Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dalrymple : Last Emperor

Calligraphy attributed to Zafur

Dalrymple's account of Badahur Shah II (Zafur), the last Moghul emperor, doesn't really deliver on its promised inclusion of Indian points of view.  Nor does it give any picture of Zafur, beyond that of an old, feeble, helpless victim of circumstance.  This story is all about the  mutiny at Delhi, its ultimate, and apparently inevitable failure, and the British retribution.

Giving us a good opportunity to wave our fingers at the Raj.  First,  cultural insensitivity pushed their native recruits into mutiny.  Then self-righteous racism had them punish everyone but themselves.   It was interesting to note that the mutineers slaughtered everyone who was Christian (sparing British converts to Islam) -- but in retaliation, the British executed and/or plundered those who were dark-skinned (regardless of previous loyalties)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Dalrymple: Age of Kali

assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Obviously, I like William Dalrymple - a  cheerful Scot who goes to awful places, meets terrible people, and gives a vicarious thrill to homebodies like myself.

In this volume, he circumnavigates the former Raj  in search of depressing stories:

*the decrepitude  of the once beautiful Lucknow
*the fate of Hindu widows in  gangster run ashrams
*the sweet old widowed Rajmata who incites sectarian violence
*the murder of an instructor at a Lucknow school dedicated exclusively to British culture.
*the gang rape of a social worker in Rajastan - and the subsequent destruction of the families whose men were responsible.
*the massacre of a low caste village by its neighboring Brahmins
*the self immolation of a beautiful young Hindu widow
*two thoroughly tasteless stars of popular culture: the Hindu rap artist Baba Sehgal and the pulp fiction, soft-porn writer, Shobhaa De
*American fast food in Bangalore - and violent protests against it.
*the worship of  Meenakshi in the great temple at Madurai. (which is rather colorful - especially the annual trip that the statues of the divine couple make to the temple's tank -- but why is it in this collection of depressing stories about cultural change ?)
*The transformation of charming old Hyderabad - a fabulously wealthy Muslim principality in south-central India - and a report on the rapes and 200,000 murders that accompanied its forced inclusion into India at the time of the great Partition.
*A nocturnal visit to Chottanikkara temple in Kerala where the Goddess miraculously exorcises malevolent spirits (especially the Yakshas from the haunted forests)  from mis-behaving teenagers.
*The Indianization of Goa, the former Portuguese colony - much to the dismay of the traditional Portuguese aristocracy who still live there.
*The kill-crazed teenaged Tamil Tigers - a  Maoist Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka - still active at the time this book was written.
*The strange cult of St. Expedit on Reunion Island - the saint taking his name from postal markings on a package of unidentified holy relics that were once mailed there.
*The Pakistani political career of Imran Khan - a Pashtun cricket super-star who Quixotically defends the democratic ideals of the modern world in a medieval society.
*The career of another Pakistani politician, Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim state in about 500 years. (this was written before assassination interrupted her comeback)

All of which reminds me of that international hit film from the '60s - "Mondo Cane" - a lurid view of bizarre practices  in exotic places.

But still - the author actually interviews the politicians and celebrities mentioned above - even getting himself driven into the jungle camps of the Tamil Tigers.