Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition–Nisid Hajari

midnights furies

Never before have I read a history that gave me nightmares. I will never forget the ghastly scenes of massacre in this one.

I do not know much about non-western history, but I knew enough to know about India’s partition to know that it was bloody.  What I did not know was how bloody for how long and to what degree.  Nisid Hajari is not a historian, but a journalist.  To tell this story he used what he calls “demi-official” records:  personal papers of those involved, including politicians, diplomats, spies, and ordinary people when possible.  He, of course, also appeals to newspapers and other media outlets of the time.

Hajari begins with India still under British rule, but in that period during which independence was certain, but the details were still being negotiated.  Three personalities dominate his narrative:  Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League; Nehru, leader of the Hindu Congress; and Montbatten, the Brit comissioned to bring the whole lot to independence.  Jinnah comes off poorly–a failed dandy and a paranoid politician who foments fears whose consequences he does not think through.  Nehru comes off nearly as badly.  He is an idealist, a follower of Gandhi, who wants big change, but does not have the leadership skills to move beyond his early style of personal leadership to the grand stage.  This becomes clear when riots are raging against Muslims in Indian cities and Nehru, unable to sleep, storms around the streets confronting mobs, as if he could stop the violence one person at a time.  Such adventures were heroic, but also pitiful and pitiable.  Montbatten is the rational, charismatic Brit in over his head and forced to deal with a difficult situation and two big characters, one of whom seems immune to his charisma (Jinnah).  His decision to move ahead independence, while noted to be a huge mistake, is not given nearly enough responsibility for what ensues.

That is my overall critique of Hajari’s narrative.  Because he begins in 1946, so much of what undergirded the tensions between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs goes unexplored.  The role of the British themselves in fomenting hostilities between the groups, as they did elsewhere in other colonies, in order to divide and so not only conquer but rule more quietly, is left untouched.  In fact, in the first half of the book, I was repeatedly annoyed by the way the British seemed civilized observers of their less civilized and mostly mad (former) colonists.

Once independence occurred, however, it became difficult to argue that anyone was truly civilized or that civilization itself is more than a veneer.  As each side ramped up fears of the other, Jinnah to guarantee he would receive an independent Pakistan, the Sikhs to defend against depredations and division in the Punjab, and Hindus to counter fears of Muslims, roving gangs began attacking, then torturing and massacring their fellow Indians who practiced the wrong faith.  As in nearly every case of such violence, the violence against women and children was particularly cruel.  Not only were they murdered, they were humiliated and violated before being put to death.  When such treatment was not actually happening, rumors of it happening were used to fuel the violation and degradation of women on the other side of the conflict.  Train cars of mutilated corpses passed from India to Pakistan and vice versa.  Sikhs sat calmly on train station platforms waiting for the arrival of cars full of people to massacre and planned military-style campaigns to root Muslims out of the countryside.  Hajari never gives a total for those lost in the months surrounding partition, much less a total that includes those attacked alongside the Kashmir and Hyderabad military campaigns.  I found myself wondering 1) how the peoples of India get along at all today and 2) how their population rebounded from such tremendous losses.

Gandhi is assassinated.  Jinnah dies from tuberculosis.  Nehru has a long reign and India enjoys a period of stability denied to Pakistan.  Pakistan is born a country of paranoia with a sense of deprivation, which it uses to justify the use of non-official guerilla campaigns against its neighbor.  Hajari quickly traces, in the last two pages, Pakistan’s turn to fundamentalist Islam to unify its people in the face of repeated losses on the battlefield and economic failure.

This book begs two more stories.  First, the story of the use of religious division by British colonizers in India and second, the story of Pakistan’s internal politics since the death of Jinnah.  If Hajari’s quick notes at the end are even close to accurate, the British have much to answer for in the way they handled Indian independence and the way they set up or enhanced the divisions that created the fault lines revealed in that independence.

A mechanical critique.  Hajari uses the names of his characters with great ease and fluidity, which can be difficult for a reader new to this topic.  Jinnah is also the Quaid.  Nehru is also Jawaharlal.  There are many, many names in this story and I had trouble keeping the players straight, which was made more difficult by Hajari’s inconsistent naming, even of key players.  More consistency or, even better, a table with the major players, would have been a huge reading aid, along with a map noting key cities and provinces, especially those in which conflict was heaviest.

I am grateful to Hajari for writing a book that has seared this story onto my memory and that will push me to read and learn more.  His introduction and conclusion convinced me that doing so is crucial to understanding global politics today.

