have reached that destination.

So my personal idea of a first draft is the book written from beginning to end, no obvious plot holes, no gaps, and nothing I think is glaringly wrong.

When I come back to revise, plot holes will reveal themselves, and I’ll deal with them then. What I shouldn’t be doing is coming back to a work with a huge gap where I found it too bothersome to write the dialogue in the first place.

So it’s mainly dialogue I’ll be working on. There are two scenes which need a lot of work on them still, and quite a lot of smaller gaps in the final third of the book. The draft currently weighs in at about 85,000 words, which is almost twice the length of Making Friends with the Crocodile, and feels to me to be the right length for the story.

It’s taken quite a while to get here. I know it’s generally accepted that the second novel usually has a far more difficult birth than the first, but the storyline has changed tremendously over the couple of years I have been working on it, and has become something I had not foreseen at all.

I’m not quite there yet, though.

And what is A Good Place about?

I’m so glad you asked.

It is 1988, and an Englishman arrives at a small hill station in Northern India. At first he appears to be no more than just another tourist, but gradually we learn he lived in the town as a child, during the time of Partition. A couple of years later his family moved back to England in a hurry, and he suspects it might have been due to some dark or ignoble reason and has decided to do a little research.

The human landscape of the story is the mixture of characters living there, the good and the bad, the well-off and the poor, the weird and the apparently normal, especially the English left behind after Partition.  It also happens to be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town by the English, and amidst the planned celebrations there are predictable feelings and tensions over this.

And the main character’s private life is a bit of a mess…

The Kashmir Issue

I posted a little while back that I had prepared a rather contentious post.

This is it.

Of course, I realise I risk being shot down in flames over this post. An Englishman blogging on what he thinks might be the solution to an incredibly difficult problem in the Sub-continent. So I will put on my tin hat, duck behind the sandbags, and press ‘Publish’.

As always, I welcome your comments. In fact, it is probably pointless my posting this unless there is a conversation. But, please, keep it polite.

Obviously, I am not the only person to have thought of this idea. Indeed, I read about it a long time ago, when these various options were being discussed to the backdrop of bombs and bullets.

Plus ca change.

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I fear there is only one solution that is practical in the long term, but I strongly doubt that the governments of India or Pakistan would have the courage to implement it. For the whole of Kashmir to remain in Indian hands will mean a continuation of the devastating armed conflict in progress at present, with no prospect of it ever ending, plus the ever-present prospect of it escalating into something much more serious. But for it to pass entirely into Pakistani hands would be considered out of the question by the huge majority of the Indian population, and certainly by the whole of the political class.

No, the only prospect of peace that I see is for the state of Kashmir to be partitioned in much the same way as India herself was in 1947. The areas of Muslim majority such as the Vale of Kashmir would need to be ceded to Pakistan, and the remaining ones would remain part of India. Pakistan and the insurgents would need to agree to give up all claims to these areas. This would need to be achieved by negotiation in good faith with goodwill on both sides, both conscious of the risks and the monumental steps they are taking to finally establish permanent peace, and to restore prosperity to a troubled part of the sub-continent. And upon resolution, all parties would need to declare very publicly that this was a solution agreeable to all, and give it their blessing.

It is not as though there is no precedent to that arrangement. After all, both the Punjab and Bengal were divided this way at independence, and although it was strongly resented by some, it was also generally viewed as the only practical solution. And it is what should have happened to Kashmir, then.

If the difficulties in the way of this solution are huge, then so too are the incentives for success. It goes without saying that the loss of life and the devastation caused by the troubles are highly undesirable in the first place, and then there is the massive drain in resources to both sides by keeping huge forces established on either side of the border. With the prospect of peace, then agriculture, industry and tourism could return to normal with major benefits for everyone involved. Lastly, with the removal of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ as a friction between them, it is possible that both sides might finally come to the sort of mutual respect, collaboration, and friendship envisioned back in 1947. Even if the attempt were to end in failure, then the goodwill generated by the attempt could be a positive that might spill over into other areas of India / Pakistan relations.

