Posted in History, India

Polish children in India–1942

Little Poland in India

Writing about Poland in an earlier post, I was reminded of Poland’s links with India.During the Second World War, 5000 Polish children came as refugees to India. A documentary on this, Little Poland in India,was released on 7 November 2013, and can be watched on youtube. The 52 minute documentary is based on records and on the memories of the now grown-up children.. The children were orphans, evacuated from Poland to Siberia during the war. They reached India in 1942 and lived in special camps, returning to Poland later.One such camp was set up by K S Digvijaysinhji, the maharaja of Jamnagar in Gujarat. He looked after the children as a father would. There were other camps in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Posted in Books, History, Music

The siege of Sarajevo


Vedran Smailovic playing in the destroyed building of the National Library in Sarajevo, 1992. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev


Radovan Karadzic was in the news a few months ago, appearing on TV screens as an old and tired man. I would not have paid much attention to him, if I hadn’t  recently read a novel based on the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, b.1945, a Bosnian Serb,  was the president of the Republic of Srpska from1992-96 during the Bosnian war. He wanted to unify Srpska with Serbia.Sarajevo was part of the struggle.

Sarajevo, located in a valley through which the Miljacka river flows, has a chequered history. It became a city under the Ottomans in the 15th century, though it has ancient settlements, the neolithic Butmir culture, with flint tools and pottery. This was followed by the Illyrian culture, and later there was Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages it was part of the province of Vrhbosna in the Bosnian kingdom. In 1875 Austria-Hungary took over the region, though technically it remained under the Ottomans. In 1885 it was so advanced, that it had an electric tram network, only the second city in the world to have one, after San Francisco. In 1914 the archduke of Austria was assassinated here, and the First World War started. After this, it became part of Yugoslavia. In World War II it was captured by Germany and formed part of Utashe’s independent state of Croatia. After the war, it was again part of Yugoslavia, as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, on 3 March 1992, but the Serbs did not accept this. The  Bosnian Serbs wanted a new state, Republika Sprska, that would include some Bosnian areas. At first the Yugoslav army besieged Sarajevo, and then Sprska forces from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. A siege force of about 13,000 encircled the city on the hills, and attacked with artillery, tanks and guns. Though there were 70,000 Bosnian troops in the city, they were poorly equipped. Snipers on the hills shot people on the streets.

The siege of Sarajevo was possibly the longest siege of modern times. Sarajevo at that time was a city of about 500,000 people, but several were killed and 70,000 Sarajevan Serbs left and went to Republika Sprska. According to UN estimates, almost 11,541 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded.  Fifteen hundred children were among those dead and 15,000 among the injured. Hundreds of shells hit the city every day and in one case, 22 July 1993, there were 3777. Finding ways to survive, ‘Sarajevo Roses’ was a poetic name given to craters created by shells.Ten thousand apartments were destroyed, and thousands more damaged.

There are more than 20 books, films, plays, and songs on the siege, as well as two video games. How accurate are these?  And is accuracy important in fiction?

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway dramatizes a real incident that took place. According to the book, on the afternoon of 27 May 1992, mortar shells hit a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 70 injured. To honour the dead, a well-known cellist of the city, came to the exact spot at the same time for 22 days, and played on his cello. Every day he played the same piece, Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. There were snipers on the hills, and the cellist could have been killed at any time, but he played on. The book is quite gripping, revealing the life of ordinary people living under a terrible siege. Water, power, health care, and life itself were all problematic.

The real cellist, Vedran Smailovic did not appreciate the book. He said he did not play for 22 days, but every day for two years, at different times and in different places. He was not so crazy that he would go to the same place every day. He was also annoyed that the writer never met him or asked him his version of events.

In real life, Smailovic, playing his cello in the midst of ruined buildings, became a symbol for the whole world. Impressed, Joan Baez joined him one day. But the man himself did not want publicity. He left Sarajevo in December 1993 and moved to northern Ireland.  He lives in Warrenpoint in an attic flat overlooking Carlingford Lough, where he composes music and plays chess.

