• Major spoilers ahead

The renowned Pakistani playwright Haseena Moin passed away earlier this year. While she had a vast body of work (television serials, telefilms and movies) spanning over five decades, from the 1970’s to the 2010’s, she is perhaps best known for the much loved domestic dramas she penned in the 1980’s: Ankahi (1982), Tanhaiyan (1986) and Dhoop Kinaare (1987). All three of these dramas/serials share certain common themes and features: endearing characters, abundant humour, and high-spirited, gutsy heroines. The last point is probably the most commonly remarked upon aspect of these dramas, and seems like a clichéd point to make, with me mandatorily adverting to the fact the dramas appropriately contained “strong” female protagonists (tick). However, Moin’s heroines were never contrived creations, or caricatures of independent women. (1) They were very real: aspiring, warm-hearted, fumbling along and learning from their mistakes. You thought of them as individuals and not archetypes. They struck a chord with audiences and were immensely popular among both men and women: I was reading somewhere that after ‘Ankahi’ was televised in 1982 ‘Sana’ (the name of the show’s heroine) became the most, or one of the most popular girl’s name’s in Pakistan. Today’s post is a celebration of my favourite Haseena Moin serial ‘Ankahi’, and its hero’s as well as its heroines. Before discussing some of my favourite scenes, a broad outline of the serial is provided for those who have not seen ‘Ankahi’.

‘Ankahi’ is at core about the Murad family: Sana, her precocious younger brother Gibran (who suffers from a hole in his heart), their mother, their hilarious Mamu (maternal uncle) and nieghbour Timmy (Tameezuddin). The family live in what can be described as ‘genteel poverty’ after the early death of Sana’s father. Sana is unhappy about their straitened means and continually compares her situation with that of her affluent friend Sara. She is keen to supplement the family income and through the intervention of Siddiqi Sahab (who feels sorry for her and sees flashes of his own daughter Abeer within her) lands a job as secretary to Taimoor, the Managing Director of a large company. Taimoor is wealthy, considerably older than Sana and seems very distinguished to her. Though their early interactions are comedic and largely consist of him scolding her for her blunders, Sana acquires a respect for her boss and slowly falls for him.

At the same time Faraz, the friend of Sara’s fiancé Sajjad runs into Sana and falls in love with her. He is drawn to her vivaciousness and persists in wooing her despite her rather obvious disinterest. Sana’s family own some land and get by through rents made by their tenants. One such tenant is Fazledeen whose daughter Maryam is engaged to be married to her step-cousin and village thug Majeede. Through some hilarious maneuvering Mamu rescues her from the situation, and she comes to join the Murad household. Later additions to the family are Sana’s wealthy aunt and cousin Moby from America. A second love triangle springs up as a rivalry between Timmy and Moby emerges for the attentions of Maryam.


Faraz (Javed Sheikh) is probably the least liked hero of any Haseena Moin drama. He persists in trying to win over Sana despite her indifference to him. He’s witty, charming and something of a flirt but Sana is completely impervious to his charm. To her, he lacks the gravitas her boss Taimoor possesses, and for much of the serial she regards him as little more than a minor irritant. He gets a job in the same company as Sana so that he can be near her, and in the course of the serial makes at least four marriage proposals to her (three directly and one through her family). Going by views expressed on the internet, Sana’s perception of him as annoying largely seems to be echoed by audiences. I’ve seen ‘Ankahi’ many times since childhood, and the adults in my own family considered Faraz marginally better than Taimoor but could barely stand him. Today, it would be easy to glibly dismiss him as a stalker due to his persistent persual of Sana in the face of her repeated rejections. Yet, as an adult my perception of Faraz dramatically shifted. His breeziness of manner and appearance of levity served as fronts for the deeply held feelings he harboured for Sana. Despite his seeming flippancy, he was actually dead sincere in his affection for her, and genuinely wanted the best for her in every aspect of her life. Take this scene where Faraz first proposes to Sana. His avowal of love is the last thing she wants to hear, and she rebuffs him by completely ignoring him. Dismayed, but in order to save face Faraz seeks her out at work a couple of days later, and convinces her that the whole thing had been a joke. She leaves the room feeling relieved, and after she has left the camera turns to his unhappy face as he reflects on where he actually stands with her.

Another scene near the end of the serial that I really like is Faraz’s final marriage proposal to Sana in the course of Maryam’s Mehendi. Sana is still very much averse to the idea and acts as though she is doing him a huge favour by deigning to consider his proposal. The conversation proceeds as follows:

Sana: Mehendi ki rasam hone wali hai, log humme dhund rahe honge
Sana: The henna ceremony is about to start, people will be looking for us.
Faraz : Aap ka waqai dil chahra hai us shor aur ghul me jaane ke liye?
Faraz: Do you really wish to go in there, where there’s so much noise and commotion?
Sana: Baaz dafa bahot si baatein dil na chahte hue bhi karni parti hain, doosro ke liye
Sana: Sometimes one has to do things against one’s own wishes, in order to please others.
Faraz: Baat suniye, jab kisi ki khatir kuch kiya kare, toh dil ko manaa liya Karen. Jab maanjaye tab kiya kijiye, warna inkaar kar dijiye, kyunki is tarah bheek de ke aap doosron ki bhi tauheen kerengi aur apni bhi.
Faraz: Next time you do something for someone else, persuade your heart first. If your heart agrees, only then go ahead. Otherwise say no. By dispensing charity you will end up insulting others and yourself.

The whole scene can be viewed at

It takes place at the beginning of the episode.


Timmy (Jamshed Ansari) is the Murad family’s long-standing nieghbour and loyal friend. He has been with them through turbulent times, and even pretends to be the family butler when Aunty from America arrives. When Maryam comes from her village and joins the household Timmy takes on the task of being her tutor. While he has never expressed his feelings to her, he loves Maryam and has his heart set on marrying her. His rival Moby is also determined to marry Maryam and the two have a heated exchange on the matter. Timmy asserts that Maryam comes from a background similar to his own and will be happy living with him. He states that her current surroundings (Aunty’s mansion where the family now live) are alien to her and that she will never find lasting contentment with Moby. She will always be ill at ease and something of an outsider. These are the very things that have made her happy, Moby shoots back. She lives in a beautiful home, rides in a fancy car, is well dressed and moves in society. Timmy is utterly incredulous on hearing this, and says with a scoff ‘Kya tumhaara matlab hai ki Maryam in cheezon ki wajah se khush hai?/ Do you mean to say that it is these things that have made Maryam happy?’. Yet, Moby’s words have planted doubt in his heart and he goes on to speak to Maryam in order to gauge her feelings.

This scene can be viewed at

(at 40 mins)


While ‘Ankahi’ is a dynamic character driven drama bursting with action, it also simultaneously contains numerous ‘slice of life’ vignettes, or episodes which truthfully reflect common everyday experiences: E.g. That of starting the day in a wonderful mood, perhaps anticipating something good and then things turning awry, or the reverse; expecting little and something positive happening (even something as little as a smile or a gesture which has the effect of transforming the day). Sana (Shehnaz Shiekh) experiences something of this nature. An incident has occurred earlier that week which makes her feel that Taimoor (Shakeel) has some protective instinct towards her, and she is exuberant. She wakes up in the morning feeling buoyant, gets out a brightly coloured green shalwar kameez which reflects her state of mind, and capers about in the garden with Gibran, before arriving at work with a bunch of flowers which she places on her bosses table. That same morning it turns out that she has misplaced an important file, and is thoroughly rebuked by Taimoor (being absent-minded this is a quite common occurrence for her at work). But her heart sinks when she overhears Taimoor mention to Faraz that he was compelled to appoint her to the position because of Mr. Siddiqi, a senior direction/owner of the company (who is unbeknownst to everyone is also Taimoor’s father-in-law), and considers her entirely unsuitable for the role. Pacing near the garden that evening, she reflects on what she has heard.

The scene can be viewed at

(At 2 mins)

Sana’s arc is that of a happy-go-lucky girl who, through her love for Taimoor, becomes a much more serious young woman by the end of the drama. The earlier Sana is ambitious, rocks up for her job interview (despite the expressed skepticism of her family members as to the likelihood of her getting the job) and is confident of landing the role even after she has completely bungled the interview. She’s rarely disheartened by her boss’s crustiness, takes criticism at work in her stride and even manages fight her own corner when she feels she’s being put-upon. She is also intrepid, and persuades Mamu that they have a duty to save Maryam. It is through her initiative that Maryam is able to get away from her unhappy home life (where she is oppressed by her step-mother and step relations) and find a new family. Sana is caring towards her own family, and is particularly protective of her younger brother Gibran. It was all of these qualities that endeared her to audiences, and made her the namesake of many Pakistani girls born in the 1980’s.

After Sana belatedly finds out about the existence of Taimoor’s wife Abeer (who has been in a state of coma for several years) her response is one of despair for herself and pity for both Taimoor and his wife. Sana is increasingly sinking into her own shell, and Timmy upbraids her for what he perceives as her increasing self-absorption and disconnect from her family.

This scene can be viewed at

(At 9.35 mins)

The Comedy

All of the scenes rendered above may have given the impression that ‘Ankahi’ is a very serious, emotionally fraught drama. While there are several moving scenes, Ankahi’s main attraction is that it is actually a lot of fun. I’ve focused on more serious aspects of the drama in this piece, but much of the show’s charm ensues from the humorous situations the characters find themselves in and the witty exchanges that take place between them. The universally loved Mamu (brilliantly played by Saleem Nasir) is a focal point for much of the domestic humour, but Timmy, Moby and Sana are also usually key players in the creation of some wonderful comedy. Much of the serial (running for a total of almost twenty episodes) is actually very light-hearted in tone, and features an abundance of comedic scenes encompassing e.g. the rescue of Maryam, Sana’s antics at work, the arrival of Aunty and Moby, Aunty’s match-making for Mamu and the competition between Timmy and Moby for Maryam’s hand. Ankahi’s heart-warming humour is also what makes it great family viewing.


One criticism that can be leveled against Haseena Moin is that her serials are pretty classist in nature. ‘Classist’ not in the sense that most of her characters are usually middle class, with a few rich characters and a few poor characters thrown in, but that the serials generally exhibit a patronising attitude towards lower-class people. The peons such as ‘Latif’ who work in Sana’s office, and characters like Fazledeen who is a farmer, are all considerably older than Sana but are addressed by her with ‘tum’ rather than ‘aap’. In this it’s likely that Moin was simply reflecting South Asian culture/society of which she herself is a product and which is generally extremely classist (in both obvious and subtle ways). At least in ‘Ankahi’ there are characters like Maryam, who genuinely becomes part of the family and who is cared for and treated like an equal. I would say the classism is more pronounced in the serial ‘Dhoop Kinare’ where e.g. a ‘comedic character’ ‘Dr. Irfan’ makes light of the one of hospital cleaners beating up his wife (a very uncharacteristically distasteful line in a Haseena Moin play). Other criticisms I have are relatively minor in nature. Shehnaz Sheikh’s acting in the first couple of episodes of ‘Ankahi’ is slightly over-the-top, before the directors (Shoaib Mansoor and Mohsin Ali) probably got her to tone it down a little. Moby is far more Haseena Moin’s conception of how an American raised Pakistani would think, talk and behave, than what would be the case in reality. Finally, occasionally (particularly towards the end of the drama) the character’s lines become a little monologue-ish and you feel like you’re listening to a novel, rather than watching a serial.

Overall though, ‘Ankahi’ is a wonderful and very memorable serial. It has provided millions of families (including my own) with hours of shared entertainment and also finer points to reflect on and talk about. It features some brilliant writing, excellent performances and represents Haseena Moin at the apogee of her powers.

(1) Nudrat Kamal, “Musings of a Reader: What happened to Pakistani Television?”, Zau Magazine, August 2015. See:

Childhood Favourites

the trunchbull, matilda

In all likelihood I’ve forgotten many books that I enjoyed as a child. Some of the ones that I especially loved and read many times over have, however, remained in my memory and have made their way into this list. In no particular order:

Little Women

I really loved this book. I must have read it at least twenty times. Louisa M. Alcott herself referred to it as ‘moral pap’ for young people and did not enjoy the writing process. She wrote it on the recommendation of her publisher, for primarily commercial motives, and in record time. (1) Even so, regardless of however begrudgingly it was written, Alcott populated it with characters very close to her in real life, and her own adolescent experiences heavily informed the narrative of the novel. (2) The sense of authenticity imparted by the narrative, and a widespread identification with the struggles of the four March sisters gave ‘Little Women’ a huge following. Almost 150 years on from its initial publication, thousands of girls still identify with one or other of the sisters, and continue to take a keen interest in the tribulations and triumphs of the March family. I didn’t identify with any one sister, but certain incidents did find personal resonance and are amusing to think of. E.g. In the chapter ‘Experiments’ twelve year old Amy sits in the park, with her sketchbook and drawing pencils, hoping that someone will come along, take notice of her and enquire as ‘to who the young artist is’. At twelve, I think I was just as self-conscious, and was keen to be thought of as talented or special in some way. I think that’s how a lot of young adults are up until around the age of sixteen or seventeen: highly self-conscious, always evaluating their own characters, and being very concerned about how others perceive them; pretty self-obsessed in short.

