Voting day in Delhi
It's more than a month since the first votes were cast, but still India's election juggernaut rumbles on. Today is the sixth of seven polling days - the final day is in a week's time - and Delhi is among the areas where voting is taking place.
I'm in the Indian capital to be an election pundit on WION, a news channel which is part of the Zee group. I popped out this morning to see how voting is going. This is the East Delhi constituency - currently held (as are all seven Delhi seats) by Narendra Modi's BJP, but where the Aam Admi Party (it means the party of the common man) is putting up a strong challenge.
There was a steady stream of voters at this polling station in a government school, but hardly a torrent. Turn-out in Delhi is usually well below the national average, and is lowest in middle-class areas.
In many countries, it's the marginalised underclass that doesn't engage with elections - in India, the poor know their electoral strength and it's the upper middle class who are often the most reluctant to cast their ballots. That's partly out of disdain for 'dirty' politics - partly that they feel they will be hugely out numbered by the hoi palloi - and as the temperature is touching 40 degrees and you can taste the grime in the Delhi air, it's very tempting to stay put in air conditioned comfort.
At some distance from the polling stations - about 200 yards away - the main political parties have stalls, keeping track on who has voted and offering encouragement (and in the BJP's case free saffron-coloured caps) to those heading to vote.
The party workers all have voters' lists complete with mugshots and make attentive notes about whether their supporters are showing up to vote. The Election Commission has really cleaned up the polling process over the last twenty years. Voting is electronic, and all those who vote get an indelible mark on a finger which takes about a month to fade away.
But there are still huge problems - with the under-supervised use of WhatsApp and other digital platforms to campaign, cajole and sometimes misinform ... the huge amounts of cash disbursed to buy votes and favourable coverage (voting has been postponed in one South Indian constituency after the seizure of cash amounting to more than £1 million believed to have been intended to influence the result) ... and a persistent problem of personation.
The friend who showed me round the Mayur Vihar polling stations said he and his wife won't be voting - but by 6pm, he added, his vote would still have been cast. Those who don't vote are sometimes victims of impostors voting in their name. And some of those who come to cast their ballot late in the day are told that they have already voted - even though they haven't.
And what next? Well, the exit polls will be released when the last polling stations close next Sunday - and then votes are counted four days later, on May 23rd.
Who do I think will win? Watch WION - and you'll find out!
Lost in Sindh
This elegant memorial is tucked away in a corner of St Giles's Cathedral in Edinburgh. It's a war memorial, of course - to the dead of the Highland Regiment while in Sindh in what is now southern Pakistan.
The regiment served in the Anglo-Afghan war - but the dead commemorated in this plaque did not, by and large, die in battle. They succumbed to cholera. In their hundreds!
There is no extenuation of Empire, and the suffering it caused was not even remotely equal - but it was felt on all sides.
Modi plays Wembley
Wembley stadium was freezing on Friday. I speak with authority. I was there in the press seats for five hours - at the 'UK Welcomes Modi' rally, along with 50,000 or more exuberant, impatient UK-based supporters of India's prime minister. It really had the air of a festival. Lots of Indian flags on display ... traders who usually sell to football supporters we're doing well with 'We Love Modi' scarves in India's colours at £10 a time ... and the 'mass' demos outside ended up as just 300 or so aggrieved Sikhs and Kashmiris.
David Cameron introduced Modi - a clever move. The tens of thousands in attendance vote in the UK not India - and most are natural Conservative supporters. Cameron began his brief speech with palms folded, saying: 'Namaste Wembley' - and he ended with a clever adaptation of the BJP's 2014 election slogan, 'Acchhe din zaroor aayega' (good days will certainly come). He stayed to listen to Modi's speech - sitting alongside his wife Samantha, wearing a red sari and looking comfortable in it.
And Narendra Modi's address to the rally? A master class in playing to the Wembley crowd: confident, witty, accomplished. There wasn't a huge amount of substance in it - beyond his key message: 'We don't want the charity of others - what we want is equality. India stands firmly on the same footing as everyone else.'
He spoke mostly in Hindi, but played up the Gujarati angle - announcing the start of direct flights between Delhi and the main city in Gujarat, Ahmedabad. As you might imagine, that went down well with a crowd which was probably preponderantly Gujurati.
