26 March 2012

An evening in Lucknow by KA Abbas

The way we were
This collection of short stories is based largely in the 1940s and 1950s and takes us back to the time just before and just after Indian Independence. Gladys brought this book for me to read to her, and we both enjoyed the stories and found them engrossing and beautifully written. Abbas takes us into a mujra at Kennedy Bridge and shows us the meaning of true love; he depicts for us the horrible farce behind Independence-day celebrations in a north Indian village; gives a glimpse of the oppression of underprivileged women and the odd circumstances by which they are sometimes afforded an education; the dissipated erstwhile royalty of India; the ways in which Partition changed the course of innocent people’s lives – and many more.
Each story is alive with imagery and the kind of detail that bring a scene alive before your eyes.
On a bus ride on the top deck, the hero of one of the stories (a lowly Indian proofreader), sits next to an attractive English girl:
Now we are passing through Bhendi Bazar. Across the road was stretched a cloth streamer bearing the legend: PAKISTAN OR DEATH. In the rain, the ink had spread and distorted the words. Pakistan had grown a beard and Death had become more fearful. I thought to myself, I am afraid of Death. Give me Pakistan instead. And then my newspaper mind said, “You are Hindustan and this girl is Pakistan. And this umbrella is the Himalayas which protects both …”
After the death of Patrice Lumumba a ghost enters the UN building in “the world’s second-largest city”.
Not a bullet, a hundred thousand bullets are flying about to kill children like Henry Junior. Bullets and bombs and rockets and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs and poison gas bombs and bombs loaded with typhus and plague germs, I know. I have been to all corners of the earth. In Algeria, I have seen the custodians of the celebrated French culture torturing Arab nationalists with live wires, shooting enough electric current into their naked bodies to burn their flesh, to crack their bones, to make jelly of their muscles, but not enough to kill them …
Besides fictionalised political events, this book’s themes include social class distinction, and wry and despairing comments about the state of the nation. It is filled with passion, and is highly dramatised, in keeping with the idiom and genre of the time. To be honest I found this a bit disturbing. The other thing I didn’t care for was the rather sloppy editing.
Finally, I felt that these stories were rather poetic in the sense that they are clearly figments of the author’s imagination and not necessarily grounded in reality. Most fiction-writers try to mirror reality. Here I saw little trace of that aspiration. In the story Sylvia, for instance, Sylvia is a nurse in the General Ward in a government hospital in New Delhi. Sylvia is kind, patient, and solicitous. Even more surprising, the doctor is concerned about his patients too! I’ve never seen anything like this in an Indian hospital – not even in private ones which have the most highly-skilled medical practitioners in the world, and the best equipment and infrastructure.
I recorded some of the stories to pass on to another friend and, though I was disappointed to hear myself sounding like a prim Anglo-Indian schoolmarm, uploaded Three Women. In case you want to hear it, along with a few wry comments from Gladys - click this link. .

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