Tales of displacements and transitions

Getting back to a library is a refreshing experience – and I must confess a novel one for recreational reading. It speaks  volumes about  our priorities in  nation building that  except during student years, we have no access to a library!! And I am not sure how good college libraries are – having been in medical Institutions all my life, I know that college libraries seldom have the money except for course related books.  So, I am enjoying my new membership to the British Council library in Delhi!! Although I am familiar with many British authors, there is a feeling of freedom in selecting at random, new names and titles, without the sense of hesitation about shelling out cash for something that may be a bit of a gamble!!

It struck me as really interesting that four of the six books I picked on my last trip, have dealt with issues related to political transitions and resultant adjustments. Vastly different in the period and locale, the human issues related to such events seem to be of interest to a number of writers of fiction.  I picked up “The year before sunset” by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, partly because they were the familiar, early travel writers who featured often in the Sunday papers  in the pre-internet/travel blog era and partly because the blurb said it was a book set in pre -partition India of 1946. The story is that of a young English boy from a family that identifies itself with India rather than ‘Queen and mother country’ in the fragile environment of that time. His trials and tribulations amongst the Burra Sahibs who  can only talk of their return to England and the Anglo-Indian community form the core of the story.  A scenario with great potential, the book provides an unsatisfactory glimpse into the life of the Anglo-Indian community, and the effort to build some tension around a so-called rebel Indian freedom fighter is not at all convincing. A number of typical stereotyped characters and a mediocre prose make for a poor book.

Coincidentally Paul Theroux’s “Kowloon Tong” is set in 1996, a year prior to the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese.  Bunt (short for Baby Bunting) is a forty+ Englishman born and brought up in the colony, who owns a clothing factory and lives with his elderly mother. While around them their ex-pat brethren feel betrayed by the British, but feel that they have no option but to go back ‘home’, Bunt has no such plans. He is comfortable with the double life he leads between this world and the world of Hong Kong bars and night clubs and hookers. However, he cannot stay untouched by the transition and forced encounter with the Chinese way of working and the ultimate move out of Hong Kong make for an interesting story. Theroux is better known for his travel writing and this was his first work of fiction that I have read. It is a well written book that leaves you feeling sympathetic with Bunt’s plight at the end!!

Anne Tyler’s “Digging in America” is about adjustments that follow political events – in this case, the over turning of the Shah in Iran. Set in the  90s and post 9/11 US, it deals with the issue of adjustments and cultural clashes. Even for a completely integrated Iranian family, the close friendship with a  American family brings forth the deep insecurities that even second generation immigrants cannot completely shed. The protagonist is a sixty something Iranian widow, is unlike most of her fellow immigrants from Iran in that as a student she had been part of the anti-Shah protests. So, she is culturally still alienated from the American way of life, and in many ways also alienated form her own community. Her coming to terms with herself  and her the people around, including an attentive elderly American widower are sensitively dealt with. Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer awarded novelist, and quite prolific I find – but this was my first book and I really liked it.

And finally, Colin Thubron’s ‘Turning back the sun’ – is a grim and serious political tale set in a undefined place and time. He is a celebrated  travel writer and that is evident in his descriptions of the countryside – evidently the Australian bush. The politics of controlled regimes and the life of the marginalized, in this case the Aborginal people, are vividly picturised. For me, in the India of today, the scenario could very well be something we could see around us – what with political parties preaching restrictions on internal movement of people, the plight of the tribal communities etc…… The book is slow but absorbing – not the usual light tale and may not be most people’s ‘cup of tea’ – and makes one think. Well written too, the title referring to an aborginal myth. THubron, also better known as a travel writer, did surprise me with this novel.

So, was it just a coincidence – or is it that there is so much shifting and churning in the world that it is written about by so many?

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