Finished 4/26/15

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Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination–Helen Fielding

olivia joules

About 20 pages into this novel, I was seriously wondering how Helen Fielding became so successful.  Does she have any characters, I wondered, who are not insecure goofball women?  I have now read all but her debut novel (not her articles) and I’m still a bit uncertain.  What I am increasingly persuaded of is that her success says more about us, women readers, than her.  We are all insecure and fear that at any minutes someone will realize that we are goofballs with cellulite on our thighs and fake hair color and one eyebrow more highly plucked than the other thanks to a fit of pique one morning in the mirror.

Olivia Joules gave herself a new name and a new life as a young woman after seeing her parents and sibling run down by a truck in a pedestrian crosswalk at age fourteen.  She is a freelance journalist who has not quite gotten the job done thanks to her overactive imagination.  She has a gift for languages and loves travel.  She revels in the anonymity and blank slate of hotel rooms, as long as the toilet paper is folded into a crisp point upon arrival (but no stickers, please.  That’s too much).  She is sent on a joint assignment to cover the launch of a celebrity-label face cream in Miami and, while there, becomes convinced that she has met Osama bin Laden, or at least a terrorist.  These suspicions are partly confirmed when a floating apartment complex is blown up and circumstances all point to her imagination being on point this time.

Olivia is sexy and fit, but, of course, does not realize it.  She runs every morning, but also downs prodigious amounts of fatty and sweet breakfast foods.  Doesn’t everyone who is fit and beautiful?  The story goes from annoying to entertaining when Olivia’s imagination is, indeed, confirmed to be reality and Fielding leads her on a romp through the fantasy of every woman who has ever wished her boring life would be more like the movies.  She is romanced by an exotic man, then two.  She has wonderful tropical adventures.  She buys spy gear.  She is wooed by MI6 and becomes an actual secret agent and, in the end, saves the world.  She even gets to tell off her former boss in a revenge-fantasy conclusion.

Helen Fielding remains a guilty pleasure and I will watch to see what she does next, but it would be very nice to see her create a character who is not quite to insecure, not quite so ditzy. Maybe that is just not her eye to the world.  We shall see.

Finished 4/24/15

The Love Goddess’ Cooking School–Melissa Senate

love goddess cooking school

Romance and food.  Who can resist?  They are the reading equivalent of potato chips and french onion dip, right?  Little nutritional value, but very tasty and comforting.  And so it goes with this novel.

When I started reading, I was certain this was another debut novel, but I checked and it was not. Senate has written ten novels previously as well as short stories and essays and an ABC Family television movie.  With that, I was surprised at the clunkiness of some of the plot moves, but the clunkiness disappeared into the background, only occasionally rearing its head, as the characters took over.  Mostly.

Holly has an English degree and a string of job experiences on her resume.  On her personal resume she has a string of relationships.  She is a giver and has not found someone who is willing to commit or to give much back.  Her relationship with her mother is not estranged, but not close.  Holly adores her grandmother, Camilla, and Italian immigrant who lives on Blue Crab Island in Maine and makes a living with her Italian cooking and her ability to tell fortunes.  This relationship seems to be some of the reason for the strain in her relationship with her mother, whose own relationship with her mother is strained and difficult due to, we learn later, people on the island who called Camilla a witch.  Bullies.  Every romance novel needs one–that girl, those women, who look too perfect and act awful.

After yet another relationship ends, Holly runs to her grandmother for comfort and is there for two weeks when Camilla dies in her sleep, leaving her house and business to Holly.  Holly, oddly, does not know how to cook because as a young girl she prepared a special sandwich for Camilla that included, unknown to her because she was just a young girl (hmmmm), rat poison.  The trauma of nearly killing her grandmother turned Holly off from cooking and still haunts her as an adult.  What?  Seriously clunky plot move.

Holly’s mother wants her to sell the house, so, of course, Holly wants to keep it and run the business, so she begins practicing the recipes Camilla has left behind and trying to remember what she saw Camilla do for the many summers and vacations she spent with her.  Each recipe, cutely, requires a wish, a sad or a happy memory.  Cooking as therapy.

The granddaughter of the woman who bullied Camilla (and whose mother bullied Holly’s mother) has a degree in culinary arts and has opened a shop on the small island (go figure–clunky plot move again) and Holly fears losing her grandmother’s business to this woman while she gets her act together.

In walks a cute and precocious twelve-year-0ld girl who wants to be her apprentice for her cooking class and learn how to cook so she can drive away her divorced father’s girlfriend.  This setup is made for Holly’s resume, which most recently has included a divorced dad and young daughter. The dad, oddly enough, is hunky and a regular at Holly’s shop for pasta and sauce (another clunky plot move).  Holly takes her on–what the heck, she only has four students who stayed in the class once Camilla died–and the plot moves forward.

In the class are a divorced dad with a young daughter whose mother is awful and is alienating her daughter’s affections from her father; an old friend who has returned to the island for R&R after the loss of her young daughter; the unmarried sister of a woman whose sister found love thanks to Camilla’s fortune telling and who needs a date to her sister’s wedding.  The twelve year old makes four.