It must be conceded that the novel is sentimental and overtly didactic at times, and as such might be perceived as running counter to modern literary aesthetic expectations. However, I find the didacticism less problematic as it is a novel directly principally at a child and young adult audience. As a child of ten, I had no issues with the direct moralising the author sometimes engaged in. It didn’t feel obtrusive and frequently I would be drawn to what the narrator had to say. Also, unlike characters in the traditional sentimental novel, the March sisters were far from mere typecasts. With their individual faults and idiosyncrasies, they represented a marked departure from the angelic/highly idealised young protagonists made to feature in pedagogical tracts directed at children. (3) I enjoyed ‘Little Men’ as well, but found ‘Jo’s Boys’ to be perhaps the weakest link in the March family saga.

Roald Dahl

This is a no brainer. This guy only wrote the best children’s books EVER. If I remember correctly, it was ‘Matilda’ that turned me into a voracious reader. I don’t think there was ever a Roald Dahl children’s book I didn’t like, but my favourites have to be ‘Matilda’, ‘The Witches’, ‘Boy’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and ‘Beastly Tales and Revolting Rhymes’. This wonderfully imaginative author’s books were ingeniously plotted, featured fabulous characters and were very very funny. Strangely enough, they also had a grotesque quality that children (including myself) found simply irresistible. Just take this fantastic opening passage from ‘Matilda’ through which we are introduced to the titular character:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration that they manage to convince themselves that their child has qualities of genius. Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, ‘Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick!’

School teachers suffer a good deal from this sort of twaddle from proud parents, but they usually get their own back when the time comes to write the end of term reports. If I were a teacher I would cook up some real scorchers for the children of doting parents. ‘Your son Maximillian,’ I would write ‘is a total washout. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school because he sure as heck won’t get a job anywhere else’, Or if I were feeling lyrical that day, I might write , ‘It is a curious truth that grasshoppers have hearing organs in the sides of their abdomen. Your daughter Vanessa, judging by what she’s learnt this term, has no hearing-organs at all’…

…Occasionally one comes across parents who take the opposite line, who show no interest at all in their children, and these of course are far worse than the doting ones. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood were two such parents. They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents looked upon Matilda as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.”

Dripping with a kind of sarcasm that children delight in, Dahl’s children’s books sucked you in from the very first page. I read ‘Matilda’ again a few days ago and was surprised by how funny I still found it. Of course, the books also enthralled in ways that could only be felt exclusively by children. E.g. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left wondering as to whether there really were witches in the world after reading ‘The Witches’. I don’t know if it’s possible for adults to fully comprehend Dahl’s tremendous appeal to children, and the kind of loyalty his books inspire. For that, you need to have read Dahl as a child.

Any mention of Dahl’s children’s books is incomplete without allusion to the wonderful illustrations they contained. Quentin Blake was only the best children’s illustrator ever; his scraggy drawings had a unique character of their own and made the books even more endearing. In my view, Dahl’s stories for adults were pretty hit and miss. Some worked, others didn’t. If Dahl is remembered a hundred years hence (as he very likely will be) it will be because of his children’s fiction.

Cynthia Voigt

I don’t think I ever really got into books that were specifically designated as ‘Young Adult’ novels in a big way. Most of the ones I read didn’t stay with me, and I can scarcely remember what they were about. Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman family series is one of the exceptions to this. The first book of the series ‘Homecoming’ concerns four children, who have been abandoned in a carpark by their overburdened, mentally unstable mother. The eldest of them, thirteen-year-old Dicey is afraid that she and her siblings will be separated and placed in foster homes if the authorities come to know of their situation. Accordingly, she takes charge of her younger siblings and leads them on their arduous journey on foot from Peewauket (Pawcatuck) to the house of their only known relation Aunt Cilla in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It’s an absorbing journey for the reader as well, as we get to know the Tillerman kids, understand their struggles, and admire their resilience.

‘Homecoming’ is no Famous Five adventure story. In fact, scarcely any sense of adventure attends it at all. The novel is told in a mature voice and is, in a large part, a psychological study of the Tillerman clan. Voigt had an impressive understanding of children and young adults, and was very skilled at portraying their insecurities, psychological struggles, and internal growth; be it James Tillerman in ‘Homecoming’, Wilhelmina Smith in ‘Come a Stranger’ or Jeff Greene in ‘A Solitary Blue’. Several of the novels in the series did have a bildungsroman format, and captured aspects of the adolescent experience with a lot of acuity. This also brings me to my one gripe with Cynthia Voigt’s young adult fiction. These intelligently and quite poignantly written novels, were almost completely bereft of any kind of humour. They were dead serious throughout, and not infrequently imparted a sad feeling to the reader. To quote Matilda’s words to Miss Honey ‘Children are not as serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh’. Teenagers love to laugh as well, and Voigt’s genuinely worthy novels would have been even more worthwhile with a good sprinkling of humour.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As with Agatha Christie’s crime fiction (which I would discover later on), much of the enjoyment I derived from these stories came from the demystification process I underwent. However, one important difference between Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the latter’s more effective portrayal of character. The characterisation of Sherlock Holmes himself, with his eccentricities and talents, was integral to the appeal of these stories. The attractiveness of Sherlock Holmes’ personality was of course closely connected with his capacity to rapidly and penetratingly (if somewhat artificially) discern the real issues underlying a problem, and bring the seemingly intractable puzzle to a successful conclusion. The dry, rationalising aspect of his personality may have been exaggerated but it never reduced him to a mere caricature. You always thought of Holmes as an integral person, with an individual perspective on any given subject.

Critic Franco Moretti very aptly identifies one of the key flaws in Holmes’ method of detection or ‘deduction’. Each story was premised upon the assumption that “the relevant causes are always a finite set. They are also fixed: they always produce the same effect”. (4) I think even when I read the stories as a child I had a niggling sense of this. E.g. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Watson is amazed when Holmes deduces that he has come from Afghanistan. Holmes’ thought process is described as follows:

‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

What is the appearance of a ‘gentleman of a medical type’? How does a doctor in regular clothes look any different from an architect or an engineer? Is the ‘air of a military man’ distinguishable from the air of a policeman? Couldn’t Watson have been ill first, and then have gone somewhere warmer for a restorative sojourn as was common enough at the time? The fractured arm is also consistent with a police inspector’s having had a scuffle with a criminal. You get my drift…I suppose Doyle’s skill as a wordsmith was in persuading us, at the time of reading, the that conclusion arrived at by Holmes was indeed the most logical and probable one. Obviously, many of the stories were also very ingeniously plotted. Doyle’s detective fiction was written for entertainment purposes, but also had a literary quality and is difficult to class exclusively as ‘genre fiction’. I think it’s arguable that it had a foot in both ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ camps.

Enid Blyton

I was fond enough of Enid Blyton’s books, without ever really being an ardent fan. I think I preferred her school books such as the St. Clare’s series over her children’s adventure fiction. Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ stories must have also had an impact on me though. Around the age of nine I remember being terribly indignant about the fact that all the kids in her books were always having adventures, and that I have never had a single real adventure. I was so desirous of ‘being in an adventure’ myself that I resolved to run away from home. I seemed to have held the impression that as soon a child was out in the big wide world on his or her own, an exciting adventure would automatically and immediately befall him or her. I packed my Qantas backpack and spent what seemed like forever waiting for my parents to fall asleep before I sneaked outside. Fortunately, I was way too chicken to follow through with my plans. Scared of the dark and silence outside, within minutes I retreated back indoors. So much for my grand adventure.

Fairy Tales and Fantasy

 Of course, fairy tales (Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Russian folks tales, Arabian Nights, Panchatantra stories etc.) were a part of my early childhood. That interest in magic and folklore somehow never transitioned into a fondness for the fantasy genre later on. I never got through a single one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels or any of the books in C.S. Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series. The only parts of the Harry Potter books that interested me were the opening and closing chapters featuring the Dursleys. I thought these chapters were a hoot. But as soon Harry got onto the train for Hogwarts, I would invariably start zoning out. I never read a single Harry Potter novel from cover to cover. My brother was bewildered; ‘How can anyone not like Harry Potter?!!’. Such a thing is indeed possible. Perhaps the only series I am fond of in the fantasy genre is P.B. Kerr’s wonderful ‘Children of the Lamp’ series. This highly entertaining series featuring twins and djins wasn’t around when I was a kid, but I think I enjoyed it just as much when I read it some years ago as an adult.  I sat up all night completely absorbed in ‘The Akhenaten Adventure’ and after a long time felt a bit like a child seeking to be a part of a ‘real adventure’ again.



(1)Valerie Anderson, ed, Little Women (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1998)



(4) Franco Moretti, “Clues”, in Popular Fiction, ed. Tony Bennet (London; New York: Routledge 1990), 238-249



The Moon and Sixpence

Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is loosely based on the life of the French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. ‘Charles Strickland’, the character representing Gauguin in Maugham’s novel, is a comfortably positioned London stockbroker, who on the spur of an instinct, deserts his dependent wife and children, and relocates to Paris to pursue painting. Strickland does not desire fame, or any formal recognition of his talents. He is, in fact, genuinely uninterested in how others perceive or evaluate his art. He is simply motivated by a visceral need to visually express what his mind conceives. Strickland’s monomaniacal fidelity to his art, however, coexists with a brutal indifference to any human claims upon him. Maugham was always fascinated by this paradox of the supreme artist who is simultaneously utterly callous in his human interactions. This theme also surfaces in Maugham’s other works. E.g. In ‘Of Human Bondage’ Gauguin features in a conversation between art students Clutton and Phillip, and Phillip criticises Gauguin’s conduct towards his family. Clutton responds as follows:

“Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman you must give up being an artist. They’ve got nothing to do with one another. You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother–well, it shows they’re excellent sons, but it’s no excuse for bad work. They’re only tradesmen. An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.”’

I can’t say I share Maugham’s fascination for Gauguin, who in the person of ‘Strickland’ is projected as a sardonic brute- a man who has zero compunction in using and disposing those who help him, and is merciless towards those who make the mistake of seeking any kind of emotional succor from him. The narrator describes Strickland as ‘an odious man, but a great one’ with a singular artistic vision, and an uncompromising zeal in realising it. My own indifference to Strickland, no doubt, partly ensues from my ignorance of the art form. I don’t understand the medium, and cannot distinguish between what is considered pedestrian and what is regarded as high art. In the novel, the subjective, sensory response a painting evokes, plays such a strong part in how it is evaluated. I think this somewhat distinguishes paintings or sculptures from other art forms. E.g. When critiquing a novel, there will always still be some objective parameters which the critic consciously or subconsciously applies in responding to a text. These parameters may vary widely depending on the nature or genre of the text, but they are nonetheless present in some form.

I also don’t see how it’s possible for any literary writer to produce a work devoid of any normative content; her work will necessarily say something about how she perceives what is happening around her. Strickland eschews all norms; literally everything outside of his canvas and paintbrush is a superfluous encumbrance. He lives to paint and doesn’t care about anything else. So then what informs his paintings? What was it that he was trying to put on his canvas? Is it a purely sensory process? After reading the ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, I looked up Gauguin’s paintings, and was mildly interested in what I saw, without really gaining a sense of what he was seeking to express, beyond what the paintings obviously featured. The qualities that rendered his art great, are only inchoately described in the novel, with one perhaps needing to have some knowledge of the medium and art history to understand how the paintings reflect the ‘strange, tormented and complex’ personality of their maker.

For me, the highlight of Maugham’s writing, is his genius for bringing to light the many contradictions that are inherent within most individuals. In ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ there is the obvious discrepancy between the greatness of Strickland’s art and the baseness of his actions. However, I think this talent of Maugham’s is best displayed in his portrayal of secondary characters such as such as Dirk Stroeve. Stroeve is a bumbling fellow-artist who himself only knows how to produce hackneyed, trite artworks, but has an exquisite and instinctive appreciation for anything uniquely original or beyond the ordinary. He sees something exalted in Strickland’s paintings, and becomes doggedly devoted to the man himself. This devotion is met with open derision and humiliating sarcasm on the part of Strickland. With reference to Stroeve’s own work, the narrator comments:

“I discovered in Paris he had been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?”

The novel is very elegantly written, and abundantly exhibits Maugham’s characteristic wit and perspicacity. When reviewing Maugham’s work, I am always strongly conscious of not being able to do justice to it, and feel tempted to quote entire passages so that the prospective reader can perceive its highly impressive quality first hand, without having to rely on my clumsy attempts at paraphrasing. In the course of the novel the narrator makes many astute and penetrating observations on a wide range of subjects. These are seamlessly woven into the novel, and never feel in the least obtrusive. Take for example, the narrator’s perspective on those who claim to be unconcerned about what others think of them:

“When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves…It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger.”

This reflection is made in the context of understanding Strickland’s rare and complete immunity to societal censure.

There is also so much humour imbedded in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ with several passages of the novel causing the reader to chuckle out loud. Take, for example, the unnamed narrator’s introductory remarks on the unanimous critical acclaim Strickland’s art came to acquire, a unanimity not reflected in the responses to, and accounts of, his life. The narrator drolly relates how poor Reverend Strickland, abandoned son of the departed artist, is perturbed by many facets of his father’s life and writes a sanitised biography of Charles Strickland, perhaps seeking to reconcile the man to himself, as much as to anyone else. This biography is reviewed by ‘psycho-pathologist’ Dr. Weitbretch –Rotholz, who promptly proceeds to tear it to shreds, and castigates the author in the most unreserved terms.