Vedran was the focus of another book too, this time for children. But in this case, the author, Elizabeth Wellburn, actually worked with Vedran, and consulted him, producing a more authentic account, Echoes from the Square. This fictionalized story of Vedran, has an added character of a young boy, and was published in 1998. The boy’s life is almost destroyed by the war, but hearing Vedran playing every day gives him courage. This picture book illustrated by Deryk Houston,  is available as an audio book on youtube.

History records massacres at Sarajevo worse than that described in the book. In the Markale marketplace massacre on 5 February 1994, 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded; there was a second Markale massacre on 28 August, with 37 killed, 90 wounded. Others provided records of the siege. There was no light, no gas, no water, no schools, phones, transport or industry. ‘We learned to live by candlelight again,’said Resad Tribonj.

A memorial of 521 children killed was erected on 10 May 2009. The case of 500 more children was being investigated.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were charged with war crimes in 1996.

And to get back to the question of whether accuracy is important in historical fiction. Steven Galloway’s account of the cellist was not accurate. Even so, it led me to read more about him, and about that terrible siege, and  about Sarajevo itself. But would a more accurate portrayal have detracted from the book? I don’t think so–in fact it would have improved it. To know what the cellist thought, how he chose the different places in which to play every day–it would actually have taken the book to a higher level.


Posted in Art, Berthe Morisot, Impressionism

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot; The Artist's Daughter, Julie, with her Nanny; c. 1884
Berthe Morisot, French, 1841 – 1895; The Artist’s Daughter, Julie, with her Nanny; c. 1884; Oil on canvas; 22 1/2 x 28 in. (57.15 x 71.12 cm) (sight); Minneapolis Institute of Art; The John R. Van Derlip Fund 96.40

[By Berthe Morisot –, Public Domain,

One of the paintings of Berthe Morisot, a French impressionist. I was inspired to read more about her after seeing a programme on TV [in French, with subtitles].

The documentary focused on her relationship with the painter Edouard Manet–she later married his brother. Living in Paris, she seemed an independent woman, unmarried at the age of 33, exhibiting her paintings, and making a name for herself. She was associated with Monet and other impressionists–the attitude towards their new style was not favourable at the time.

And the historical background includes the Prussian invasion of Paris.

Adding a brief extract from wikipedia, below:

“Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (French: [mɔʁizo]; January 14, 1841 – March 2, 1895) was a painter and a member of the circle of painters in Paris who became known as the Impressionists. She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.

In 1864, she exhibited for the first time in the highly esteemed Salon de Paris. Sponsored by the government, and judged by Academicians, the Salon was the official, annual exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Her work was selected for exhibition in six subsequent Salons[2] until, in 1874, she joined the “rejected” Impressionists in the first of their own exhibitions, which included Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. It was held at the studio of the photographer Nadar.

She was married to Eugène Manet, the brother of her friend and colleague Édouard Manet.”




Posted in Chopin, History, Music, Poland

Chopin and Poland


Yesterday, on Japan TV, [NHK news channel] I came across a one hour class on Chopin’s mazurkas, recorded at the Royal Academy of Music. The teacher, an attractive young woman, whose name I did not get, was playing extracts from the mazurkas on a Steinway grand piano. She was an expert pianist, and held the students spellbound with her playing and her commentary and explanations.

And as I had just been thinking about the division of countries, my thoughts turned not just to Chopin and his music, but to the history of Poland, that country so often partitioned.  Chopin was born on 4 March  1810, in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father was a French immigrant and his mother, Polish. What was the situation in Warsaw at the time?

By 1795 Poland had ceased to exist after three partitions led to its occupation by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Napoleon, though, brought hope to Poland, promising to revive the nation. After his defeat, by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a new small kindom of Poland was created, out of part of the duchy of Warsaw, with the Russian emperor as the king. Krakow became a city republic, but the rest of Poland was again divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

Poland began a movement for independence, but after a brief success, was taken over again by Russia.  Independence came again only after World War I.

