Posted in Film, History, Poland, world history

The Jewish Cardinal–a French film

Le métis de Dieu (The Jewish Cardinal)[2013]

I saw this film yesterday on the French channel. It introduced me to Aaron Jean-Marie Lustager [17 September 1926 – 5 August 2007], born a Jew, who insisted on converting to Christianity at the age of 13,  and became a bishop, archbishop, and later cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. His mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, his father was never reconciled to his conversion, and Lustiger himself could not forget his Jewish origin.

This historical film also looks at aspects of the history of France,  Poland under the communist regime, the attitude of the pope, and the conflicts over the Auschwitz cross, and the occupation of a part of Auschwitz by nuns.

Here is the epitaph that he wrote for himself, enshrined in the crypt of the Notre-Dame cathedral.

‘I was born Jewish.
I received the name
Of my paternal grandfather, Aaron.
Having become Christian
By faith and by Baptism,
I have remained Jewish
As did the Apostles.
I have as my patron saints
Aaron the High Priest,
Saint John the Apostle,
Holy Mary full of grace.
Named 139th archbishop of Paris
by His Holiness Pope John Paul II,
I was enthroned in this Cathedral
on 27 February 1981,
And here I exercised my entire ministry.
Passers-by, pray for me.’

† Aaron Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger
Archbishop of Paris

For someone like myself, interested in both history and religion, the film was fascinating. There is a lot on Lustiger available on the internet for those who would like to read more about him.

Posted in Books, History, India, stories

The Peshawar Express

Rereading a book of Partition stories, I began to wonder whether there were any happy stories? Every story is this volume seems depressing. And once again one begins to ask that unanswerable question, why did it take place? Could it have been avoided? One million deaths would have been averted. Ten million would not have lost their homes. And India and Pakistan would not be constantly in a state of hostility. The book, Stories about the Partition of India, ed by Alok Bhalla, is one I have had for many years. It includes Manto’s famous story, Toba Tek Singh, and many more.

The Peshawar Express by Krishan Chander [translated from Urdu by Jai Ratan] is perhaps one of the lesser known stories, yet it is extremely poignant, a typical story of one of the many refugee trains. Here it is the train, the Peshawar Express, which tells its story, as it sets out from Peshawar loaded with refugees bound for India. The Hindu passengers looked like Pathans, says the train, fair and hefty, speaking Pushto or rugged Punjabi. Each coach was guarded by Baluchi guards. The passengers ‘ were bidding goodbye to their homeland with heavy hearts…I felt so weighed down under their cataclysmic grief that it slowed my speed.’

The first station was Hasan Abdal, where a number of Sikhs got on the train. But by the next station, Taxila, the carnage started. Taxila, once a great centre of learning, with a wonderful museum, where the Buddha preached….

The tracks were covered in blood and ‘I feared I would derail…’. Corpses piled up along the way, till finally the express reached Amritsar. ‘When I arrived at Amritsar, the joyous cries of the Hindus and Sikhs  shook the earth. Corpses of the Muslims were  piled high.’ Killings continued as the train crossed through Punjab. Even a young girl college student, reading ‘Socialism, Theory and Practice’ was not spared.

Finally the train returns to its shed in Bombay… ‘I have been given a thorough wash….I would never go on such a horrible journey again. … I want to pass through a land studded with barns of golden wheat, and swaying mustard fields on both sides of the track. I want to hear the Hindu and Muslim peasants sing the love legends of Punjab, while they sow their fields, while their hearts brim with love for each other and they are even full of reverence for women. I am a lifeless train—But even I hate to carry a cargo of blood and flesh dripping with hatred. I will haul food grain to famine stricken areas. I will carry coal, oil and iron ore…I will carry groups of prosperous peasants and happy workers….Then there will be no Hindus and no Muslims. There will only be workers and human beings.’

Posted in History, India

Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi

I wrote this post on 29 December 2016 on another blog. Reposting here in the light of the election results in five states, particularly in UP.