“…it is difficult to avoid feeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy, his circumlocutions are roundly called lies, as his silence is vilified as treachery. And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in an author, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is roundly accused of prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning and bad cooking….Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Strickland , and there was no danger that he would whitewash him. He had an unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that had all the appearance of innocence. He was a psycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and the subconscious had few secrets from him. No mystic ever saw deeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees the ineffable and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

Also very amusing are the circumstances in which the narrator becomes acquainted with Charles Strickland, and seeks him out in Paris. The narrator is an up and coming young writer who frequents the lunches and tea-parties thrown for London literati by their socialite admirers. It is on one such occasion that he becomes acquainted with the amiable Mrs. Strickland who enjoys listening to, and mingling with, the writers and artists of the day. Her husband, stockbroker Charles Strickland has never taken her into his confidence with respect to his artistic inclinations, and when he bolts to Paris, she is convinced that it must for another woman. The narrator, her friend, is dispatched to Paris, with the mission of bringing Charles back. The narrator prepares the speeches he is going to deliver, and thinks through the methods he will employ to shame Strickland into returning, determining to resort to strong invective if necessary. He is thrown off balance when Strickland blithely admits to all charges, and unperturbedly proceeds to state his indifference. Herein, also lies the only flaw I found in the novel. How does Amy Strickland’s amicable enough husband of seventeen years, turn into such an ogre overnight? His actions may have resulted from his artistic compulsions and protracted boredom and ennui, but the total change in personality that accompanies his flight to Paris is slightly discordant.

Like many of Maugham’s works ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly written. Cerebral, and yet wholly unaffected, it makes for a very enjoyable read for art enthusiasts and novices alike.©


Falling Walls (Girti Deewaaren)

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  • Major Spoilers

Upendranath Ashk’s ‘Falling Walls’ is set, by turn, in 1930’s small town Punjab, Lahore and Shimla and follows Chetan from his brutal childhood through his struggles to make something of himself and find artistic fulfillment. ‘Falling Walls’ is not just an engaging novel for social-history enthusiasts, but is also a rewarding read because of the proximity one often feels to it’s characters, particularly it’s central protagonist Chetan. Daisy Rockwell clearly felt this closeness, as evidenced by both her quite personal introduction to the novel, and the many years taken in translating it -her translation is a labour of love. In writing ‘Falling Walls’ Ashk sought to distance himself from his earlier more fanciful, one-dimensional works of fiction and authentically depict the trials, pleasures and interior life of a younger self- the novel, it appears, is heavily autobiographical. As Ashk himself eloquently puts it in his lively introduction to the 1951 edition of the novel, he wished to illustrate that:

“…man is not artless enough to be a deity; that he is not made of pure gold but is a mixture of alloys; that it is not just his exterior universe that is a boundless mass of complications, but rather that many layers of entanglements exist within him as well, and below these are caves so dark that just a glance at them could cause one to tremble.”

The novel begins in Jalandhar, and we are introduced to Chetan’s family and his prospective wife as well as characters populating his mohalla, who have a more tangential presence in Chetan’s life. It would not be harsh to describe Chetan’s father as a monster. One would be hard-pressed to think up ways in which Pandit Shadiram could be a worse husband and father. Chetan’s sufferings at the hands of his alcoholic father are very substantial and are further expanded upon in the more contemplative Shimla phase of the novel, but his Bhai Sahib has had an even tougher time, and is one of those children rendered almost insensate from the abuse and violence frequently and gratuitously meted out to him. Their mother Lajwati’s life has been truly wretched and her situation is more pitiable than that of her children. Given what she has been through, it’s a real wonder that she remains an empathetic and kindly woman, and never turns into an embittered daughter-in-law torturing harridan.

Bhai Sahab diverts himself by way of chess and cards while Chetan’s natural leanings incline him to take pleasure and respite in a diverse range of pursuits; learning and then writing his own poems and bhajans, acting them out, toy-making, music and drawing. Chetan throws himself into these activities feelingly and wholeheartedly. An anecdote is related where a young Chetan observes that his neighbour is in possession of many birds and keeps them all entrapped in one small cage. Chetan is saddened by the plight of the birds and composes a bhajan exhorting his neighbour to release them. This, he literally sings from his rooftop. The neighbour goes on to sell the birds for a profit, but when Chetan views the empty cage from afar he is elated and ascribes this state of affairs to the transformative potential of his verse. He is spurred on by this perceived victory to compose more bhajans.

The adult Chetan is just as sensitive, impressionable and ambitious, and seeks to emerge from the squalor and despair that surrounds him and distinguish himself in some creative field. Embarking upon a career as a translator and occasional story-writer for a Lahore based newspaper Chetan earns little, but is buoyed by dreams of the future and continues to approach the arts with similar ardour; writing and reciting poetry, attempting a novel, and later acting and learning how to sing and play various instruments. All of these activities he undertakes with gusto, but the results are often not commensurate to his efforts, and are a poor reflection of the passion and sincerity put in. Chetan is also eager to make Chanda (the wife selected for him) his equal in learning and education. His efforts in this area, however, initially gravitate between delivering motivational lectures and getting hot and bothered when prompt answers to his questions are not forthcoming. A complaisant and hardworking Chanda is willing to cooperate. Ashk, does however, also amusingly enlighten us as to the sentiments these efforts on Chetan’s part occasionally inspire. The formerly recreational walks of the the couple are now utilised by Chetan for pedagogic purposes.

“Golbagh’s empty paths, trees, plant flowers, leave, grassy lawns and tar-black streets looked beautiful and dreamlike in the milky moonlight of the month of Kartik, and Chanda tired of listening to the curses and harsh voices of the Changar ladies all day long, was eager to hear the sweet rustling of the leaves….she wanted to sit for a few moments by the side of the road where there was a tiny cannon from olden times on the top of a platform , but her boring husband who longed to be a poet and a fabulist…”

Money remains scarce despite the mutual support Bhai Sahib and Chetan proffer one another. Time, however, becomes less so when a naive Chetan is lured to Shimla by quack Kaviraj. Susceptible to the latter’s false promises and flattery, Chetan arrives in Shimla where he is disabused of any illusions regarding Kaviraj and spends lonely days penning Kaviraj’s book. But, it is also in Shimla that Chetan is able to devote spare hours first to lessons in classical music, and then rehearsing for the play ‘Anarkali’. He is very much invested in both undertakings. The lessons culminate in a classical music recital where Chetan is anxious to display his vocal skills. He is practically jeered off the stage and runs ‘home like a thief in the night’. The play is also a tragi-comic event where the fuming director stalks on to the stage and tears off the glasses which Chetan has forgotten to remove. A maturer, more successful Chetan may, in some years, be able to look back at these incidents with a bemused if somewhat wistful smile, but the pathos generated by these events is very real. At times, in reading fiction, you find characters with which you feel an affinity, or with which you share attitudes and particular personality traits . Chetan is one such character, and you find that he possesses certain tendencies which you have still have not outgrown. There is what Chetan himself describes as his ‘overblown sentimentality’. He is easily hurt and depressed and just as easily happy and euphoric. He has a distaste for open confrontation in some situations and tends to withdraw further into himself. E.g. Though he is seething at Kaviraj’s many deceptions he finds it impossible to openly raise the subject with Kaviraj. Assuming that Chetan is a close representation of Ashk himself, it would be interesting to know how Ashk went from being this fairly diffident young man to later on writing scathing introductions to his works, in which he would lambaste one and all (critics and contemporaries). I will probably have to read the other volumes of the Girti Deewaren (Falling Walls) series in order to find out.

In Ashk’s introduction to this novel, however, his appraisal of some of the observations made by his critics appears to be fair enough. Written with verve, the introduction simultaneously expands on the literary influences which had a bearing on his stylistic and thematic choices. While his influences were diverse, Ashk had a particular regard for Premchand, and specifically cites Premchand when explaining his decision to refrain from writing anything outside the ambit of his own experience. In my view, some writers do need to abstain from wandering too far away from the particular world or worlds they inhabit in order to avoid hitting false notes. Others have strong intuitive powers, and a sort of perspicacity which enables them to not only ‘stand in the shoes’ of very disparately habituated individuals but also understand the most intricate workings of their minds. How they do it, I don’t know, but the most stunning recent example of this I have read is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’.

In Ashk’s case, his determination to write only what he had direct knowledge of, results in a persuasive and affecting portrayal of the early phases of Chetan’s life. His experiences are often fractured, bitter-sweet and inconclusive, and sort of plaintiveness runs through significant portions of the text. The novel is also set in a time where (more so than today) small indiscretions and acts of thoughtlessness could have very momentous and damaging consequences. Chetan, after some resistance eventually reconciles himself to his impending marriage with Chanda. Their wedding night constitutes the first real meeting between the couple, where they are able to openly speak to and discover one another. Chetan is delighted to find out that his wife is not only more attractive than he earlier envisaged, but has qualities which are conducive to their living a contented and meaningful life together. However, while he has an affection for Chanda, his senses are completely enthralled by her younger cousin Neela. Chetan’s own acute receptiveness to Neela’s charms and, at one point, uncontrolled expression of this desire, cause him to obtusely prompt Pandit Veniprasad (Neela’s father) to start looking around for a husband for her. The lengthy Shimla months intervene between this phase and Neela’s marriage. These months bring Chetan some solitude, some frenetic activity, humiliations, and upsurging recollections of a brutal past carried on into the present. Kaviraj specialises in sexual health, and when Chetan is about to take leave of him, he does dispense some advice which Chetan considers valuable and is desirous of implementing on meeting Chanda again. Chetan is now keen to make Chanda ‘his true partner’ so that the two of them can together ‘find their bliss’. These good intentions are thwarted by a situation, the making of which Chetan has significantly, if inadvertently, contributed to. Because of the careless haste with which the match is arranged, and a misleading photograph of the potential groom, Neela is married off to a painfully ill-suited military accountant, thrice her age, thrice widowered, and utterly uncongenial to her. While Chetan had no knowledge of, or involvement in the getting up of this match, prior to his chat with Neela’s father, Pandit Veniprasad had been in no hurry to get his young daughter married. Aghast at viewing the groom’s visage, and filled with anguish at the role his own idiocy has played in bringing about this turn of events, a bitter regret and emptiness come to settle inside Chetan. Neela’s marriage extinguishes his former ardour, causing him to derisively scoff at his erstwhile plans.

“Chanda was sleeping soundly. Chetan went and quietly lay down next to her. He thought about Kaviraj’s sermon on sexuality; he also remembered his own vow and laughed at himself. Where was that vow now, where was that desire…even lying right next to her he felt they were miles apart, as though an impenetrable invisible wall stood between them…..As he lay staring into the dark void with sleepless eyes, Chetan felt that these walls stood not just between himself and his wife , not just between Neela and Trilok, but that countless similar walls stood between all women and men, classes and castes in this subjugated nation ….there was no end to such walls. ”

It is on this ironic and quite bleak note that the first volume of the ‘Falling Walls’ series ends. Ashk’s novel is a very worthwhile read and I certainly want to know what the future holds for Chetan, Bhai Sahab, Chanda, Neela and Ma.©

Of Human Bondage

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*Please note that the following review contains spoilers

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ is an exceptional novel. A semi-autobiographical bildungsroman focusing on the emotional and intellectual development of Philip Carey, ‘Of Human Bondage’ easily qualifies as a classic. Philip Carey is orphaned at the age of nine, and falls under the guardianship of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and his wife. The novel explores Philip’s emotional and intellectual development from his childhood and school career to his years as a student of diverse disciplines. Philip initially studies languages in Germany, and following an attempt at chartered accountancy in London, considers the prospect of becoming a painter. While Phillip’s two years in Paris as an art student are far from fruitless, he feels that he can never be more than a second-rate painter. Returning to London, Philip ultimately decides to embark upon a career of medicine.

The novel so far introduces us to several superbly drawn and utterly believable characters whose lives have traversed Philip’s in some way, such as the masters at Kings school, the complacent self-satisfied Vicar, his loving and fragile wife Louisa Carey, Miss. Wilkinson, the disagreeable yet pitiable Fanny Price, Hayward, Cronshaw etc. However, never have Philip’s thoughts and feelings been so strongly and compulsively fixated on one object as when he meets Mildred Rogers- an anaemic waitress and the devouring, all-consuming love of Phillip’s life. Mildred Rogers has to be one the most vicious characters in all of fiction. She is indifferent to Phillip, and insensible to his attentions and desperate entreaties for her love. Loving him is something out of her power. Yet, she is not above benefiting from his generosity, humiliating him, abasing him, making him grovel before her, and using him to the utmost. Philip’s love is not blind. He sees her for what she is, but a sort of inexorable force constantly draws him towards her. Every time she enters his life and wreaks havoc, he is helpless before her:

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her…..He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart”.