And so the set up.  Holly falls in love with the girl’s dad.  The divorced dad and unmarried woman fall in love.  Holly’s cooking helps heal the broken heart of the old friend.  Their memories and wishes and cooking heal them all and bond them into a close circle.  Holly wins the job catering the sister’s wedding (shop saved) and becomes a good cook.  She finds herself and makes the shop her own (and the house by changing a few pictures on the walls and hanging a new sign).  Everything is awesome.  Potato chips and dip.  Not hard to chew (although sometimes tough to digest), but yummy and comforting.

I liked the theme, which is why I bought the book, but I was distracted by the clumsy plots moves often enough that I won’t seek out another novel by this author.  If one ends up on my pile, however, I would probably read it when I was in the mood for comfort food.

Finished 4/17/15

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy–Helen Fielding

mad about the boy

I am a Bridget Jones fan.  Confession made.

When I saw that Helen Fielding had written a new Bridget Jones book, I was excited.  I had been following gossip that there was to be a new movie, but was not sure if they would bother with the book.  Then I saw the bombshell–that Mr. Darcy has died and Bridget is a widower.

What is Bridget without Mr. Darcy, I thought?  But she sucked me in again.  She has gained weight, lost confidence, gained two children and a nanny/housekeeper.  She does not have to worry about money, apparently, but tries to return to some purpose by writing a screenplay adaptation of Hedda Gabler, which seems appropriate given that Bridget Jones was a modern update of Pride and Prejudice.  Bridget is her usual mess.  She cannot keep her house, or organize her children’s schedules, or dress properly, or maneuver the modern world via Twitter.  She obsesses over her Twitter followers.  When her friends convince her that it is time to date again, she reads a long list of dating self-help books and tweets their lessons.  She wears a silk navy dress over and over and is adorned variously with chocolate, wine, and seagull shit.  She stresses about how much time her children spend in front of screens.  She makes ridiculous rules for screen time that she cannot keep track of.  She joins a program for obese people and cheats until she has an intervention.

Life begins to turn around when she tweet/flirts with Roxster, a twenty-nine-year-old hottie who likes older women because they know what they want.  He is, of course, built with great abs and is fantastic in bed.  Bridget has a moment of guilty over Mark (Mr. Darcy) when she first sleeps with Roxster, but that seems to fade pretty quickly in the hours of fabulous sex they have.  (Does anyone actually have hours of sex?  Like successive hours of sex?)    Everything is wonderful, including a fantasy revenge scene in which Bridget takes Roxster to a party and no one can believe she has snagged such a beautiful man.  It’s Bridget Jones, so any reader knows this cannot last because it is too good.  One of my moments of serious irritation with this book, actually, happened when Bridget was letting Roxster go because, she reflects, “my kids were absolutely without a shadow of a doubt the best thing I had in my life.  I didn’t want to deprive him of doing all that for himself.”  Hello?  He just said he wanted to be a dad to your children.  They’re young.  How is that depriving him?  Once again, only biological parenting has any value.  Infuriating.

Instead she finds an appropriately-aged man who has already fulfilled his biological imperative and is divorced, but not messed up and awful, and whose children meld seamlessly with her own.  Tell me a blended family where that is the case.  Please.  Especially one in which the absent parent is still living.

Daniel makes some cameo appearances, which will make me happy in the movie, as I will be able to see Hugh Grant.  I am curious to see who will play Bridget’s new love interests, but deeply, deeply sad that Mr. Darcy, aka Colin Firth, had to be blown up to make this new volume of Bridget’s life possible.

Great escapes are not to be taken for granted and, while not heavy literature, Mad About the Boy was a great escape, or a return to a great escape, where the slightly overweight slightly frumpy and scattered woman gets the good gorgeous guy in the end and everyone admires her despite her failings.  Bring on round four.

Finished 4/11/15

Sharp Objects–Gillian Flynn

Sharp-objects-book-cover

I loved Gone Girl.  Who didn’t?  Since I finished Gone Girl I have had Gillian Flynn books on my wish list.  I started with her debut novel, Sharp Objects.  Who did she kill to get a great back cover quote from Stephen King?  He said that after he turned the lights out, the story stayed “there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave.”  Who does not want to read that?

I was hooked and the book was hyped.  Adding to the mystery created by Flynn were underlines created by a previous owner of my copy of Sharp Objects.  Lines about teeth and timeline were underlined.  The question became whether or not this reader was intelligent or one of those dumb readers who randomly underline things they think might be important, but that end up being random phrases that stuck with them for some reason.