At times, the Indian PM paused in his speech - chants of 'Modi. Modi' filled the silence. He clearly relished the adulation - after the election setback in Bihar, and with all the (well merited) concern about majoritaranism, basking in the warmth of the Wembley crowd must have been quite a tonic.
After the hour-long speech, Modi did a cup winners' style lap of the Wembley pitch, acknowledging the crowd and lapping up their love.
Wembley was clearly the highlight of Modi's three days in London - though the British government provided much more pomp (lunch with the Queen ... Red Arrows flypast ... Scots Guards guard of honour ... a night at Chequers) than is customary for a mere head of government.
'The Calcutta Key'
A gem from 1945 - a pocket-sized, 96 page guide for American troops about how to behave in Calcutta. It covers everything from getting post to getting condoms - and offers wise words about where to go in the city (and where's out of bounds - which seems to be most of the place), booze, dancing, Bengalis, girls, food - the lot.
There are of course part of this guide which make you wince. But for a booklet written seventy years ago, in a time of war, and for soldiers in the mighty American army who probably didn't rate Calcutta as their most favoured destination, it's a surprisingly engaging and at times sensitive document.
The tone of The Calcutta Key is folksy, at times rather patronising, but a lot better than the over formal, hugely prescriptive regulations that many other armies would have resorted to. It breaks the news to GIs that in Calcutta they are 'Europeans' - so much for the war of independence!
Rather impressively, US soldiers are advised: '... after the war, in any permanent plan for peace that includes (and must include) Southest Asia, India must and will assume a prominent role. You are a practical person from a practical nation. You can see that it makes sense for anyone to cultivate a lasting friendship with India. Go to it, then. YOU - you're the one who is going to do it. It is a part of YOUR JOB.'
And the list of 'do's' (and so by implication 'don'ts') looks fairly sensible - no one imagines that all American soldiers heeded this advice, but they should have done:
Perhaps inevitably, it's the section about women and prostitutes which jars most: 'Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected [with VD] (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%.' Inaccurate, disrespectful, and very probably ineffective in dissuading the troops from paying for sex.
The guide contains a map of Calcutta which demonstrates that most of the city was out-of-bounds for US soldiers - though it would have been quite a task policing that restriction.
The entire text, along with illustrations, has been posted online. It is one of my better eBay purchases. And of course you wonder about whose copy this was, and what use they made of the advice - whether they survived the war and took this home as a keepsake.
Loosely folded into the pages of the booklet was this slip - the cyclostyled words of a wartime drinking song. I can't imagine this was official US Army issue - but who knows. It does, though, personalise the booklet and those who made use of it, and give a sense of the human experience of war and its privations.
Of course, for many Bengalis, the privations of war were much more intense - the province succumbed to a dreadful famine in which huge numbers perished. The guide makes reference to that in such a matter-of-fact way that it comes across as distinctly callous.Not inaccurate, not impersonal, but simply descriptive about an immense tragedy for which the colonial authorities (Brits not Americans, of course) were widely held to be culpable.
LATER: many thanks for all the interest in this posting. Suchetana in Calcutta has been in touch to mention an online album of photographs taken in Calcutta in 1945-46 by an American military photographer, Clyde Waddell. I am sure it will be of much wider interest - and here's the link. Thanks, Suchetana!
The common man's headgear
No, I am not going to wear it out and about - but the cognoscenti among you will have realised that I am modelling here the latest in political headgear. Not so much political tat (though it's that as well) as political titfer (rhyming slang, tit-for-tat = hat).
This is the 'Aam Admi' cap - as sported by supporters of the anti-corruption party which powered to a dramatic win recently in the Delhi state elections, and then imploded when the AAP chief minister stalked out of office after little more than a month. The style is also known as a Gandhi cap - though in Gandhi's day it was made of khadi, homespun cloth, and this is, I'd guess, of synthetic material and there are suggestions that the caps have been mass produced in China.
This version is without the AAP election symbol, the broom, but it has the party's slogans - on one side 'me hu aam admi' ('I am a common man'), and on the other 'mujhe pahiye puri azadi' (which comes up on Google Translate, entirely unconvincingly, as 'I have complete freedom wheels' - please somebody out there help me improve on that).
In the Delhi state elections, supporters of the Congress party complained that AAP rivals were breaching Election Commission rules by sporting these caps. The Commission ruled that as long as the caps didn't show the party symbol or carry the party's name, they escaped the ultra-strict regulations about electioneering.
For lovers of political ephemera and kitsch, this is a gem. Thanks, Sanjoy!