This sort of attachment may seem uncanny and bizarre, but is very convincingly depicted in the novel. You feel for Philip, his self-destructive love for Mildred may be exasperating but you never want to blame him. He loves her inspite of her and inspite of himself. This relationship is one form of bondage Philip eventually manages to extricate himself from. Another force dominating the early part of his life, which Philip also perceives as a form of bondage is religion. His religious education begins at home in Blackstable and is augmented by what he learns at King’ School. Philip suffers from a clubfoot. His faith is first somewhat shaken when as a child he ardently prays that his clubfoot may be miraculously cured, so that he can run around and play like the other boys. His foot remains as it was. However, his real spiritual inquiry begins through his conversations with Weeks and Hayward in Germany. Some of Philip’s concerns will probably find an echo in the private thoughts of many theists of different faiths: what of non-believers? So much of faith seems a matter of chance, the role of fear in the retention of faith etc. At core, however, Philip is unable to believe in the existence of God. To Philip suffering, loss, success and happiness all seem to be so indiscriminately apportioned and he observes that the ‘rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore’. Attending this is his conviction in the meaninglessness of life which he regards as a liberating force:

“Suddenly he realised that he had also lost that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did . Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.”

‘Of Human Bondage’ in some ways reminded me of another very different novel: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The context which informs the strong nihilism underpinning this novel is the communist order existing in Czechoslovakia. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Kundera presents the lightness/weight dichotomy, first postulated by Parmenides in the sixth Century B.C. whereby one acquires a state of lightness by divesting actions or life experiences of any deeper meaning or resonance. These actions are purportedly just the product of an individual’s exercise of his own volition, and have no place or special significance within the larger scheme of things or a “super-imposed grand narrative”. During the Cold War, in the Eastern block the most trivial and minor events were automatically invested with tremendous meaning by being positioned within the exhausted and impoverished State narrative, or being viewed as auguring a predicted turn in the larger dynamics at play. Of course, because the State ‘grand narrative’ was very much at odds with the economic and social realities encountered under Communist rule, this perfunctory or mechanical mode of imbuing events with broader significance had the effect of inducing extreme weariness. It had the effect of rendering life “pervasively, oppressively meaningful” (1). The cynicism and weariness generated by the imposition of a communist order was not confined to matters directly involving the state, but infused all aspects of life. As one critic John Bayley articulates:

‘The only escape from the congealed political kitsch of the regime is into the lightness of total irresponsibility… the regime corrupts totally the private consciousness of the citizens….Communism in practice cannot conquer the private life, but it makes it light and meaningless, weightless and cynical.’ (2)

Yet the response ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ evoked in me was radically different to that generated by ‘Of Human Bondage’. The former novel filled me with a sense of bleakness. For all it’s brilliance a sense of morbidity permeated every page. Kundera’s himself appears to be one of those supremely cynical citizens (or former citizens), whose private consciousness has been corrupted. His vision repelled me and I found myself totally recoiling from the actions of some of his characters. With ‘Of Human Bondage’ you can agree, disagree or have a mixed response to the novel’s underlying philosophy, but you never cease to like Philip. He is a very nice person. Sensitive and thoughtful, the overriding quality you associate with him is kindness. He hurts Norah Nesbit by leaving her for Mildred, but he is never actuated by malice. While your own perspective may diverge from his you never lose sight of the fact that his questions are legitimately grounded, emanate from his own experiences, and don’t have easy answers. A disavowal of faith and belief that he is only responsible to himself, does not induce any difference in the way Philip conducts himself towards others. Philip is of the view that while he no longer believes, he cannot divorce himself from Christian ethics, and that this implicitly informs some of his behaviour. His friend and, to some extent, mentor Cronshaw has a different theory. Cronshaw maintains that whatever good people do, is ultimately for their own pleasure. Taking up pain and hardship with a view to achieving certain results, is merely delayed gratification. He states:

‘It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: If he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent, if he find pleasure in working for society he is public spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whisky and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.’

On the face of it, Cronshaw’s argument is sound enough. Ultimately we do things for our own satisfaction. Our ‘pleasure’ in performing a particular service may just be avoiding the guilt or potential regret of not doing it. But obviously numerous complex and even contradictory variables will enter into a decision to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. What is to be gained from reducing these variables and the competing motives which underlie them, and bringing them all under the overarching umbrella of ‘pleasure’? That we do things for our own pleasure may even seem like a trite statement of fact. It’s more interesting to ask why certain things or acts of kindness commonly confer pleasure (on both the recipient and the giver) . The answer seems inextricably linked with some concept of innate morality.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is beautifully written. The prose is sophisticated and expressive without ever sounding verbose. Maugham is aiming at the direct expression of Philip’s thoughts and experiences, and the writing retains a simple elegance. Amongst Maugham’s chief strengths is his understanding of people and his insight into their psychological make-up, and one of the outstanding features of ‘Of Human Bondage’ is just how effectively the diverse characters which populate it are rendered. All of them have something interesting to impart, and you have absolutely no doubt that they were at least partially drawn from real life. Maugham is known to have referred to himself as being ‘in the very first row of the second-raters’. I think he was being modest in the extreme. There is nothing second rate about ‘Of Human Bondage’.©

(1)Terry Eagleton, ‘Estrangement and Irony’, Salmagundi, 73 (Winter 1987)
(2)John Bayley, ‘Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight’, Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter 1987)

Agatha Christie


As a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie crime fiction. I wasn’t interested in the novels because I had some kind of acute observatory faculty, or was keen to solve the puzzle myself before the author divulged the identity of the murderer at the end. I often didn’t even bother paying much attention to the details (who had an alibi when? Did this suspect’s leeway of opportunity adequately coincide with the time of the murder? etc). I just loved the process of mystification and subsequent de-mystification as the array of suspects were assembled, the motives and opportunities of each duly considered, with the identity of the murderer ultimately being revealed to us (or quite often sprung upon us). Agatha Christie’s puzzles were not always amenable to solving, in the sense of the reader being able to arrive at the answer by adopting a deductive approach and rationally scrutinising the evidence presented, but in the (very few) cases where I did figure out who the guilty party was well before the end, it was always a bit disappointing. It was the surprises which I delighted in.

When I began reading her crime fiction, I had no idea that Agatha Christie was a famous author; I must have considered her novels to be my personal discovery or something. I would not have known that she was the bestselling writer of the twentieth century, (her novels only being beaten in sales by Shakespeare and the Bible), had it not been for the inside covers of her books constantly informing me of this. When I discovered her books, they were simply no longer as ubiquitous as they must have once been. Soon enough though, I was hooked. I didn’t read all of them, but I must have read at least a good fifty of her eighty crime novels. My personal favourites are ‘Death on the Nile’, ‘And Then There Were None’ (being thirteen when I read it, it thoroughly creeped me out then), ‘A Murder is Announced’, ‘The Moving finger’ and a selection of short stories under the title of ‘The Hound of Death’. Unfortunately, I had unwittingly read a spoiler of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and thus deprived myself the pleasure of reading what many regard to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. Christie’s best can be picked up and enjoyed in subsequent re-readings, but generally, the stuff which totally engrossed and captivated me for much of my teens, is difficult to read and be enthused by in the same way now. E.g. I recently re-read ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ (a novel which intrigued me on first reading) and found it very clumsy and contrived this time round. However, this criticism cannot legitimately be made of most of Christie’s crime novels, which were by and large very well constructed; her best works exhibiting a high level of craftsmanship and ingenuity.

I suppose my present lack of enthusiasm in reading Christie, ensues, in a large part, from the very nature of the crime fiction genre. In the context of popular fiction, character and character development is often believed to be subordinated to plot and narrative. Characters are frequently constructed to serve the specific purposes of the narrative, rather than the narrative constituting a vehicle through with psychological depth and unique human insights can be relayed. (1)  This common understanding of the nature of ‘popular fiction’ does not always hold true. However, I think it is absolutely applicable to most of Christie’s crime novels. Realism and psychological depth are eschewed in favour of ingenuity and skillfulness in plot construction. Hercule Poirot is good enough for a fourteen year old, but by the time you’re through several Poirot novels and are a couple of years wiser, he comes off as a caricature more than anything else. He became a source of considerable irritation to his creator as well, and she toyed with the idea of killing him off, but ultimately refrained from doing so. The characters are, for the most part, two dimensional figures, yet they never quite amount to stereotypes. Christie sketches them with a few succinct lines, but also deliberately imbues them with an attribute which subverts the stereotype (2). There are also gradations in the quality of characterisation amongst Christie’s crime novels. E.g. The characters in ‘Sparkling Cyanide’ or ‘The Hollow’ cannot be termed ‘cardboard cut-outs’ (as Christie’s characters have sometimes been labelled); and it is perhaps more appropriate to think of Christie’s characters as comprising of ‘two and a half dimensions’ rather than two dimensions, as M. Vipond has observed, tongue in cheek. In the later stages of my engagement with her novels, I would think that to create her cast of characters, all one needed to do was the following: take a several small bits of paper and label on each a quality or attribute; ‘ambitious’, ‘charming’, ‘upright’, ‘avaricious’, ‘affectionate’, ‘mercenary’ etc. You would then randomly mix them up in a box, and draw them out by two and three’s. Those three attributes you drew out of the box without looking, would form a character. To Christie’s credit, the formulaic manner in which she approaches characterisation, only becomes apparent after you’ve read a good number of her crime novels, and know what to expect (more in the way of characterisation, rather than in terms of plot). In the beginning the characters appear realistic and convincing enough; their surface quality really manifests itself to the seasoned Christie reader. Christie’s object was to construct an interesting puzzle, the unraveling of which fully engages and satisfies the reader, and in this she was spectacularly successful. Her purpose was not to tackle core existential questions or reveal fundamental human truths.

That is not to say that Christie did not have her own individual perception of the world, or her own moral vision. She did, and these perceptions obviously colour her texts. One critic observes:

“As Colin Watson, John Cawelti and others have pointed out, the enormous appeal of the classical mystery novel of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s seemed to lie in its success in providing reassurance for it’s middle-class readers- reassurance that crime is an individual matter, not a social one, that it is logical and soluble, and that it is neat and relatively painless, explicable, and not a matter for collective guilt.”(3)

The above is a fairly common criticism leveled against Christie; i.e. that her texts almost completely fail to advert to the structural causes of criminal behaviour. It is practically always the individual who is deviant; broader society and vicious social dynamics are largely absolved of responsibility for the transgressions of the erring individual. This critique is valid, but only to a certain extent. Christie’s characters were broadly representative of the British middle and upper-middle class; the suspects and murderer are also drawn from this stratum of society.  Some of these suspects or would-be murderers are temporarily in a tight patch, but they are for the most part reasonably well-off.  Each of these people are in possession of moral agency, which they choose not to exercise, in what appear to be, not particularly overwhelming circumstances. Their crimes are mercenary and repugnant, and it is difficult to exculpate them on the basis of deeply rooted structural inequalities or economic deprivation. Mental disease, or genuine psychiatric disorder may have a mitigating effect, or may even exonerate the accused, but in most cases (whatever his/her economic situation) murderers retain some degree of moral agency, and it’s important not to near-glorify them as bastions of individualism, as some writers have been inclined to do. A better way of understanding Christie’s moral vision, and conception of criminality, has been articulated by Julie Aguiar who comments:

“…Christie’s presentation of criminality, or what might be termed evil, in these novels as being not an abnormality afflicting a few, as her predecessors in the genre assume, but an underlying proclivity common to all human beings.” (4)

All the assembled suspects have diverse motives to finish off the potential victim. The temptation is present for all of them, but only one or two (if the murder is a joint venture) succumb to it, and are willing to take life in achieving their ends.

Like millions of other readers around the world, I derived many hours of enjoyment from Christie’s crime novels. If I am unable to read them now, it is partially because I’ve already had too much of a good thing; after fifty novels it’s difficult for her basic template to not seem formulaic to me. There are the issues of characterisation adverted to above, but Christie was extremely effective in what she sought to do; adroitly create a complex puzzle which the reader would become immersed in. The mystery would subsequently unfold with seamless, and sometimes quite dazzling effect.©

(1) Stephen Knight, “..done from within’: Agatha Christie’s World’, in Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1980) 124-125

(2) Earl F. Bargainnier, The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980) 39-40

(3) M. Vipond, Agatha Christie’s Women” International Fiction Review 8 (1981) 123

(4) Julie Aguiar, “Rethinking Retrospection: Temporality and Criminality in Christie’s Detective Fiction” Explorations: The UC Davis Undergraduate Research Journal 14 (2011): 1-19

Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray

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Charlotte Bronte’s tremendous admiration for William Makepeace Thackeray is well known. Not only did she express reverence for his work and belief in his abilities in biblical terms in her famous preface to the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’, (1) but her personal correspondence is replete with praise of, and commentary on his novels. I liked Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but the zealousness and intensity of Bronte’s praise for Thackeray has always puzzled me a little. Several reasons underpin this slight perplexity at Charlotte’s almost boundless regard for the author of ‘Vanity Fair’.

There are radical discrepancies between the two authors in their conception and delineation of female characters; Bronte being far more naturalistic and egalitarian than her contemporary in this respect. Thackeray’s ideal women were not exactly simplistic but were heavily sentimentalised: ‘Amelia’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ is a loving, soft-hearted, doting wife and mother (she, in significant respects, embodies Victorian ideals of womanhood). She is also weak, undiscerning, and possesses no real notion of selfhood independent of her status as wife and mother. Amelia is wholly unintellectual. Thackeray decidedly disliked intellectual women, and while ‘Amelia’ is subjected to significant criticism in the novel, there is no denying that Thackeray was simultaneously drawn to, and in a large part upheld, the model of womanhood she represented.