Today, while working on a new book, I reread accounts of the 1971 elections, and began to see parallels between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. In that year, Indira coined the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’, or ‘remove poverty’. The combined opposition’s main programme was to get rid of Indira. They failed, and she returned with 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. Yes, a few years later there was JP’s movement, the emergency, and her temporary downfall, but there is something to be learnt from this.
Catchy slogans have a great impact. Negative campaigns often do not.
In retrospect her policies did not remove poverty. Was bank nationalization a good thing? It could be questioned. What about the other economic policies? Those need more analysis.
Is demonetization a good thing? I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, it hasn’t served its purpose, and has caused a lot of misery. Even bankers are beginning an agitation against it. But if opposition parties want to win elections, they need to focus on some positive programmes. Merely condemning demonetization will not work. Narendra Modi’s policies may or may not bring results, but he is putting forward hope for the future. The opposition must do the same.
That is the lesson one can draw from the past. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, and others should learn from history.

Posted in book review., Books, History, Literature

Red Scarf Girl

 A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  by Ji-Li Jiang [Harper Collins, 1998].

Many years ago I was involved in a project on post-Mao China. Reading through copies of the Beijing Review, I was captivated by the Chinese method of encapsulating long statements and concepts in a couple of words. Of course, the ‘double hundred’, was easy to understand, it was Mao’s policy stating ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,’ but several others were not so simple. The ‘two whatevers’  referred to following whatever policy Mao laid down, and whatever instructions he gave, which in the post-Mao period was not recommended.  ‘Eating from the same pot’, meant that everyone got the same payment, regardless of the amount and quality of the work done, while ‘the iron rice bowl’ was a term for a permanent job, which could not be terminated on any grounds.  Even some longer phrases were intriguing, for instance, ‘The Kremlin wants to pluck the ripe apple and put it in the basket.’ In this case, the ‘ripe apple’ was a reference to Iran.

I was reminded of all this when I read Red Scarf Girl, and the key phrases, the‘Four Olds’ and the ‘Four News’. Red Scarf Girl by  Ji-Li Jiang, is actually a book for young people, describing Ji-Li’s life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. The red scarf they proudly wore was a symbol representing communism and Mao. The name ‘Ji-Li’ means ‘lucky and beautiful’, and Ji-Li was a happy young girl till she was twelve. In the prologue to the book she says, ‘I never doubted what I was told: “Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.”’

Ji-Li’s family lived in Shanghai. Her father was a theatre actor, who also loved reading and was knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Her mother worked in a sports store, and her grandmother had been the vice-principal of a school.  The family included Ji-Li’s younger brother and sister, as well as a housekeeper, who had been their nanny and was was like a family member. There was also a pet cat, to complete the household.

Chairman Mao’s picture adorned her classroom, and was respected and revered. Ji-Li was a bright and confident girl, who excelled in school and had many friends. Her life began to change when a Liberation Army member from the Arts Academy, visited their class and chose Ji-Li as one of the students to audition for entry into this Academy. When an excited Ji-Li shared this news with her parents and grandmother, they asked her not to go for the audition, and explained that she would not be selected, because of a wrong background. Later, Ji-li learnt that her father was the son of a landlord. In the new China landlords were criticised,  yet  tradition mingled with the new, as the background and ancestors of a family were still considered important. Every day the people of China listened to Chairman Mao on the importance of removing the ‘Four Olds’, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits, but did not seem to realise that  looking at a family through its background, could also be one of the ‘four olds’, an inability to break with the past.