A posting about India - not least because it's Diwali. I bought this wonderful book about Raj-era Simla for £4 yesterday at a stall on Queen's Crescent in Kentish Town. It's from the high water mark of Empire - published in Calcutta in 1904, almost equidistant in time from the Rebellion/Mutiny of 1857 and independence and the end of the Raj ninety years later.
The book's been bashed around a bit, but it's complete, including hugely evocative photographs and illustrations, and a folding map. Simla was the summer capital of British India, replete with Viceregal Lodge. It was where all the Brits who could manage to hid away from the sun during the summer - up in the hills, within sight of the Himalayas. The presence of thousands of army officers, civil servants and above all their wives defined colonial-era Simla.
It tells its own story that a large part of this book is about amateur dramatics in Simla. And lo an behold, here's Colonel R.S.S. Baden Powell - yes, that Baden Powell, really! - taking to the stage in Japanese dress. The book records: '"The Geisha", in which General Baden-Powell, of Mafeking fame, played with Miss Turner and Mrs Elsmie, was an extremely popular production ...'. Indeed!
What badge, I hear you wonder, did scouting's founder get for this performance? Answers on a postcard please.
And as an encore, here's the 1902 cast photo from 'Floradora' at Simla's appropriately named Gaiety theatre
It's not all white mischief in the hills. The book also has explorations of Indian traditions and customs - a photo of a wrestling match, for instance - and plenty of landscapes and townscapes of a Simla long gone, along with its amateur strollers:
This isn't a good novel - it's a great novel.
The Lowland revisits some of the ground of Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent The Namesake (the film is good too). It's about Calcuttans who head to the US and immerse themselves in the academic world.
But this has a much stronger feel of Calcutta, and a much more powerful story line - about Naxalism, the narodnik-style Maoist-tinged revolutionary movement which gripped many of Calcutta's middle class youngsters in the late 60s and early 70s. Naxalism and the response to it brought the city to its knees, and destroyed a generation - killed, or badly damaged one way or another. The Lowland is a searing, tragic, troubling story - wonderfully told.
Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is shortlisted for the Booker, but not greatly fancied by the cognoscenti. By my reading, she must be in with a good chance.
Naxalism has had other powerful literary chroniclers, other great novels which have sought to explain its attraction, and the whirlwind reaped by those who were won over to it. Among them are the books below: Mahasweta Devi's Mother of 1084 - bleak, unsettling, unforgettable - was first published in Bengali in 1974 and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain appeared, again initially in Bengali, in 1985.
I've also been reading another fine book set in Calcutta - just published, it's the debut novel of a friend and colleague, Sanjay Dasgupta.
Other Lives, Other Fragments is an ambitious tale - a tragic family story which is woven alongside the most cathartic events in India's modern history: the terrible Bengal famine of the early 1940s; the acute Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta in 1946, and the upheavals which surrounded Partition a year later; the continuing turbulence in divided Bengal; the ripping apart of Pakistan in 1971 and birth of Bangladesh; the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination; and such powerful themes as the increasing criminalisation of politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. There's no Naxalism, but just about every other violent aspect of India's modern political landscape is there.
That's quite a lot to pack in to a novel - but it comes off well. And yes, umbrellas are very important to the plot. But I am not saying more - read it for yourself.
To Jodhpur and back
This loving and lavish account of the life and work of Maureen Eyre Proudman, artist and designer, has been assembled by Kate Proudman, her granddaughter. The cover shows what Maureen regarded as her best work, 'Spring Morning', which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1948.
Perhaps the most intriguing episode in a very full life was the young Maureen Eyre's sojourn in India. In 1931, a couple of years after graduating from the Royal College of Art, she headed out alone by boat to Bombay, travelling on to Rajputana (what's now Rajasthan) to stay with an uncle who worked on the Indian Railways.
In Jodhpur, she mixed with the maharajah and his family, eating from gold plates and bowls and attending the opening of the Jodhpur Flying Club. Kate Proudman muses about whether her grandmother went out as part of the "fishing fleet", seeking in the Indian Raj an eligible bachelor. That's certainly how it worked out. Philip Proudman was a civil engineer with the Jodhpur State Railways. They married in Singapore in March 1932 - this book includes a wedding report from The Straits Times as well as a wonderful sepia wedding photo.