Chopin moved to Vienna in 1829, and to Paris in 1831, but his heart was with Poland, and his compositions were influenced by the music of Poland. With the revolutions in Europe in 1848, he went to Scotland and England, but returned to Paris, where he died on 17 October 1849, of tuberculosis. In this short life he composed 55 mazurkas, 27 études, 24 preludes, 19 nocturnes, 13 polonaises,  3 piano sonatas and some concertos.

Another later great Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski, was valued so highly, that he even became the prime minister for a short time in the newly independent Poland!

Posted in History, India

Brexit and country divisions


Brexit has been in the news lately and gave rise to some thoughts. All EU states have a right to withdraw from the European Union, and Article 50 lays down the procedure.Two years is provided for the withdrawal and the UK can control the starting date for this. It seems a fair procedure, much better than the way in which individual countries were divided in the past.

So many countries have been divided over the centuries. I am not sure how the details were worked out in each case, though it would be interesting to study them. What happened in Israel and Palestine in 1948? How was the break up of Yugoslavia handled?  We know how Sir Cyril Radcliffe and his assistants sat in an office and divided the Punjab on a map. No time was given to the countries to work out the details.  W. H. Auden even wrote a poem on this.

‘Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.’

We generally read about wars, riots and migration, but very little about the details of dividing assets.Below are some aspects of the administrative division of India and Pakistan, based on my book, The Puffin History of India, vol 2.

When the Partition of India and Pakistan took place in 1947, the entire administrative machinery and all assets had to be divided. A Partition Council with representatives from both sides were responsible for this. In general, it was agreed that 80 per cent of the assets would go to India and 20 per cent to Pakistan.There was gold in the Reserve Bank and cash in other banks.There was also a national debt. Pakistan was to get  17 per cent of cash and sterling assets, amounting to 75 crore rupees,  out of which 20 crore was paid before independence. Pakistan would take on 17 per cent of the national debt and pay this over 50 years. Money notes too were  divided, but the notes had the name of India on them and Pakistan stamped all the notes with a rubber stamp, with their new country’s name. Pakistan also had to print new postage stamps.

In all the government offices in the country, tables, chairs, paper,pens, pencils, were counted and divided. Then there were typewriters, hat-pegs, mirrors, sofas, ink-stands, clocks, fans, water jugs, pin cushions, official portraits and photographs, and even chamber pots.A lot of arguing and quarrelling went on, about whom should get what. There were cars and bicycles, lathis and guns, and official uniforms and clothes. Musical instruments from the official

bands were divided, and books from the libraries. When books were divided, there was no attempt to keep volumes of encyclopaedias or similar book series together–some went to Pakistan, some to India.

Out of approximately 65,000 km of railways 11,379 would go to Pakistan, and out of 5,50,000 km

of roads, about 1,50,000 would fall in Pakistan. Since Pakistan was getting 27 per cent of roads and 17 per cent railway tracks, should it still get 20 per cent of railway wagons, engines, bulldozers and other equipment? These were some of the major questions raised. There was the long gold and white train, which the viceroy used to travel in. There were luxury cars and there were twelve horsedrawn carriages, six decorated with gold and six with silver, used in the viceroy’s house.The royal train stayed with India, while some cars went to Pakistan. As for the coaches, their fate was decided by a toss of the coin—the gold ones stayed in India and the silver went to Pakistan.

Stocks of wheat, rice, and food grains were divided. Boundary lines sometimes divided fields of crops. In Bengal, the division left jute mills in one country and jute crops in the other.

It was not just money and material goods that had to be divided, but also the government officials, police and army. From Pakistan, most of the Hindu and Sikh officials moved to India, while in India, Muslim officials had a choice about whether to stay back or to go. As for the police, there were some 7000 Muslims in East Punjab, and in the process of their transfer, the region was left without law and order.

For the armed forces, a reconstitution committee was set up, under the Partition Council. Before partition, the army had 5,00,000 men. After partition,2,80,000 were left in India.The Navy and the Air Force, as well as stores and equipment, vehicles and guns, were also divided.