Saturday, September 22, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


A Telugu saga set in 19th century

THOSE of us who live north of the Godavari are only vaguely aware of the land that lies south of the river and the kind of people who live there. The luckier ones go as tourists, visit ancient caves and temples but rarely bother to learn their languages or try to befriend them. A great pity, because the southern half of India is richer than the northern, for it has preserved its ancient traditions, language and literature. Every time I read a book by a South Indian, I learn something new. My latest find is Ranga Raoís The River is Three-quarters Full (Penguin). I have read Rangaís earlier publications: there was nothing southish about them. He has been living in Delhi for the last 40 years, teaching English at Venkateswara College: I assumed he was a Dilliwala.

Ranga Rao is from Andhra, from an eastern district adjoining Tamil Nadu that was once known as Coromandel, where the Krishna drains into the Bay of Bengal. For reasons best known to him, he has chosen to write of this region as it was in the 1830s. The East India Company had then just established itself in Madras and Bengal. From a trading company, it was gradually becoming the ruler of the country. White sahibs still mixed with the natives, and enjoyed smoking hookas, watching nautch girls perform and keeping harems. Most of them were into making quick money: shaking the pagoda tree which dropped gold and returning to Ole Blighty to live in luxury on their ill-gotten gains. However, there were some who took the White Manís burden as a sacred duty and behaved with rectitude. Apart from shooting tigers, bears and elephants, and spearing wild boars, the only indulgence they allowed themselves was a black mistress or two in their servant quarters or visits to local brothels. By then English girls looking for well-placed men as husbands had started arriving in droves (they were dubbed, the fishing fleet) and severed White menís relations with Indian women. This is the setting of Ranga Raoís latest novel. He takes you through depredations by Pindari hordes, and talks of the return to prosperity and devastation caused by famine. The uncertainty of the times is summed up in the refrain "who knows tomorrow?"

EARLIER COLUMNS
A blot on the face of Mother India
September 15, 2001
Leaving for the heavenly abode
September 8, 2001
Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
August 18, 2001
A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001
A penny for Jagjit Chohan
July 14, 2001
The importance of bathing
July 7, 2001
An astral encounter
June 30, 2001
Footloose with Ghalib
June 23, 2001
Sangam of religions
June 16, 2001
What makes a man great?
June 9, 2001
Malgudi no more
May 26, 2001
Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001


What makes this novel unique is that he has chosen to narrate it largely through a close-knit circle of English men and women posted in Kausola town. They are a God-fearing lot who respect Indians and their ancient learning. They have more trouble explaining their conduct to their bosses in Madras and super-bosses in Calcutta. In a letter written to her mother in England, one of the coterie explains her predicament. "I am confident, sooner than later, British values and British personnel will put things in order, the Company servants do think of matters besides hunting big game, pig-sticking, wine and cheese ó and mistresses and black beebees. Donít forget we have in part inherited this mess, and of course we have also added our bit to it, but,... I am certain, sooner than later, we will make this place ó people so different from us, and speaking tongues as incomprehensible as the clucking of hens or the squealing of squirrels, or pebbles being rolled in a tin can ó we will make this land, this territory of ours, safe for the subjects and Europeans....These people have no character in a crisis, just squat down and chatter: they are a uniquely talkative nation. We are the Master Race, Grace, there is no doubt about it. We will make men of the lower orders. And weíll make men of even the savage tribes Regeneration of India, with British technology, British values, is a moral mission for all of us."

They have no illusions about Indians wanting to keep their distance from the beef-eating, wine-swilling sahibs. "The Hindu will walk with us, talk with us, but like Shylock, he will not eat with us ó forget about drinking with us ó or go to church with us, or pray with us."

Apparently sarkari babus were as much of a headache then as they are today: "All the matters do the papier mache heads packed with yellow paper and red-tape is revenue", says one of the characters. The River is Three-quarters Full is a highly readable and informative novel. It made me fall in love with Telugu-speaking people.

Historical treasure

I met Surjit Singh Kandhari very briefly in Oslo (Norway) about 10 years ago when I was there on a week-long lecture tour. After visiting a few universities and towns in snow-bound north, I returned to Oslo for a couple of days before proceeding on my journey homewards. Kandhari was away on a business trip but his Norwegian wife invited me over to spend a day in her home which was in a village over a hundred miles away from the capital. It was a big house full of books and Indian artifacts. Thereafter I lost contact with the Kandharis.

Surjit Singh was back in India early September to offer the government historical documents he had acquired on a visit to Pakistan in the 1970s. He was in Karachi when someone told him that a dealer in antique books had many ancient manuscripts looted from Hindu and Sikh families when they migrated to India in 1947. Kandhari went to the house of the antique dealer and found a huge pile of hand-written granths. He bought the lot for Rs 20,000. He had to square Pakistani Custom officials before being allowed to take them out of the country. Back in Norway, he had the granths examined by oriental scholars. They are two handwritten copies of Adi Granth, sacred scripture of the Sikhs, and a copy of Bhagavata Purana. The most valuable of his collection is a copy of Dasam Granth, compiled by last Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. The original was lost in 1705. A compilation was made again by the Guruís closest disciple and scribe, Bhai Mani Singh, between 1724 and 1726. It is likely that this is what Kandhari has deposited in the vaults of the Bank of Norway for safe custody. Kandhari is willing to give away his treasure to any institution, museum or archive provided it is used for historical research. His contact address in India is 81, Hargobind Enclave, Delhi-92.

Not living happily ever afterwards

Amir C. Tuteja from Washington has compiled some observations on the institution of marriage. Few take a kindly look at life-long bonding. To wit:

Getting married is very much like going to a restaurant with friends. You order what you want, then when you see what the other fellow has, you wish you had ordered that.

At the cocktail party, one woman said to the other, "Arenít you wearing your wedding ring on the wrong finger? The other replied, "Yes, I am. I married the wrong man."

Man is incomplete until he is married. Then he is really finished.

Marriage is an institution in which a man loses his bachelor degree and the woman gets her master.

Young son: "Is it true, Dad, I heard that in some parts of the world, a man doesnít know his wife until he marries her?"

Dad: "That happens in most countries, son."

Then there was a woman who said, "I never knew what real happiness was until I got married, and then it was too late."

A happy marriage is a matter of give and take; the husband gives and the wife takes.

Married life is very frustrating. In the first year of marriage, the man speaks and the woman listens. In the second year, the woman speaks and the man listens. In the third year, they both speak and the neighbours listen.

After a quarrel, a wife said to her husband, "You know, I was a fool when I married you." And the husband replied, "Yes, dear, but I was in love and didnít notice it."

A man inserted an Ďadí in the classifieds: "Wife wanted." The next day, he received hundreds of letters. They all said the same thing, "You can have mine."

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