Thackeray repeatedly sought to distinguish himself from Dickens by his emphasis on ‘realism’: resistance to drawing caricatures and eschewal of too many improbable plot contrivances. (2)  There are important thematic differences between the authors as well. Though Thackeray partially idealises Amelia, ‘Vanity Fair’ exposes the tyranny weak people like her can also exert, their capacity for selfishness and their desire for domination.  In a work of Dickens, it is probable that a character like Amelia would have been uncritically extolled until the final chapter. However, stylistically, Dickens and Thackeray are much closer than is often acknowledged. For all the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’,(3) gushing sentimentality is as much a fixture in Thackeray’s work as it is in Dickens. Indeed, in the case of the former, the narratorial voice not infrequently becomes tinged with smugness.  Lest I be misunderstood I do think that both Dickens and Thackeray were genuinely great authors, but aspects of their writing and characterisation do ruffle me.  Their heroines, be it ‘Amelia Sedley’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Florence Dombey’ of ‘Dombey and Son’ are a far cry from the ‘Jane Eyre’s’ or ‘Lucy Snow’s’ of Bronte’s novels. Bronte’s work is marked by a naturalism that is not measured up to by either Dickens or Thackeray. She exhibits the interior lives, and interesting and expanded minds of her heroines with a skill, eloquence, and power which is matched by few, if any, of her contemporaries. Bronte’s heroines were highly intelligent, intellectual women (indeed, how could they be otherwise when they often constituted varied versions of Charlotte herself at different stages of her life). As Jane observes as she wanders about the halls and grounds of Thornfield:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (4)

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Shirley’, Shirley (a heroine Charlotte modelled on her sister Emily) Shirley remarks to Caroline:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’” (5)

It can safely be assumed that Charlotte Bronte here is giving expression to her own objections regarding the way women have been characterised by her eminent male contemporaries. Indeed the ‘half-doll, half-angel’ woman and ‘fiend’ at the other end of the spectrum sound remarkably like ‘Amelia Sedley’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ of ‘Vanity Fair’.  I actually think that despite Thackeray’s emphasis on ‘realism’ Becky at times appears to be something of a caricature herself. Even amongst the passages of extensive praise for Thackeray, Charlotte did occasionally voice these objections.  She, however, never really expands on this theme. In an 1852 letter to George Smith she writes:

“As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring.”(6)

While Bronte had almost unabated enthusiasm for Thackeray’s writing and faith in his calling as the ‘first social regenerator of the day’, Thackeray’s own opinion of Charlotte Bronte and her novels was far more mixed. He was considerably moved by ‘Jane Eyre’ and recognised the genius of the woman who had penned it,(7) but their personal interactions were marked by an uneasiness and perhaps mutual misunderstanding. (8) George Smith, the publisher and close friend of both Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray offers the following significant insight:

“Thackeray’s wit was not a ready one and he had not the quickness necessary for repartee. A clever woman always, and easily, had the better of him in that respect, and, to tell the truth, Thackeray was not fond of the society of what are called “clever women”; women, that is, whom he felt to be critical and with whom talk involved any mental strain. For that reason he did not like Charlotte Bronte, and the two did not get on well together. She was vexed because he, in his talk with her, would never be serious about his literature. He would talk in a bantering and burlesque way, as though he were ashamed of it. But this was only by way of defence against Charlotte Bronte’s earnest and heroic views of the “sacredness” and “dignity” of literature.”(9)

On pursuing ‘Villette’ Thackeray stated “There’s a fire and fury raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me.” (10) His condescending and supercilious extended comments on the novel are contained within an 1853 letter directed to Lucy Baxter:

“So you are all reading Villette to one another- a pretty amusement to be sure- I wish I was hearing you and smoking of a cigar the while…. And it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with two men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at anytime. The poor little woman of genius! The fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good…she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country and eating her own heart up there, and no Tomkins will come…here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.”  (11)

I understand Charlotte Bronte’s regard for William Makepeace Thackeray to a significant extent. I do think he was a fine writer, even if his prose did (not infrequently) lapse into sentimental gush, and even if his female characters were at times poorly conceived. There are numerous passages of ‘Vanity Fair’ which I genuinely admire (most notably the confrontation scene between Dobbins and Amelia near the end of the novel). But I don’t think that the flaws identified above are insignificant, and accordingly I find it somewhat puzzling that Charlotte Bronte hero-worshiped him to the extent that she did. ©



(1) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Essex: Longman, 1991) xxvi-xxvii

(2) Charles Mauskopf, “Thackeray’s attitudes towards Dickens’ writing” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21 (1966): 21-33

(3) Bronte, Jane Eyre, xxvi

(4) Ibid, 113

(5) Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993): 264

(6) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1857)

(7) Richard Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray” Bronte Studies 36 (2011): 85-94

(8) Ibid

(9) Charlotte Bronte, “The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends: Volume II: 1848-1851”, Margaret Smith ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 416

(10) Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray”, 92

(11) William Makepeace Thackeray, The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Gordon N. Ray ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-46)

Charlotte Bronte and ‘Dr. John’

George Smith (charcoal on paper)

George Smith as a young man

‘Had I been too hasty? I used to ask myself; and this question would occur with a cruel sharpness after some brief chance interview with Dr. John. He still had such kind looks, such a warm hand; his voice still kept so pleasant a tone for my name, I never liked ‘Lucy’ so well as when he uttered it. But I learnt in time that this benignity, this cordiality, this music, belonged in no shape to me: it was a part of himself; it was the honey of his temper: it was the balm of his mellow mood; he imparted it as the ripe fruit rewards with sweetness the rifling bee; he diffused it about him, as sweet plants shed their perfume. Does the nectarine love either the bee or bird it feeds? Is the sweet briar enamoured of the air?

“Goodnight Dr. John; you are good, you are beautiful but you are not mine. Goodnight and God bless you!”'(1)

These lines extracted from the novel ‘Villette’ are amongst the most poignant I have ever read. They are directed from ‘Lucy’ (a character strongly representing Charlotte Bronte) towards ‘Dr. John’ (her real life publisher and object of love George Smith). As mentioned in an earlier post Villette chronicles Charlotte Bronte’s early experiences as a student/teacher in Brussels. In 1842 Charlotte and her sister Emily embarked upon the journey to Brussels with the intent of learning languages; French Italian and some German, all of which would, the sister’s hoped, give them a competitive advantage when they  returned to set up their own school in England. In exchange for lodging and lessons delivered by Constantin Heger at the Pensionnat, Charlotte taught English at the same boarding school and Emily music. Interaction with M. Heger provided deep intellectual stimulation for Charlotte, and lay the foundation for the strong feelings she came to harbour for him. M. Heger was a married man, and while he was solicitous of the welfare of both sisters, and deemed them to be no ordinary students, Charlotte’s feelings for him were not reciprocated. It is extremely unlikely that Charlotte sought a romantic liaison or affair of sorts with him, but in reading her frenzied and ardent letters to him, he was aware that her feelings had extended beyond the purely platonic realm. He consistently refused to reply to the letters she subsequently wrote on her return to Yorkshire, for fear that it might constitute encouragement.  Constantin Heger is the irascible and irrepressible ‘Paul Emanuel’ of Villette, cantankerous and difficult to get along with, and yet possessing some sterling good qualities.

Heger has been of sustained interest to Charlotte Bronte’s biographers, and they have devoted considerable space to investigating the nature of her association with him. One commentator has even deemed that Charlotte’s time in Brussels’ amounted to “the greatest single emotional experience of her life.” (2) I am inclined to take issue with this identification of M. Heger as the primary and most important love interest in Charlotte Bronte’s life. She probably did love him; Prior to Brussels she had lived a somewhat isolated existence, and he was the first man to leave a forceful intellectual impress upon her mind. However, while Villette, in a sense documents her contrary feelings towards Heger; her mingled respect and disdain, warmth and utter exasperation towards him, the novel is also a testament to her deep and passionate love for ‘Dr John’ or rather George Smith, her publisher. While biographers are obliged to comment on Charlotte’s association with Smith, the relatively little attention devoted to him is indeed surprising, given the strength of feeling ‘Lucy Snowe’ evinces for him and the directness with which this is expressed. ‘Dr. John’ as portrayed by Charlotte Bronte in Villette possesses a highly attractive personality. There are over a dozen allusions in the novel to how handsome and physically prepossessing he is, but more than that he is a thoughtful, feeling, talented and benevolent man. When you read the novel, it’s pretty clear that Charlotte Bronte was crazy about this guy. He and his mother Mrs. Louisa Bretton (a faithful representation of George Smith’s mother Elizabeth Smith) have braved considerable material adversity and Dr. John is a rising physician also living and working in Villette (Brussels). Louisa Bretton had acted as Lucy’s God-mother when the latter was a girl of fourteen, and Lucy has accordingly known both mother and son from childhood. Circumstances throw them apart, and Lucy is again acquainted with Dr. John nine years later when his services are secured by Madame Beck (the directress of the boarding school where Lucy is employed as English teacher). He fails to recognise her, but she soon enough identifies him as the ‘Graham’ of old. It is evident that Lucy has very strong feelings for him, but she never allows herself to fully express these sentiments; the prospect of their being together is remote, and (she feels) almost ludicrous. Charlotte Bronte remained acutely conscious of her unprepossessing exterior throughout her life, and Lucy Snowe is the medium through which these entrenched insecurities find expression.

For me, any incongruity in their union really arises from Lucy’s temperament, and not her external appearance. Lucy is a solitary figure with a desire to make her way in the world with integrity, and without having to take favours from anyone. She is also rather morbid and, one would think, needlessly inclined to take a pessimistic view of things. Indeed, her fixation with her appearance, and pretty premature conclusion that Dr. John can never be hers, was a source of frustration to me the first time I read the novel. Even looking at the novel retrospectively, persistent self-consciousness and insecurity about one’s looks is something I associate with adolescence, and by the time you hit your twenties you generally become a lot more at ease about your appearance. Accordingly, Lucy’s preoccupation with her lack of beauty, and belief that this removes any chance of marriage with Dr. John, did irritate me a little. Why should anyone be so morose about their prospects, I would wonder: Lucy clearly has a brain, and self-respect; aren’t those treasures in themselves?  I was aware that the novel had been written by Charlotte following a period of deep depression, ill-health, and melancholia experienced on the early deaths of her siblings, but these qualms about Lucy’s characterisation remained. In a November 1852 letter to George Smith, preceding the publication of Villette, Charlotte writes:

“Lucy must not marry Dr. John; he is far too youthful, handsome, bright spirited, and sweet tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery. His wife must be young, rich, pretty; he must be made very happy indeed. If Lucy marries anybody, it must be the Professor-a man in whom there is much to forgive, much to ‘put up with’.”  (3)

In a subsequent letter she expands on this theme, writing:

“I must pronounce you right again, in your complaint of the transfer of interest in the third volume, from one set of characters to another. It is not pleasant, and it will probably be found as unwelcome to the reader, as it was, in a sense, compulsory upon the writer. The spirit of romance would have indicated another course; far more flowery and inviting; it would have fashioned a paramount hero, kept faithfully with him, and made him supremely worshipful: he should have been an idol, and not a mute unresponding idol either, but this would be unlike real LIFE-inconsistent with truth-at variance with probability.” (4)

If you think about it, it is quite extraordinarily that Villette was written and published at all, given the content it contains. It is an open declaration by Charlotte of her love (indeed passion) for her publisher, love which she knows is not requited (certainly not to the same extent). Smith obviously had regard for Charlotte (a distinguished author and literary genius) but whether he felt anything approaching love is open to question. Villette is in a large part a study and glowing delineation of George Smith, and was forwarded by Charlotte for publication by him. In Charlotte’s circle of literary friends and acquaintances ‘Dr. John’ and ‘Louisa Bretton’ could very easily be identified as George Smith and his mother. Hence Charlotte’s request that the novel be published anonymously. (5) This request was declined as the name of ‘Currer Bell’ (Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym) was required to generate the requisite interest in the novel and assure sales. I also subsequently learned that Charlotte Bronte’s belief that her looks posed a serious hindrance to prospective marriage with Smith, was not without foundation.

In a letter written to Mrs Humphry Ward almost five decades later, George Smith discusses the sentiment he harboured for Charlotte Bronte:

“No, I never was in the least bit in love with Charlotte Bronte. I am afraid that the confession will not raise me in your opinion, but the truth is, I never could have loved any woman who had not some charm or grace of person, and Charlotte Bronte had none- I liked her and was interested in her, and I admired her- especially when she was in Yorkshire and I was in London. I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me. But, I believe that my mother was at one time rather alarmed…”  (6)

It is questionable as to how far we can take this communication at face value.  I do not believe Smith when he says ‘I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me”. That Charlotte was in love with him is plain enough; Villette is a powerful testament to this fact. Was he indeed romantically indifferent to her, their relationship being a “curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and  half life; only on one hand truth and on the other perhaps a jest”, as suggested by Bronte in Villette? There is his insistence in 1850 that Charlotte accompany him and his family on a trip to the Rhine, a proposal which was met with resistance by his mother. (7) There are also, in the written exchanges between them, fragments suggesting that at one stage he had seriously contemplated proposing to her. This was shortly after she declined to accompany his family to the Rhine (chiefly citing her health as the reason), and it is suggested by Sir Tresham Lever, that he was at this point on the brink of proposing to her, but lost his nerve. Parts of their correspondence (some of which was conspicuously withheld by Smith’s family members from subsequent publication) indicates that this was a distinct possibility. (8) All of this precedes Villette, the bulk of which was not written until mid 1852, in which he would have received a very clear indication of her feelings towards him.