As the Cultural Revolution set in, the names of shops reflecting old culture had to be changed, for instance ‘Great Prosperity Market.’ ‘Prosperity’, ‘good fortune’, ‘innocent’ and even ‘peace’ were among names considered part of old culture. ‘Prosperity’, for instance, could only be achieved by exploitation, and ‘good fortune’ indicated superstition. Clothes too reflected the old, such as pointed shoes and  pants with narrow legs. At first Ji-li and her siblings felt proud and excited to contribute to the new way of life and wondered why their parents and grandmother were not as enthusiastic, when initially they had been staunch supporters of Chairman Mao. Gradually Ji-li felt increasingly confused, as the ‘Four Olds’ were extended to all walks of life, and youngsters gained the right  to torment others. Respecting parents, teachers and elders, long hair worn in braids, the prevailing educational system, protecting one’s own property, storing old clothes of the pre-revolutionary period, reading stories from other lands, were all among the ‘four olds’. Even pictures of people of the past wearing long gowns or mandarin jackets, were burnt. Weak students used the opportunity to criticise those who did well . Getting good marks in school was a hazard. Youngsters became Red Guards while those even younger were named Red Successors. Final exams were abolished in Ji-li’s school. She could not go to the high school of her choice. Red Guards approaching with gongs and drums ransacked houses looking for ‘four olds’. Punishments began to be meted out to older people by these young Red Guards. When Ji-li’s house was searched even her stamp album was taken away. Her father was detained, her mother and grandmother suffered.

Confused by what was going on, Ji-li even thought of changing her name and repudiating her family, something she was encouraged to do. But finally the love for her family prevailed. One thing that stands out in this book, is that there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. Ji-li and her family were Muslims, and there were very few in Shanghai, but among all the problems they faced, this was not one of them.

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasized equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to  illogical extremes. Behind this revolution were  political struggles  and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. Many were killed by Red Guards, others committed suicide. Fighting among Red Guard factions, killed some more. Did this phase in China’s history have long-term effects? Was eliminating aspects of the past a contributing factor in making China an economic super power? Today China once again has huge inequalities.

Ji-li  moved to the USA in 1984, where she wrote this book. Though there are several books on the Cultural Revolution, this memoir is among those that provide the details of everyday life at the time,  the difficulties that so many ordinary people faced, and the insanity of those times. Other memoirs include Ji Xianlin’s, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, and several more.

 

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

evstafiev-vedran-smailovic-sarajevo1992w

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 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.

Posted in Books, History, writer

Signing other people’s books!

 

I am not sure if any other author has experienced this—Recently I was invited to a book fair held at a local school, and an announcement was made that I was available to sign books. A few people did buy my books and bring them to me to sign, but many more brought me other authors’ books! At first I refused but they seemed so disappointed. A compromise was worked out. I would sign at the back of other authors’ books, and in the front for my own. Then there was someone who kept waiting, he said, for my signature, even after I had signed. He expected a fancy and complicated signature, not the simple way I sign.

One 12th class student announced, as she gave me another person’s books to sign, that she had finished with history as she was going to be an accountant. Can one ever finish with history? That may be the topic of my next talk. I had earlier spoken to them about sources in the context of Ashoka, his grand inscriptions, and his policy of dhamma. Could one ever forget him, and so much else of the past?

Posted in History, Literature

Literature and history

Recently I was part of a panel discussion at a literary festival, with the topic ‘Literature and history’. The topic generated a number of thoughts which we could not discuss because of the limited time available–Here are some random thoughts.

History and literature are closely connected, as most books are set in a time and place, which can provide a historical background. In addition there are categories of literature that are more closely related to history,  biography, memoir, historical fiction. Some books deal with a particular event. Fiction generated by a historical event is usually based on some disastrous occurrences–for instance in India, Partition or the Emergency. Such fiction provides an intensity and a desire to discover more about an event that may be not known to too many. Fiction resulting from the World Wars and the Cold War is well known. These are just one or two examples of this vast genre of literature.

Apart from this, there is a huge body of historical literature, literature of the past, that includes within it all categories, i.e., poetry, drama, stories, religion, myths and legends, and everything else. Literature of the past exists in every country in the world, and can be looked at in two ways. It can be read for pleasure, just as we would read today’s works, or it can be  used to analyse various aspects of earlier times. For India, I would include here not just very early works, but everything up to about 1945. This literature exists in numerous languages, beginning with early Sanskrit, classical Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Apabhramsa, Tamil, and later all the regional languages and English.

I would like to post more on this theme, and perhaps we could have some guest posts too?