The alternative solution, sometimes mooted, of an independent Kashmir under UN jurisdiction, appears an unworkable ideal. The state itself is too divided for this to work, and both Indian and Pakistani players would still covert the whole country. It is unlikely that conflict would cease under these conditions; it would be more likely to simply escalate. The small state would forever be reliant on the UN for security, leading to a constant financial drain on the organisation. The peacekeepers, too, would inevitably become military targets raising the risk of  new frictions arising.

I believe that the option of doing nothing is one that must be finally put aside. At present the situation is one where a resented and hated military presence governs within its own borders through fear and the threat of violence, That is not a situation that is likely to ever change to trust. The population are never going to learn to love their rulers that way. The only option in that situation is the eternal continuation of the status quo.

But it lies within the power of the regional players to solve this crisis once and for all, and it is essential that the attempt is made.

The Past is a Foreign Country; We Did Remarkably Similar Things There

Or, following in my father’s footsteps, or something like that.

Putting up some old postcards of Darjeeling earlier this week set me to thinking. And, let’s face it, anything that can achieve that is a good thing!

I have posted before that my father spent time in India, both during the Second World War and in the days leading up to Partition. If you would like to re-read it, the link is here: My Father In India

In this post, I mentioned that when I first visited India in 1989, at least, my first proper visit rather than simply passing through on the way to Nepal, I visited the Red Fort in Delhi, taking plenty of photographs, of course.

Some while later, at home, I was going through some of my father’s photographs, and discovered that I had taken a photograph of a view of the mosque in the Red Fort that was almost identical to one that he had.

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Above: the one my father had. And, below: the one I took.

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Looking at the minaret in front of the dome closest to the viewer, it seems I took my photograph from the archway to the left of the one my father’s photograph is taken from, but otherwise we must have been standing in the same spot. My father would have been quite a bit younger at that time than I was when I visited the Red Fort, and the circumstances very different. But I’m sure that he felt the same sense of awe that I did.

Now there are mature trees behind the mosque, a couple of low hedges in front, and the creepers on the wall have gone.

Otherwise, the view is the same.

And because my father is no longer here, there is an extra poignancy to this; although our footsteps crossed and merged at this place, thousands of miles away, and we both must have lingered in this same spot and, who knows, possibly thought similar thoughts, the passage of time means in reality we might as well have been tens of millions of miles apart.

And this led me to look more closely at his other photographs.

There are not many, perhaps thirty or forty of them, but it is strange that when he was on leave in India, one time, he went with a few chums up to Nainital, and again there appear to be photos taken from spots where I have stood. The images are not the same, this time, but again our footsteps must have crossed.

I think the greatest regret I have about this, other than the obvious one that he is no longer alive, is that I cannot talk about these places with him. But just sharing them is good, even if it does make me feel sad.

A Shared Humanity

‘The world knows nothing of its greatest men’ goes the old saying. Or women, of course, since it is men who tend to write these things. I may have alluded to this before.

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I was reading a blog post by Rajiv earlier today, on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and we swapped a couple of comments, the result of which decided me to write this short post. You can read Rajiv’s post here: Partition in the Punjab

Those of us who did not live through that time, cannot really imagine the full horror of it all. The figures alone are dreadful.

14 million people were displaced, forced to move from their homes to either what remained India or became East or West Pakistan, by any means of transport available, frequently on foot. Those that survived the journey, frequently one of tremendous hardship, carried memories that were often too dreadful to relate.

Most lost their possessions.

Families were split apart and separated, many of them never to meet again.

Millions of refugees.

Up to 1 million were killed in what were effectively religious killings – the actual figure is unknown. Trains were set on fire, men and women, adults and children, lost their lives in what became a frenzy of killing.