Why, moreover, was he displeased on reading the third volume of Villette, where there was a transferal of interest from him to Paul Emmanuel (M. Heger)? What precisely was it that ‘stuck in his throat’? Was it merely a case of hurt ego and thwarted vanity; with George Smith wanting the focus to be retained on him right until the end of the novel? I find this rather puzzling: Charlotte furnishes him with a beautiful and interesting heroine, Countess Paulina de Bassompierre, and he is projected as a chivalric ideal and man of integrity throughout the third volume as well. Did he feel that readers might construe ‘Dr John’s’  failure to ever contemplate marriage with Lucy as manifesting a shallowness of mind? Villette is not written in a manner as to suggest this or to censure him for his preference for Paulina. If George Smith was not in love with Charlotte Bronte, why would he even want a book written which indicated otherwise? Or did his sentiments towards her, actually approximate to something akin to love, and did he feel that she had not adequately understood him? Clearly, there are more questions here than answers. We can really only speculate as to the precise nature and scope of his feelings towards Charlotte, and why he responded with displeasure to the third volume of Villette. When George Smith became engaged to the beautiful Elizabeth Blakeway, the daughter of a wealthy London wine merchant in 1853, this was Charlotte Bronte’s very telling communication to him:

“My Dear Sir,

In great happiness, as in great grief- words of sympathy should be few. Accept my meed of congratulation- and believe me

Sincerely yours

C. Bronte” (9)

Smith was a dauntless, enterprising person with a good head for business, and significant literary discernment. He also had a forthright, dynamic personality and cultivated strong professional and personal relationships with several intellectual luminaries of the day:  John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are amongst the list of eminent writers whose works Smith published. He achieved tremendous success as a publisher, and also revived his publishing firm with skill and dexterity when it encountered severe debacles (whether due to the financial impropriety and fraudulent conduct of some of its employees, or events outside Smith’s control, such as the Indian mutiny which affected the company’s external branches). Margaret Smith, in her compilation of, and commentary on the letters of Charlotte Bronte, indicates that later on in his life George Smith did not always live up to Charlotte’s ‘princely ideal’ of him.  ‘Dr John’, however, as depicted in Villette is a very admirable man with many qualities which really draw you to him, and after reading the book, I certainly wanted to know more about the real life personage he was modeled on, even if the real did not always fully match up to the ideal. We can really only conjecture as to the exact feelings George Smith’s entertained for Charlotte Bronte. Perhaps she herself was right when she wrote the following:

‘I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the sky-lights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. It was not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread; yet, gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written “Lucy’s Room.” I kept a place for him, too — a place of which I never took the measure, either by rule or compass: I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host.’ (10)

-Lucy Snow divulging her thoughts in the ‘Cloud’ chapter of Villette. ©



(1) Charlotte Bronte, Villette (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993), 376

(2) Gina Luria, “Review: Charlotte Bronte”The Self-Conceived by Helene Morgan”Elizabeth Gaskell: A biography by Winifred Geri; Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler” Signs, 4 (1978): 374

(3) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1857)

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

(6) Margaret Smith, “George Smith, Prince of Publishers and William Smith Williams” Bronte Studies, 36 (2011): 75-84

(7) Tresham Lever, “Charlotte Bronte and George Smith” Bronte Society Transactions, 19 (1977): 106-114

(8) Ibid

(9) Ibid

(10) Charlotte Bronte, Villette, 474


munshi premchand godaan 1

I thoroughly enjoyed Munshi Premchand’s  1936 novel ‘Godaan’. It’s a classic for a reason, and is different in some key respects, from the 1963 film adaption discussed in my last post. Firstly, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration the film makes him out to be. His life is indeed full of hardships, and people seek to exploit him from all sides. However, it is not as unremittingly bleak and dismal as represented in the film. A core object of Munshi Premchand, in writing this novel, is certainly illustrating the deplorable condition of the Indian peasantry, and their wholesale exploitation by the landowners and priestly class. However, ‘Godaan’ is not a highly charged political polemic or what one may term a ‘superior op-ed piece’. It is a complex portrayal of Indian rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century. Most of the characters which inhabit the novel are complex personalities, and while the peasants may be at the receiving end of the injustice fostered by the prevailing landlord-tenant economic structure, this does not transform them into martyrs or one dimensional victims. Each character has positive and negative traits, though in the better characters the good predominates. Obviously, though, exploitative conditions and ignorance through poverty, can play a strong part in bringing out the worst in any individual. Even the exploiters, such as ‘Rai Sahab’ (the big zamindar of the village) are multifaceted.

Rai Sahab is keenly aware of how fundamentally wrong the system is, and is cognisant of its dehumanising effect on both the peasant and the landlord. The system crushes the peasant and rids him of the capacity to aspire to anything higher; the sum total of his efforts come down to carving out a meager existence. It also turns the landlord into an effete, despicable creature; gorging unearned wealth, and brutalising poor farmers to sustain that wealth. Rai Sahab himself, is also saddled with dependents, who ingratiatingly flatter him to partake in enjoying the revenue generated by the estate, and do not care for him in the least. Yet Rai Sahib is not strong enough to eschew with dependence on zamindari, and cannot forsake his establishment and the pomp that comes with it; hollow as he knows it to be. In a wonderfully written passage Rai Sahib is candidly divulging his woes to Hori, who arrives at the house on an errand. The passage is almost four pages in length, and I wish I could reproduce it all here, but I will have to make do with just providing some extracts. Rai Sahib proceeds as follows:

“‘You’re probably wondering why the master should be confiding his troubles in someone like you who has hardly two pice to his name.  But to whom can I talk? For some reason I trust you. And at least I know you won’t laugh at me. Even if you do, it won’t bother me. It’s the laughter of equals that’s so hard to tolerate, because it’s so full of jealousy, sarcasm and bad feeling. And after all, why wouldn’t they laugh at me? I have a good time making fun of their misfortunes and difficulties. You just don’t find wealth going hand in hand with sympathy for others. Sure I make donations and perform acts of charity, but you know why? Just to show up those other people of my class. My generosity is a selfish matter pure and simple. That’s how it goes….All these uncles and aunts who have a fine time freeloading off the estate- writing and gambling, drinking and living it up- they’re all jealous of me. If I were to drop dead today, they’d put the most expensive oil in their lamps and light them all in celebration. Not one of them will believe I’m ever unhappy- they figure I have no right to be. If I cry, I’m just making fun of sadness, If I’m sick I’m enjoying it. If I don’t drink I’m stingy. If I do, I’m drinking the blood of my tenants. If I don’t marry and fill the house with turmoil, I’m selfish. If I do get married I’m lecherous. If I really were to be lecherous, Lord knows what they’d say. They’ve tried their best to lure me into dissipation and they’re still trying…

… When there’s jealousy or hatred amogst the poor, it’s because of hunger or self defence. I consider that pardonable.  If someone snatches the bread from out of our mouths we have the right to force our fingers down his throat and get it back….I’m surprised that the blaze of your anger doesn’t burn us to ashes…We seek revenge with the police, the officials, the judges and the lawyers; and, like beautiful women we become mere playthings in their hands. The world thinks us very happy- we have estates, mansions, carriages, servants, easy loans, prostitutes and what not. But a person without moral strength and self-respect is not a man, whatever else he may be. A person who can’t sleep at night for fear of his enemies, who finds everyone laughing at his troubles and no one sympathising, whose head is crushed under the feet of others, who’s so drunk with dissipation that he forgets himself, who licks the feet of officials and sucks the blood of his people- I don’t call him happy. He’s the most unfortunate creature in the world.’ 

…Then Rai Sahib took out the betel box and again filled his mouth with leaves. He was about to say something more when a servant appeared and announced, ‘Sir, the men on forced labour have refused to work. They say they wont go on unless they’re given food . When we threatened them, they quit their jobs and left.’

The Rai Sahib glowered at him. ‘Come with me,’ he he declared, eyes bulging. I’ll put them in their place. They’ve never been given food in the past. Why this new demand today? They’ll get the anna a day they’ll always get, and they’ll damn well do the work whether they like it or not.’

He turned to Hori. ‘Run along now and make your arrangements. Keep in mind what I’ve told you. I expect at least five hundred rupees from your village.’

The  Rai Sahab went off fuming. Hori was puzzled- all this talk about right and goodness, and then such a sudden outburst of anger.”

I think the last part of this passage was a particular stroke of brilliance. Rai Sahib is an intelligent and not totally inhuman person, and here he means what he says. But in continuing to play his part as the zamindar while bemoaning the ills of the system, he becomes a hypocrite. Having been the wealthiest zamindar in the locality all his life, imperious attitudes and tendencies have also, almost inevitably, crept into his demeanour.

There are also elements of humour in the novel (and not just of the dark variety) where members of the peasant class win their own small victories and triumphs. One such scene is when a policeman is about to be called in to investigate the death of Hori’s cow (which his younger brother Hira poisoned out of jealousy). Hori is aware that Hira was behind the death of the cow, and has revealed as much to his wife Dhaniya, who is completely irate and keen to see Hira behind bars. She and her husband practically raised Hira along with Hori’s other brother. Not only does Hira fail to reciprocate, but he also frequently bad-mouths his elder brother and sister-in-law. For her husband, however, it’s a question of family honour, and irrespective of Hira’s deviousness and ingratitude, Hori wants to protect him. An argument on the question of involving the police arises between them, and as it grows louder, nieghbours and eventually the village heads turn up to ostensibly mediate. The truth is that domestic fights become social events in the village, and everyone arrives to watch the tamasha. Following the argument, the bystanders come to believe that Hira did infact poison the cow, and a police inspector is summoned. He wants to undertake a search of Hira’s house, but Hori is desperate to prevent this, and is prepared to pay a bribe to avert it. He appeals to Datadin, the village priest who is present, to intervene by arranging something to this effect. Hori, of course, has no ready cash to pay the bribe, and will have to borrow from the moneylenders (all of whom are present). They are accordingly quite gleeful about these proceedings. They and Datadin take the inspector to the side and start discussing the terms of the bribe. Hori naively and obtusely takes the assurances and professed solicitousness of Datadin and the moneylenders (several of whom are also village heads)  at face value. Dhaniya gets a whiff of this, and intuitively understands what’s happening. This explosive outburst follows:

“‘We’re not borrowing from anyone. If anyone thinks he has to pay, let him do so himself. I won’t give up a single pice even if you drag me to court. When we wanted twenty-five rupees to pay the rent, no one would loan it to us. Today you’re giving out whole handfuls of jingling coins.  I know what’s going on. Your all full of sweetness now that you’re each going to get a cut. Murderers and blood-suckers, that’s what you village headmen are. Interest rates of twenty five and fifty percent, tips and donations, bribes and graft- rob the poor anyway you can!’

The village elders looked as though their faces had been smeared with tar, and the inspector looked as though he had been beaten with a broom. To preserve their dignity, they turned and marched off towards Hira’s house.

‘That woman certainly has guts,’ the inspector conceded when they were on their way.”

You have to read the book, or at least read this particular chapter to really enjoy what has transpired, and it gets even better as the chapter progresses. Premchand probably got a kick out of writing it, and the reader certainly gets a kick out of reading it.  Dhaniya is an incredibly feisty woman, high-strung and fiery but generous hearted. Her spiritedness does come out in the film, but in the novel she’s quite extraordinary.

Jhuniya is admitted into the house, primarily because of Dhaniya.  Jhuniya is the lower-caste widow with whom Gobar (the son of Hori and Dhaniya) gets involved. Learning that she is expecting his child, Gobar leads her to his home and then runs away from the village, deserting her. Hori and Dhaniya first resolve to eject Dhaniya from their home; the consequences of admitting her will be pretty serious for them. They cannot, however, go through with it. Dhaniya is consumed with pity for the girl, and the couple accept her as their daughter-in-law. For this, they are socially boycotted by members of their caste, and the village panchayat levels a large fine on them. To pay this fine, Hori has to procure further loans, and the never ending cycle of burgeoning debt thus begins. Basically, they brave a lot of censure for taking this step, and Jhuniya initially seems to appreciate what they have undergone. Even earlier on in the novel, she appears to be quite a fascinating character during her courtship with Gobar, when she chatters on about her experiences in the city. Accordingly, her subsequent actions took me by surprise. Gobar returns to the village from Lucknow (where he ran away to) a year later. He is earning good wages (much more than most people in the village) and Jhuniya proceeds to poison his mind against his parents, suggesting that they’re just after his earnings. She proposes that they leave the village, and Gobar before doing so, behaves very brutally with his parents. Later, towards the end of the novel, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but she never expresses (or even appears to feel) much remorse for her actions.  In a novel which becomes quite explicitly moralising towards the end, this aspect of the couple’s relationship with their daughter-in-law seems strangely unresolved.

