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Review: A Passage to India, a classic just right for today

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My Interest

Never mind that I chose to finally read it because it is a classic. It is as much about today as it is about early 20th Century India. For minorities, even when they are the true majority in a country, real justice is often hard come-by. The British rule over India enforced a Western sense of order, justice, and manners and morality. But was that justice as fair to one group as to the British themselves? This is a very timely topic. In the United States, justice for Blacks has always been a problem, though as a nation we pride ourselves on an independent judiciary.  Reading Passage to India, if you substitute an American location, Passage to Indiana if you will, could as well be written about a white American woman and a Black American or Mexcian-American man. No difference.

The Story

“The issues Miss Quested had raised were so much more important than she was herself that people inevitably forgot her.”

“God who saves the King will surely support the police.”

A trip in a mixed (English and Indian) group to the Maranbar Caves has newly-arrived Miss Adela Quested sure she has been molested by the Indian host, Dr. Aziz. The Echo. The subsequent arrest and trial of Aziz bring out the worst in the rulers. The plotting, obfuscation, and outright lying would be right at home today in any court in the U.S.A. not trying the rape case of a top white, wealthy, collegiate swimmer. Miss Quested is treated like an imbecile (also still common today in rape cases anywhere in the world). But the predictable does not end predictably. In this case, justice prevails, but only in court. Aziz must remake his life elsewhere. Miss Quested returns home never to venture out of the UK again. Damages? A civil suit? No, no, no, move on, nothing to see here. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh?

My Thoughts

“The conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life.”

“Ronny’s religion was of the sterilized Public School brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the fifth form, and condemned as ‘weakening’ any attempt to understand them.”

First of all, I had a problem keeping two Ronnies straight. Ronnie Heaslop, the City Magistrate and putative fiancee of Miss Quested and the other Ronnie of the Raj–Ronnie Merrick of Jewel in the Crown–a story that also involves “fraternization” between a British woman and an Indian man, and which I enjoyed more, likely because I read it pre-cell phone attention span. I loved the miniseries, too, but then, back in the 80’s I loved the movie of Passage to India, too.

This book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird even though it predates TKAMB by many years. The vivid portrayal of racism, the proceedings in court, the emotions generated. All were very much alike, only set in different countries and cultures.

Confession: I was not expecting an Indian voice to narrate the audio! #WhitePrivilege strikes again.

Note: This book was published in the 1920s. There are racial slurs in use at the time in this book that would not be used today. I think there were two such instances. Do not let that stop you from reading this impressive work that deserves its reputation as a classic.

My Verdict

4.5

 

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Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.