Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Shall Not Hear The Nightingale - Khushwant Singh

Time – 1942 – 1943

It’s the story of a relatively important Indian Sikh family during a period in history. Such a blend of history with the story of common civilians gives you an improved perspective of history when compared to the perspective you get when you read history merely as a chain of important events in chronological order.

While the story itself is a nice one, its characters serve to provide meaningful insights into the life and thoughts of people of bygone years under uncommon circumstances. I like such books for the insights they provide about specific dynamics of sociology at a time in the past.

There is the sycophant Buta Singh who is a magistrate reporting to a British officer. He has political ambitions and his ideological stand is a fickle one. For most part, he wishes to keep up the ancestral tradition of unflinching loyalty to the British, not without a selfish ulterior motive. All the same, he cannot oppose his son Sher Singh who is secretly leading the youth towards rebellion.

Here’s what he says to his son during one of their arguments “English have treated us better than our own kings did in the past; or the Germans, Italians, or Japanese will do if they win and take over India. We should stand by the English.”
For all the resentment (of the people) that the patriotic movies show us year after year, this is the sentiment that a lot of people had towards the British. And why not?

Sabhrai is Buta Singh’s wife. She can’t be bothered about politics and all that. Like a dutiful wife and mother, all she cares about all the time is the well being and harmony of the family, especially father and son. Much of her time is devoted to reading the ‘Granth Sahib’.

Champak is the wife of Sher Singh. She is an amorous woman having a fling with her husband’s friend.
I have always held that the passing of years sees the dilution of morals, that yesterday’s men and women were purer than today’s. But when I read books like these I wonder if people are people: the same everywhere and at all times. (Although characters of a book are fictitious, they are inspired by reality. Aren’t they?)

Shunno the maidservant is a widow of 50. She troubles the young servant boy Mundoo who in turn causes her real trouble. The solution to a non existent problem is then provided by a ‘Hakim’, a quack, in whom Shunno has more faith than in educated doctors.

There is Mr. Taylor, who is aware of the undercurrents of rebellion, and his sympathetic wife and between the two of them they think, …… “It may be a hard thing to say, but despite the close living, in joint families and the formal respect paid to the elders, there is less contact, understanding or friendship between parents and their children in India than in Europe”… quite true!
And then there are other characters. Madan, Sita, Mundoo, Beena…

The story revolves not just around one or two main protagonists but several characters, all of whom have been adequately sketched. This must be quite a difficult thing to do – to draw the readers’ attention towards all characters – to divide the story equally among many and yet have a certain cohesion between the many threads that makes it one single story.

The language of the novel is beautiful. It is a mix of the right amount of all ingredients – simplicity, standard, imagery, portrait, poetry, historical facts... but the language is also crisp and brisk where necessary.

I loved the beautiful imagery in this para and the observation he tries to make, about what monsoon means to Indians.

To know india’s people, one has to know the monsoon………

Summer – another day begins with it’s heat, it’s glare and it’s dust…………

After living through all this for ninety days or more, one’s mind becomes barren and bereft of hope. Its is then that the monsoon makes it’s spectacular entry. Dense masses of dark clouds sweep across the heavens like a celestial army with black banners. The deep roll of thunder sounds like the beating of a billion drums. Crooked shafts of silver zigzag in lightening flash against the black sky. Then comes the rain itself. First it falls in fat drops; the rises to meet them. She laps them thirstily and is filled with fragrance. Then it comes in torrents which she receives with the supine gratitude of a woman being ravished by her lover. It impregnates her with life which bursts forth in abundance within a few hours. Where there was nothing, there is everything: green grass, snakes, centipedes, worms and millions of insects.

It is not surprising that much of India’s art, music and literature is concerned with the monsoon.

Do read this book.

Now, some language…new English words…
Do you know the English word for ghee?!!!
Clarified butter :-)

And a noteworthy line…
Vice responds only to vice; it dare not accost virtue.


Niva said...

the para quoted definetely has some beautiful imagery... looks like the book is an interesting read..adding it to my "to-read" list :)...

Sowmya said...

Welcome back Niva.....after a long time :-)
You may add all of Khushwant Singh's works to your 'To read' list.

Nitish Ratnam said...

Hey Sowms, just finished readng this book. It was quite nice. Any other book authored by Khushwanth Singh (apart from Delhi and Train to Pakistan) which you would recommend?

Sowmya said...

I just finished reading Company of Women. You may read it once, for the character of the protagonist is something of our own character... Choosing a lifestyle of convenience while having a longing for culture somewhere in our heart, far away from home yet looking back in nostalgia at our roots... finally the materialist mind loses to the aesthetic heart, culture loses to convenience... comfort loses to courage...

By the way,

where the hell are you???

Unknown said...

Nice review.
You might even enjoy reading mine review to