Flynn works for Entertainment Weekly so clearly she is surrounded by the less than normal.  Her comfort with the unusual is clear in Sharp Objects.  Camille is a mediocre reporter for a mediocre Chicago paper.  Her editor asks her to return to her hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls and, we discover later, to make peace with her family.  There is no peace for Camille’s family, who lost Camille’s sister as a very young girl.  Camille’s mother is distant and her stepfather is almost a non-entity.  Her younger sister, however, is thirteen and pulsing with too-soon sexuality and cruelty.  Camille is repulsed and intrigued by her family, the murders, and her hometown, but soon finds herself drawn back into the rhythms of childhood.

I was sure I had figured it all out by the middle of the novel, but I was wrong.  I was not surprised, but I was wrong.  That, ultimately, is the problem with a suspense or mystery novel, isn’t it?  How to keep the reader guessing and not be disappointed when the solution is revealed.  The best mystery writers know how to do this.  Those shaping their craft try to give you a  good time along the way so you will forgive them when the solution is not what you had expected.

I am curious to read Flynn’s second novel to see if she continues her theme of the dark depths of the female psyche.  In the meantime, Camille’s inscribed body will likely stay with me, even if it is not the snake in a cave Stephen King described.

Finished 4/9/15

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession–Andrea Wulf

brother gardeners

Enlightenment England fell in love with gardening.  Unlike other European countries, every day Englishmen (and women) had a bit of ground in which they could plant some flowers or sculpt some landscape.  In the second half of the eighteenth century, England was in a position to gather plants from its international contacts and, after the Seven Years War, from its far-flung empire.  In Andrea Wulf’s tale, however, the American colonies play the starring role through the plant agent and farmer, John Bartram, who sends plants and seeds to the London cloth merchant/gardener and amateur botanist, Peter Collinson.  Bartram tramps across the colonies to gather increasingly varied plants.  His dedication is such that, at one point, he leaves his heavily pregnant wife home with young children to care for the farm while he goes plant hunting.  Collinson, on the other side of the ocean, drums up subscribers for Bartram’s boxes and encourages Bartram’s botanical education.  Practical gardeners and budding botanists work together to identify and catalogue the plants of the world.  Philip Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary reigns supreme until challenged by Linnaeus’ sexual reproduction classification system.  Linnaeus is unable to crack the tight English gardening community until he sends his star student, Solander, whose smooth manners open English gardens and collections to Linnaeus’ system.  English reactions to the idea of plants’ sexual reproduction are among my favorite sections of Wulf’s story.  Botanists affronted by the idea of one pistil communing with several stamens refuse the scientific proof brought before them.  Gardeners use diplomatic subterfuge to save plants shipped overseas during times of warfare.  They gnash their teeth over plants seized by pirates or lost to mold due to careless ship captains.  Joseph Banks finances a voyage to Tahiti and Terra Incognita, where he names Botany Bay due to the multitude of new species they discover there.

Bartram’s growing confidence, Collinson’s frantic efforts on his behalf, Linnaeus’ self-important cold airs, and Solander’s ungrateful abandonment of his teacher create interesting characters. The indefatigable British confidence in their ability to discover and catalogue the world shines through these decades as plants that once were rare become readily available in nurseries all over London.

I did not realize, until reading this book, what role native American plants played in the development of English gardening.  Now I will have to give even greater respect to the weeds that proliferate across my farm.  One woman’s weeds are another man’s treasured rarities.  As I have grown to suspect, we value that which forces us to beg it to grow.

Wulf begins the story with the creation of a hybrid, but she leaves that strand of the story behind for that of Collinson and Bertram sharing plants across the ocean. I see that she has written another book about American gardeners.  I hope at some point she returns to the story of British gardeners manipulating nature, a logical step after they had catalogued it.

Finished 4/4/15

The Angel of Losses–Stephanie Feldman

angel of losses

This is another amazing debut novel.  It’s a ghost story and a suspense thriller and a murder mystery.  Majorie and her sister Holly, now Chava to accompany her conversion to orthodox Judaism, have a strained relationship.  Marjorie’s parents have moved to Florida for retirement and her grandfather, Eli, has passed away.  Marjorie has buried herself in her doctoral research on the Wandering Jew.  She emerges from her library to go through her grandfather’s things, which her sister has moved to the basement of their childhood home in order to make room for the baby that is due soon.  In the books, Marjorie finds a composition notebook filled with her grandfather’s writing.  She recalls seeing her father come home with four such notebooks after her grandfather’s death, but she cannot find the other three.

What had been an academic exercise becomes urgently personal as Marjorie desperately works to unravel the connections between the White Rebbe and her family and finds herself the center of the story rather than the objective observer.

Guilt, redemption, wish fulfillment, magic, and the way the present cannot escape the past mingle to create a suspense story that had me turning pages anxiously right to the end.

Finished 3/31/15