Maureen and Philip lived in India for a further three years. As well as being a mother, Maureen returned to her work as an artist - designing this glorious travel poster for Indian Railways, dated 1934 and printed in Bombay. You can see in the foreground two women carrying water on their heads, and towering above the majesty of Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort.
You can find out more about the book and its author (Kate has followed in Maureen's footsteps and is an artist) on Kate Proudman's website. And you can order the book on the Blurb website - there's much more to it, and to Maureen's life, than I've mentioned here, and it includes dozens of evocative photographs and marvellous examples of Maureen's work.
You know the moment. You find a book you really like very cheap in an Oxfam bookshop, and for no very good reason, you buy it. You already have a copy - but it's too good to pass by.
That's how this morning, at the Oxfam bookshop in Crouch End, I forked out £2.50 for Clive Branson's British Soldier in India. Branson, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (some of his poems are in the anthologies of civil war verse), served in India and Burma during the Second World War - and died there.
His letters are about India, communism, poverty, nationalism, war, famine - and the vivid colours and assault on all the senses that India brings with it to those from outside.
What tempted me above all, though, to make the purchase was a clipping loose inside the book - a review in the 'Daily Worker' of 21st October 1944 by, of all people, Sean O'Casey. Here it is:
In an introduction to the book - published in 1944, the year of Branson's death in Burma - the CP leader, Harry Pollitt, gives some details of his life history. Born in 1907 in India, where his father was an army officer (it seems his full name was Clive Ali Chimmo Branson though he was usually known as Frank - there must be a story behind that but I haven't yet found it), Branson moved to England as a baby. He attended the Slade School of Art, but once he joined the CP in his mid-twenties he forsook painting for a while: 'He used to say that to be able to paint you must first learn about life.'
British Soldier in india includes a few sketches that Branson made while in Maharashtra - this being a study for a much larger intended work:
I noticed in Pollitt's introduction an account of Branson's art work in the years just before he enlisted in the armed forces:
After the outbreak of the present war, while continuing his political work, he nevertheless spent a number of months painting very intensively, because, as he said, "it may be my last chance". He painted mainly the life in Battersea, where he lived, the workers in the streets, the events of the blitz.
And if you look on the web, you can see some of these very striking paintings. The one below dates from 1937 and is entitled 'Selling the Daily Worker outside the Projectile and Engineering Works' - it's held by the Tate, and I hope they will forgive me for posting the work here:
And here's another even more striking Branson painting which I found on the web - entitled 'Bombed Women and Searchlights', from the Blitz period. It's also at the Tate - one of five Branson paintings they hold (among the other is surely the only still life to feature books by Marx and Stalin):
George Orwell 'Talking to India'
It's well known that George Orwell spent part of the war working for the BBC - in what would now be called the World Service. Less well known that he edited and contributed to a 1943 book based on the BBC's wartime broadcasts to India.
To my great delight, I came across a copy of the book for well under a tenner in a Bloomsbury second hand bookshop. An excellent website about Orwell's books says of Talking to India:
'Despite his continuing health problems, Orwell managed during 1942-43 a prodigious output. In addition to his time-consuming duties at the BBC (which included writing 15-minute commentaries, reading many of them over the air, and producing booklets and courses), he was a regular contributor of essays and reviews to the Partisan Review, the New Statesman, Tribune, and other weekly newspapers. ... Talking to India, wrote Orwell, was "a representative selection…with a literary bias" of the programs broadcast to India. The approximately 2,000 copies printed of the book were sold out by 1945. Orwell's contribution, beyond the Introduction, was "The Rediscovery of Europe: Literature Between the Wars," broadcast in March 1942 and published that same month in the Listener (the BBC magazine). ...'
The aside that 'talks marked by an asterisk were written by Indians or other Asiatics' jars today, but was intended then as an indication that the BBC 'talking to India' in wartime involved Indians and others from across Asia, not simply metropolitan voices.
Orwell's introduction is posted below - it makes much of the inclusion of a broadcast not on the BBC, but 'a verbatim transcript of a broadcast from Berlin by the Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose'. Orwell goes on to make a case for 'a difference between honest and dishonest propaganda', Bose being an example of the latter, which at least makes clear what he thought was the BBC's wartime purpose.
The photos included in the book are the highlights - that at the bottom (Eliot, Orwell, Mulk Raj Anand, Tambimuttu, all in the same BBC radio studio) is justly renowned - the others not quite so acclaimed, but just as remarkable.
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