I was reading somewhere that Premchand is at his best when drawing rural characters: their world is one with which he is intimately acquainted, and the wealthier, better educated characters have not been delineated with the same efficacy. I’m personally inclined to agree with this criticism. Miss Malti, Mr. Mehta, Mr. Khanna, and Govindi, are reasonably well-drawn but they (and the trajectories their lives take) do not sustain the same level of interest as Hori, Dhaniya, Gobar, Jhuniya, Sona or Rupa.  The great turn arounds and conversions that take place in their lives, are not all that persuasively portrayed…Premchand, here, seems not to show, but merely tell. I think that Rai Saheb is the best drawn amongst the more prosperous characters.  Mr. Mehta, whom Premchand has posited as a hero of sorts, is a bit of a bore at times.

How does the film compare with the novel?  

I think the film was a worthy effort by Trilok Jetley (its director), but suffered from significant shortcomings, some of which were not really in Jetley’s power to rectify. Exciting as the film medium can be, it has limitations, and these limitations often strongly manifest themselves when it comes to screen adaptations of literary works.   It is often difficult for a film to represent a character’s interiority as effectively as a novel. Indeed, a cinematic adaptation or even interpretation of a novel of the length and wide ranging expanse of “Godaan” entails the condensation of several hundred pages of narrative discourse, dialogue and the internal thought processes of the concerned protagonists into a space of two hours. It is almost at the outset destined to fail. Even if the script writer evinces insight and a high degree of selectivity as to what particular dialogue should be extracted from the novel and made to feature in the movie, time constraints dictate that much of the film must be devoted to just conveying the momentous events which inform the narrative of the novel, to the exclusion of the somewhat more subtle psychological processes underpinning the actions of the protagonists. These are general problems which attend any film adaptation of a literary work, and are the reasons why I am usually not even remotely interested in seeing movies made on books I love. Usually, I’m left feeling indignant, and deeming the film to be an insult to the original text. In the few cases where I prefer the film to the book, chances are that I didn’t consider the novel in question to be particularly good in the first place. In fairness, it’s a tough job to match the original text if it’s good.

Turning specifically to Jetley’s adaptation of ‘Godaan’, I suppose my main problem was Jetley’s rather circumscribed vision for the film. Jetley’s project here, was undoubtedly, to depict the harsh realities of peasant life, the peasant’s vulnerability, and the way in which he is  shamelessly exploitated by those positioned above him in the rural socio-economic structure; whether the moneylenders, the village headmen, the preists, the zamindars, the officials etc. However, in executing this vision he comes close to reducing the peasant couple (particularly Hori) to one dimensional victims, and the zamindar to an out-and-out villian. Many of the nuances, and shades of characterisation in the novel are lost in the film. Jetley has tried to address the problem of time constraints inherent in the film medium, by focusing almost exclusively on Hori’s family, and largely cutting out the well-to-do characters, Malti, Mehta, Khanna, Mirza etc. They are placed in the film more as relief to the unending misery that is portrayed as Hori and Dhaniya’s lot.  Minimising the screen time they received was probably a sensible thing to do. Even so, a lot of time is inevitably devoted to just relating the key events which take place in the novel, with the richness of the text never really coming out on the screen. The actors (particularly Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal) do a very good job, but they are obliged to act  in accordance with the director’s vision for the film, which in this case, was somewhat limited. Even so, there are parts of the film which do touch you; Hori’s collapse in the fields, and Dhaniya’s response, Hori’s response to Ram Sevak’s proposal for Rupa, and of course the ending, where Mukesh’s vocals are also employed. The novel actually projects Rupa’s marriage with Ram Sevak in quite a different light (one which would be largely unpalatable for a modern readership).

The film has also been heavily sanitised; there’s a lot of profanity in the novel…it probably would not have gotten past the censor board. As I stated earlier, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration that the film makes him out to be. He beats his wife; actually, quite a lot of wife-beating goes on in this novel, and not just amongst the peasantry. In the scene I related earlier, where the inspector is called in to investigate the death of the cow, the argument between Hori and his wife is not simply a verbal argument. He is physically beating her; hitting out at her, kicking her, and this is what brings in all the spectators. It is the last time he ever raises a hand against her, and afterwards he is shame stricken and begs her forgiveness. In reading the novel, you get the impression that wife-beating was pretty common amongst the peasantry back then. Even so, you’re a bit stunned when you read it for the first time, and are left thinking ‘Uh….and this guy is meant to be a sympathetic character?’ Undoubtedly, Jetley was thinking along these lines when he decided to leave scarcely any hint of wife-beating in the film; he want’s you to root for Hori all the way. In the novel Dhaniya isn’t one to take a blow meekly, and the fiestiness and strength with which she responds is heartening…and this is partially why I love that particular chapter; because she triumphs so strongly at the end of it, and esteem for her rises greatly in the village.

In my edition of the novel (the publisher being ‘Vishv Books’), the name of the translator is not given, but whoever translated it, did an excellent job.  For those who haven’t read the book, I would strongly recommend it. It’s a wonderful novel, and gives you many new insights into Indian rural life in the early part of the twentieth century. ©

Raaj Kumar

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Image obtained from Karen Bandal’s ‘Everything Bollywood’ blog.

Raaj Kumar is probably my favourite bollywood actor. While I appreciate the work of several of his contemporaries, and the substantive contribution they made to the cinema of their time, Raaj is the only one I’ve ever felt strongly about. Certainly, in terms of his overall body of work and the number of good films he was a part of, he falls well behind Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. But sometimes it takes only one powerful performance to leave a strong impression, and win someone’s lasting admiration and loyalty. For me, that performance came in ‘Pakeezah’. I fell head over heels for the ‘Salim’ of Pakeezah, and sometimes when you love a character so much, at least some of that love is transferred on to the actor. Raaj did full justice to his role in ‘Pakeezah’. Indeed, ‘Pakeezah’ would not have been what it is, with any other male lead being cast as ‘Salim’.

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“Badal kar fakeero ka hum bhes e Ghalib, tamashae ehle karam dekhte hain” / “By donning guises, we, Ghalib, view the spectacle of another’s generosity”

Best Films

Thus began my fascination (obsession) with Raaj Kumar. I started digging up on his other films, and have now seen almost all of them (or if the film is too awful to watch I’ve at least seen the parts of the film where Raaj is present). I think that Raaj Kumar’s best film’s apart from ‘Pakeezah’(1972) are ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ (1960), ‘Paigham’ (1959), and ‘Godaan’ (1963). I loved him as the reserved, reticent ‘Dr. Sushil Varma’ silently in love with his nurse ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)  in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’, or as ‘Ram Lal’ the honest, hard-working but unperceiving mill worker in ‘Paighaam’. The former film was really lovely, but would have been even better if the love between Dr. Varma and Karuna had been allowed to deepen and flourish and take a new route, without the film devolving into your regular love triangle story, in which Dr. Varma’s obnoxious wife is predictably despatched off in the end. It remains, however, a well written film, where the quiet romance which develops between Dr. Varma and Nurse Karuna is lovely to watch. There are some heart-warming hospital scenes which feature good performances by the rest of the cast. ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ also has some wonderful songs.

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Dr. Sushil Varma

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with ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)

‘Paigham’ (1959) is a didactic, semi-socialist, strongly ‘message-orientated’ sort of film.  Its makers did not intend it to be a work of art, and it isn’t one. Yet, I absolutely consider ‘Paigham’ to be a genuinely good movie; being well-written, tightly constructed and showcasing some very good performances. Ram Lal (Raaj Kumar) works hard to provide his younger brother Ratan (Dilip Kumar) with a college education. Ratan who returns to his home town after graduating (with distinction) secures work as chief mechanic/engineer (his position is somewhat ambiguous) in the local mill. Ram Lal is employed in the same mill as a labourer. Ratan percives that the mill workers are being deprived of the wages they are entitled to, and there is also indifference on the part of the management towards their safety and conditions of work. He seeks to establish a worker’s union to demand change and represent the workers claims. The more traditional minded Ram Lal, a good but uneducated man, takes issue with the course of action Ratan proposes. It strikes him as dangerously confrontational, and for him smacks of disloyalty towards their employer. The film engages with the tussle between the two brothers as to what constitutes rightful conduct, in line with the developments at the mill. Ratan’s sweetheart Manju (Vyjayanthimala) is also employed as secretary in the mill. Ram Lal strongly objects to Ratan’s association with her, as her paternity is unknown. This exacerbates the conflict between the brothers. It’s really a movie about the kind of India the makers of the film aspired to see; socialist (yet democratic), equitable, just and relatively classless.  Dilip, Raaj and Vyjayantimala do a wonderful job, and I think that Pratima Devi who plays the mother of Ram Lal and Ratan is very good as well (as she was in Dil Apna aur Preet Parai). Pandharibai, the sweet faced lady who plays Ram Lal’s wife is also good. In both films Raaj gives excellent performances, and is highly convincing and natural in his respective roles.

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Ratan is welcomed home by the family

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Ram Lal and Ratan each exhort the workers towards their respective positions

I will speak at greater length about ‘Godaan’ (1963). Being Raaj Kumar’s own favourite film amongst the seventy odd movies he was a part of (1) it deserves special space, and while I thought it was a good film with brilliant performances by both its leads Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, my reaction towards  ‘Godaan’ was in some respects quite mixed. The film is based on Munshi Premchand’s 1936 novel of the same name. The novel ‘Godaan’ is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Hindustani literature, and at core concerns Hori (a village peasant) and his wish to procure a cow. The film depicts the exploitative propensities of the zamindars or landlords of the time, as well the oppressive caste dynamics then (and even now) prevailing particularly in rural settings. The hypocrisy of the priestly class, as well as that of the zamindars and  money lenders is amply demonstrated in the film.The press book of Godaan, released in 1963, states the following:

“Go-Daan is the tragic life story of Hori (Raaj Kumar), a true peasant of India. He is a fatalist who has become so, facing crisis after crisis in his dealings with money lenders and the richer classes. And he dies like most men, with an unfulfilled desire. He dies without owning a cow, “The Goddess of Wealth in the House” as the peasants call it…the cow that can be given away in Go-Daan (“Cow-Gift”) after his death.”

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Raaj Kumar as ‘Hori’ in Trilok Jetley’s 1963 ‘Godaan’

My only issue with this description is that Hori appears to be a fatalist right from the outset, before disaster upon disaster strikes him.  He obstinately and obtusely refuses to acknowledge wrong in others, when they actively harm him, repeatedly exploit him, fraudulently appropriate his few possessions (while his family is in dire straits), and penalise him for the sense of humanity he retains and they are devoid of. At the beginning of the film Hori procures a cow on loan which his younger brother poisons out of jealousy, the money lenders apply extortionate rates of interest on loans and cook up the accounts against him. The Village Panchayat levels a huge fine on Hori and his wife Dhaniya for sheltering the lower caste girl who is bearing their grandchild.  Hori and his wife stand by the girl ‘Jhuniya’ in the face of the Panchayat’s opposition, but they are made to pay the price. In order to pay the fine, Hori procures further loans and thus begins a never-ending cycle of burgeoning debt… and this is a very incomplete list of Hori’s afflictions and problems.

What is frustrating is Hori’s standard response to every calamity that comes his way. He automatically reconciles himself to the conduct of those oppress him, without a shade of protest. For him, it is all fate, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. Hori’s perspective is that he and his family belong to a particular ‘biradari’ or community, and they have to bow before its norms, however unfair. His more discerning and spirited wife, sees right through those who exploit Hori and pose as his well-wishers, and obviously finds Hori’s persistent refusal to defend either himself or  his family, maddening. The present order seems profoundly unjust to her, and even Hori’s son Gobar smarts under the strong inequalities engendered by the social arrangements in place. They cannot rationalise these things to themselves, or resign themselves to it all, as Hori can. Right towards the end of the film Hori and his family are almost destitute; all they have is some land that is to be forcibly sold off to pay the mountain of debt that has accumulated. The village priest visits Hori and presents a proposal whereby Rupa (Hori’s youngest daughter) will be married off to the well-to-do but elderly Ram Sevak. The marriage will cost comparatively little for Hori, and they will be able to retain their land. Finally, Hori is disgusted, and his wife Dhaniya is outraged. He says:

Kahan woh thoos bhurra aur kahan meri phool si Rupa! Aaj mere aise din agaye hain ki aap mujhe larki bechne ko kehte hain?

‘That old man and my flower of a girl Rupa! Are times so bad for me, such that you come here asking me to sell my daughter?’

Hori is pained, but here again, as with everything else, he soon begins to reconcile himself to the idea. Thinking aloud to Dhaniya, he says:

Ram Sevak bhurra toh nahi, haan adher zaroor hai. Rupa ke sukh likha hai toh yahan bhi sukh uthayegi , dukh likha hai toh kahin bhi sukh nahi paa sakti.

‘Ram Sevak is not quite old, though he is middle-aged. If contentment is written for Rupa she will find it with him as well, if sorrow is written for her, then she will never find contentment anywhere.’

Dhaniya: var kanya jodh ke hon tabhi byah ka anand hai

‘If the groom and bride are well matched, only then can we anticipate happiness from the marriage.’