Much, of course, has been written of this over the years, and the blame placed on many shoulders. The British were extremely culpable in this case, mainly through neglect and thoughtlessness. Those that assumed power in India and Pakistan need to take their share of the blame, too.

But the world, as I remarked at the start of this post, knows nothing of its greatest men. Or, in this case, its greatest men and women, or at least very little of them.

On both sides of the new borders, whilst most people succumbed to fear and many to hatred, whilst innocent lives were taken and dreadful acts carried out, there were many, many people who sheltered and saved those of other religions who had been their friends and neighbours before, often at great personal risk.

They gained nothing from it, but simply displayed their common humanity.

I have read of a few examples of this, a few stories from both sides of that border, and I have seen it mentioned briefly in documentaries.

But now, before the last players in that tragedy finally pass away, it would be marvellous if there could be a concerted effort to collect these stories and record them, as an inspiring example of people reaching out to each other across what is, once again, becoming a depressingly familiar religious divide, and, most importantly, remembering and commemorating their bravery.

My Father in India

They didn’t talk about it.

It wasn’t as bad as the First World War, when men who had nervous breakdowns were frequently shot for cowardice, but the men of the generation who fought in the Second World War were still reluctant to talk about the hardships they had faced and the horrors they had seen.

When my father did talk to me about it, and it was very rare that he would, it was generally to joke about the fun that he’d had on leave, or, after my first visit to India, to ask about places that he remembered from Delhi.

He had seen fighting in Burma, and stayed in India right up to the time of Partition. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about either of those. When pushed, he’d clam up about Burma, and would only say that what he’d seen in India at the time of Partition was horrible.

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I daresay he told me one or two things that I have forgotten; things that didn’t mean much to me at the time. Perhaps he told me where he had been when he was on leave and was photographed rowing a boat on a lake in the hills; almost certainly in the North of India. Nainital, perhaps? I have been there myself, now, and I’m not certain. If he had told me before I’d been out there, the name would have meant nothing to me, and so I wouldn’t have remembered it.

And by then it was too late to ask him, because he died before I returned for my second visit.

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Once he had returned to England, he never went back to India, and I certainly never had the impression that he wanted to. I guess that the bad memories must have outweighed the good ones.

I have a dictionary that he bought in Delhi, stamped inside the cover ‘Cambridge Book Depot, New Delhi’ with the price scribbled in pencil; Rs 3/12, and his signature. I also had some old Indian coins, once, that he had given me, but I’m not sure where they are now. Other than the photographs, I’m not aware that he brought anything else back. Certainly, there were never any ‘curios’. Although a part of me wonders whether there might have been once, and whether my mother, a staunch Christian, might have thrown them out after they married. But that is pure conjecture.

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And he was interested enough to read books on India’s history. I was surprised, occasionally, on the depth of his knowledge on the subject. He was, though, always interested in history, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have been really, and if he hadn’t have been born working class, I daresay that he might have had a university education, because he excelled at school.

Most of the photos are in fairly poor condition, although I have attempted to improve a couple of the ones that were particularly bad.

It seems strange to think of soldiers as tourists, but whilst they were on leave in India, that is, of course, exactly what they were. There are one or two photos in his collection that were taken of places I have been. One of them is of a view inside the Red Fort of Delhi that differs only in the size of the tree in the picture from one that I took in 1989.

He must have stood in exactly the same spot to take that picture, some 45 years before.

What does this small slice of family history mean for me?

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It does mean that there is a slight family connection to India, if not in the way that usually comes to mind. He had no family there, and had no responsibilities beyond his army duties, but just the fact of his living out there for a number of years, gives me this connection. Or so I like to think of it.

In the end, India wove its magic over me – nothing much to do with Dad, I suppose, although I expect that was in the mix somewhere. I think that part of why I may have gone out there the first time, was to follow in his footsteps. And now my family can say that they have a connection to India through the time that I have spent out there as well.