& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Book of Negroes - revising opinion

Never judge a book hastily because in doing so, one may write off a genuine masterpiece as just another book from a genre that has seen better works.

I did that with Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, when I wrote about it here in 2009, and then I even had a furious argument with my friend Joyce Wayne.

My contention was that Hill was merely following Alex Haley’s Roots, and while Hill’s Meena was a strong woman, her experiences were not too different from those of Haley’s Kunta.

I’d called Aminata the female version of Kunta.

But that was a hasty assessment because the more I have come to know of Canada, I’ve developed a better, keener understanding of the Canadian history, and especially of the blacks who escaped slavery from the United States to find a safe haven in Canada.

And while in Canada, blacks enjoyed a notional freedom because they weren’t slaves, there were constant undercurrents of racial tension that have persisted since the 18th century to the present day.

Hill’s novel is a masterpiece that poses the question of race from a Canadian perspective. I have no hesitation is saying I was wrong in the minimizing the significance of Hill’s novel. And now that the book has been turned into a television miniseries by CBC, I’ve turned into a fan.

The miniseries vividly brings to life the book’s characters and the main turning points. Aunjanue Ellis is an accomplished actor who brings to life Aminata’s character. She portrays the vulnerability, the defiance, the authoritativeness, the compassion, the anxiety, the grief, and the intellectual demeanour of the heroine of the book. 

In many ways, Ellis dignifies the tragedy of Meena’s life by a performance that is muted and yet high-powered.

Assuming that this blog has readers, I urge everyone who cursorily passes through these posts to watch the episodes of the miniseries here:  The Book of Negroes.

In case you're interested in reading the original post, here's the link: TBON

Uncommon encounter with the creator of the common man

When I was a journalist in Bombay (in the pre cretaceous era), I worked at the Evening News of India, when Pritish Nandy was its editor.

It was a brief stint marked by a series of professional disasters, and the one that I remember rather vividly was my encounter with the legendary R.K. Laxman, the man who created the common man.

As a newbie, I was given the charge of the funny pages that contained the not-so-difficult crossword (as compared to the cryptic cypher that the Times of India published in the morning) and the mandatory comic strips.

The main strip that dominated the page was Lee Falk’s Phantom.

Pasting bromide prints of comics strips, and the crosswords wasn’t a particularly involving task, and one performed it with little or no involvement.

That was a mistake that I soon realized. The funny pages have a dedicated readership which cuts across the newspaper’s demographics.

One morning when I was about to start my shift, and was walking from the editorial to the art department, I was called by a stern looking man wearing a plain white shirt that wasn’t tucked in. It took a moment for me to realize that I was face-to-face with India’s best known cartoonist.

“Do you do the comics page?” he asked.

I could only nod.

“You’ve got the Phantom sequence wrong. What should be in print today was in print yesterday.”

I had stopped breathing.

“You should be careful. There are many readers of that comic strip,” he said, and then briskly walked away.

I never saw him again, and soon the tabloid closed down. 

I moved on to other publications but that momentary encounter with the legend stays etched in my memory. 

Laxman died 26 January 2015. 

Here's a memorable tribute by Radha Rajadhyaksha: 'Nothing in my life has been intentional, it's all accident' 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Pravasi Comes Home

Earlier this month, India celebrated the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa on January 7 1915. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left Porbunder in 1893 to practice law in South Africa, but fate and circumstances turned him into a leader of his people as he discovered new ways to oppose oppression. 

Many have commented in the last few weeks on how the South African sojourn turned Gandhi into Mahatma, and here are the links to some of the better pieces:

Mahatma Gandhi & the Art of Travel: Chandrahas Choudhury

Mahatma’s Ghar Wapsi: Rajmohan Gandhi

In Gandhi Before India, historian Ramchandra Guha while describing Gandhi’s last days in South Africa records:

These wishes and felicitations provide a conspectus of the social and geographical range of Gandhi’s influence in the large, complex and conflicted land that, for two decades, was his home.

It may be apposite, however, to juxtapose to these endorsements a comment on Gandhi’s departure from someone who was not sorry to see him go. This was General Jan Christian Smuts. In May 1914 Smuts received a letter from Emily Hobhouse, who was now back in London. This conveyed news about mutual friends, and went on to discuss a man whom the Quaker now considered a friend but whom the Afrikaner still could not. “I have been reading Gandhi’s Home Rule for India – Hind Swaraj, wrote Hobhouse to Smuts. ‘Have you read it? I like it very much, all about India and the harm English civilization is doing there…It is a book you would have enjoyed at one period of your life.’

Smut’s reply is unrecorded. Whatever he might have thought of the English on the battlefield, after the war ended he had been first in the ranks of those seeking to unite the white people against the coloured. Hobhouse’s endorsement of Gandhi’s attack on Western civilization could scarcely have pleased him. In recent years he had read and seen too much of the man in any case. His feelings are contained in a letter he wrote to Sir Benjamin Robertson, where he said that after the Viceroy’s representative had returned to India, ‘Gandhi approached me on a number of small administrative points. some of which I could meet him on, and as a result, the saint has left our shores – I sincerely hope for ever.’

Earlier, Guha quotes Lord Gladstone’s description (to Colonial Office) about a meeting between Gandhi and Smuts, which encapsulates in a few words the deep distrust the British always harboured about Gandhi’s unique methods:

General Smuts has shown a most patient and conciliatory temper. In spite of a series of conflicts extending over many years, he retains a sympathetic interest in Gandhi as an unusual type of humanity, whose peculiarities, however inconvenient they may be to the Minister, are not devoid of attraction to the student…It is not easy task for a European to conduct negotiations with Mr. Gandhi. The workings of his conscience are inscrutable to the occidental mind and produce complications in wholly unexpected places. His ethical and intellectual attitude, based as it appears to be on a curious compound of mysticism and astuteness, baffles the ordinary processes of thought, Nevertheless, a tolerably practical understanding has been reached.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Nous Sommes Charlie

As an act of solidarity with  Charlie Hebdo, PEN International, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, freeDimensional, Index on Censorship, PEN America, FreeWord and Reporters Without Borders have asked those who believe in the fundamental right to freedom of expression to join in publishing the cartoons or covers of Charlie Hebdo on January 8 at 1400 GMT.

All images from: http://pencanada.ca/news/je-suis-charlie/