Hori: Byah ka naam anand nahi pagli, tapasya hai. Tapasya.

‘The name of marriage is not happiness. Marriage is trial, trial.’

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Hori’s initial reaction to Ram Sevak’s propasal for Rupa

Rupa is accordingly married off to Ram Sevak. The land is not sold, but the debts remain and in a short space of time, Hori works himself to death. At the time of Hori’s death, Dhaniya only has one rupee and four annas in her possession which she gives for the Go-daan (or cow-offering). She brings this to the preist, and as Hori’s funeral rites are being performed, we hear in Mukesh’s soulful voice the following refrain:

Aas adhuri    (Unfulfilled aspirations)

Pyaasi Umariya   (A thirsty age)

Chaaye Andhera    (Clouding darkness)

Sooni Dagariya      (A lonely pathway)

Darat Jiya Bechain    (A pained restless heart)

Darat Jiya bechain    (A pained restless heart)

O Rama    (O God)

Jarat Rahat din Rain    (Eyes perpetually awake)

There is a certain rawness, pain and power in Mukesh’s voice (which he has further modulated to sound like Hori/Raaj Kumar), which here brought tears to my eyes. These poignant lyrics were penned by Anjaan, and are so apt a summation of Hori’s life; his unfulfilled aspirations, his thirst, the clouding darkness, the lonely pathway he has had to tread, his eyes perpetually open with strain and anxiety; slumber is a luxury.

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Hori collapses while working in the fields. Poor Dhaniya thinks that Hori has gone for good. Kamini Kaushal gives a superb performance in Godaan.

The film was made by Trilok Jetley with passion and dedication. The Go-Daan press book states that it had been Jetley’s dream for some years to make a film adaptation of the novel ‘Godaan’, and he paid the highest figure which had ever been paid then for book rights in India, for the purposes of film adaptation. Months were spent on the script and the services of Pandit Ravi Shankar were recruited for the film’s soundtrack. It’s  a pity that a film made with such care should have flopped so miserably at the box office. But, I am not surprised that it fared badly. I am not saying this because I don’t think ‘Godaan’ is a good film. It is a good film, but it makes for a very bleak viewing experience.

I don’t know if it’s exactly the same in the book, but there is also the issue of predictability. When any calamity comes Hori’s way, you know precisely what will happen. Poor Dhaniya, who knows exactly what’s going on and is raging inside, will urge Hori to defend himself, while Hori will seek to avoid confrontation at literally any cost, resign himself to the injustice, and attribute what is happening to fate. At times Dhaniya tries to take unilateral action, but her efforts are undone by Hori. I would have found ‘Godaan’ more interesting had there been some variation in Hori’s responses or some evolution in his outlook. It wasn’t necessary to take him the point where he could think and act like Dhaniya, but his mode of thinking remains uniform throughout. He is exactly the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Perhaps this is precisely the point Munshi Premchand is trying to impress upon us in his novel, decades of systemic oppression, and the ideology that is rammed down the throats of peasants, by those on the upper rungs of society (whether the zamindars or the priestly class) has led to a sort of paralysis in thought, and fear of stepping outside the externally demarcated boundaries, to the point where one afraid to be honest with themselves. One can also think of Hori’s state as a fixed internalisation of the norms which have been dictated to his from the earliest stages of his life. I’m also aware that things which seem axiomatic and self-evident now, such as human equality and freedom to enjoy though fruits of your own labour, weren’t actually that self-evident in the time and place this book depicts.  Even so, perhaps I simply don’t have enough contextual knowledge to be able get into Hori’s psyche and really understand his frame of mind. For this reason and others I ‘ve just got myself a copy of the novel ‘Godaan’, am keen to read it, and may do a separate post on it.

The novel is a pretty large book which features many more characters than those which appear in the film. Understandably, Jaitley has cut it down to deal with the core story which chronicles the trials of Hori and his family. Some of the more educated, prosperous characters which appear in the book also appear in the film. ‘Rai Saheb’, the big zamindar of the village who also exercises functions akin to that of mayor, ‘Miss Malti’ (a social worker), ‘Mr. Mehta’ (an academic and philosopher) and ‘Mr. Mirza’ (another social worker) all feature in the film. Rai Saheb makes fine speeches about how he will be the last one to protest if zamindari goes, and talks about how wrong it is for wealth to be generated on other people’s broken backs. Yet, he continues to live very lavishly and actually pockets the fine which is levied on Hori for offering protection to the lower caste girl Jhuniya. Most of the talk between the better educated classes is conducted in shudh Hindi, and the exchange of ideas which take place between Miss Malti, Mr Mehta and Rai Sahab was largely lost on me. Another reason to read a translated copy of the book.

Raaj Kumar himself has to say about ‘Godaan’:

“Godan’ is the best film I ever acted in. It gave me full scope to get into the skin of a rural character and emote like a villager genuinely does. As it was based on a Munshi Premchand masterpiece, I got my scope to deliver” (2) 

I would differ to the extent that I don’t think of ‘Godaan’ as Raaj Kumar’s best film ever, but the rest I agree to. Both Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal are really excellent in their respective roles. Raaj very effectively projects Hori’s vulnerability, fatalistic outlook and internal resignation. Raaj Kumar is younger than the ‘Hori’ of Premchand’s novel, but by affecting a stoop and exuding a sense of fatigue, Raaj manages to look the part. Strangely, the bulky Mehmood doesn’t look too odd playing his son ‘Gobar’ and also gives a good performance.  In the song ‘Hiya Jarat Rahat Din Rain’ Hori, having recently recovered from physical collapse through overwork, views his surroundings; the land and the animals grazing upon it with their offspring. Suddenly, there enters into Hori the exuberance of a young man (and Raaj looks great in this song). Walking along he comes across the skeleton of a cow and is both visibly distressed, and reminded of his aspiration to have a cow. Raaj emotes wonderfully in the song, which has been very feelingly sung by Mukesh. You can see it at

Better Films    

Amongst the better films of Raaj Kumar are ‘Oonche Log’ (1965), ‘Phool bane Angaare’ (1963), ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973). These films are not favourites, but they are pretty decent films, in which Raaj gives good performances….and I love Raaj when he acts naturally, before he permanently succumbed to a more theatrical and exaggerated mode of acting later on in his career.  In ‘Oonche Log’ Raaj is a conscientious police officer and the film projects the dynamics at play between him, his wayward brother ‘Rajnikant’ (Feroz Khan) and their father ‘’Major Chandrakant’ (Ashok Kumar) a retired Army major.  Major Chandrakant’s  outlook is somewhat aligned with that of Srikanth’s (Raaj Kumar), but his behaviour is sometimes reminiscent of a certain feudalism which his son Shrikant finds repugnant and rejects (e.g. Major Chandrakant thinks that whipping servants is a wholly legitimate and appropriate means of addressing lapses in conduct).

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‘Oonche Log’

‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) does draw on a number of clichés, is rather melodramatic in parts and Raaj’s acting is occasionally exaggerated in it. Still, I liked him as ‘Kalu’ the hard-working tange-wala, and devoted elder brother of ‘Sona’ (Kumari Naaz). In ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, because of his father’s early demise Kalu cannot pursue an education, and becomes a ‘tange wala’ (horse cart driver) to support his ailing mother and younger siblings. He works selflessly and tirelessly to give his younger sister Sona the education he never had, and later to ‘get her married’ to the boy of her choice. In valourising Kalu’s exertions to give his sister a grand wedding party, the film reaffirms the understanding that weddings need be a lavish affair, and that this should appropriately be financed by the bride’s parents or relations. While the arrangement of a dowry often isn’t explicitly adverted to in movies, this theme of conscientious brother striving ‘get his sister married’ is one that has been common in Indian films until very recently, and unfortunately continues to be strongly reflected in Indian society. Kalu’s ultimate motivation in all this is, however, securing his sister’s happiness, and the film is another one of those strongly ‘message-orientated’ movies so common around this time; It emphasises the importance of equal opportunity, female education, and the desirability of creating a classless society. However, I do think that the film’s makers could have shown more foresight in eschewing the need for a grand wedding at all, and thus removing the factor underlying many of Kalu’s worries, and a root cause of a lot of gender discrimination in India.

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As ‘Kalu’ the tange-wala in ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’

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Captain Rajesh courting Usha (Mala Sinha) in ‘Phool bane Angaare’

Both ‘Phool Bane Angaare’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) are war films. In  ‘Phool bane Angare’ (I rather like the name: flowers turn to sparks of fire) Raaj plays the part of Captain Rajesh in love with Usha (Mala Sinha), a caring, independent spirited girl who undertakes to support and provide for her widowed mother and younger brother. Mala Sinha (who had me wincing and cringing all through ‘Mere Huzoor’) does a pretty decent job in this film, and the depiction of their initial courtship is quite nice. Rajesh is subsequently called to serve in Korea (am slightly confused about this; initially it appeared that the war in question was the Sino-Indian war of 1962), while Usha remains tending after her mother and brother. This movie is about duty towards one’s family and one’s country in times of crisis, and like ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, ‘Phool bane Angaare’ isn’t a bad film. ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) focuses on the conduct of Operation ‘Cactus Lily’ which took place in the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. Not being very familiar with Indian Military history, I really don’t have anything to say about the film’s depiction of the war and operation ‘Cactus Lily’, but the film appears to be free from any kind of jingoism. It’s director Chetan Anand goes to considerable lengths to show the essential humanity of the other side, and this is not done in a merely tokenistic fashion. ‘Hindustan ki kasam’ is also notable in that it probably features the last completely natural and unaffected performance Raaj was to give in his career. Because it’s a Chetan Anand film, Raaj’s love interest, to my chagrin, is Priya Rajvansh. The film is rather far-fetched in the second half, but I’m still inclined to place ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ in Raaj Kumar’s ‘better films’ category.

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Returning from a test flight in ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’

Best Known Films

Apart from ‘Pakeezah’ (1972), ‘Mother India’ (1957),‘Waqt’ (1965) and possibly ‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) are Raaj Kumar’s best known films. ‘Mother India’ is not a movie I personally like much, but it is widely considered to be a landmark film, and while Raaj played a somewhat peripheral role in it, the movie shot him to fame and really got his film career going. Raaj, like many other members of the cast, engages in a fair bit of over-acting in ‘Mother India’. The songs are however wonderful, and Raaj, despite a few bad wigs, is eye-candy in the film. I don’t really think he needed a wig at this stage, given that three years later, in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ he sported his own hair and looked very handsome. ‘Waqt’ likewise has always struck me as being a nothing film; all glitz and glamour and very little underneath. In 1965, ‘Waqt’, with its strong glamour quotient, may have fascinated audiences, but I don’t know how it keeps contemporary viewers stuck to their seats. Even on a purely ‘masala’ level, I don’t feel that ‘Waqt’ makes for an entertaining viewing. But again, Raaj is eye-candy in it. ‘Mere Huzoor’ (1968) is, I think, a pretty awful film; very artificial, cheesy and affected, in the spirit of most of the 1960’s ‘Muslim Social’s’ that preceded it.  However, because Raaj looks the way he does, I can watch it repeatedly just for him (or rather repeatedly watch the parts where he is present), to the exclusion of everything else (lol…even to the exclusion of what Raaj’s character is actually saying). Other points in favour of the film are Johnny Walker and Manorma, who are both very funny in it.

mother india

Shamu and Radha in better times (Mother India)


Seeking to charm her Highness (Waqt)

‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) was a laudable attempt by Chetan Anand to make an a epic film on the fabled lovers of the Punjab; Heer and Ranjha. What is unique about the film is that it is entirely in rhyme. It’s evident that Chetan was trying to offer viewers something novel by recruiting Kaifi Azmi to pen the film in verse. I actually wonder whether Chetan would have been more successful in conveying this tale if he had just stuck to prose, albeit poetic prose. I don’t think that just making things rhyme necessarily elevates the script to the level of poetry. This is not a judgement of Kaifi Azmi’s broader literary abilities (I love a number of the song lyrics he has written, though I haven’t read his poetry or other substantive works apart from this). It is just my response to the script he penned for the film ‘Heer Ranjha’. I thought the script was all right, without being anything amazing. What really destroyed ‘Heer-Ranjha’ for me was Priya Rajvansh. Priya Rajvansh may have been a very nice person in real life, but she was an absolutely atrocious actress, and did not at all look the part of Heer. Indeed, I can say without exaggeration that she is the worst Bollywood actress I have ever watched. The are so few films where Raaj really got to play the romantic hero, and I love him in full-on romantic mode. Indeed, here he acted wonderfully as Ranjha, but to see him have to romance Priya Rajvansh : (  Her being cast as Heer made a film I would have otherwise probably enjoyed, unwatchable. I have mostly just seen those frames of the film where Priya is absent. The film also features some lush cinematography and good songs.

heer ranjha

Ranjha thinking of Heer

His Appearance

With reference to Raaj’s looks, just surfing on the net, I have read a few unflattering appellations being used for him. He has variously been described as ‘Mr. Twisted Ears’, ‘irritating’ or just plain ‘odd’ looking. The truth is prior to ‘Pakeezah’ I never really did consider him particularly handsome, at least not in the conventional sense, and kind of understood where the ‘irritating’ description came from. But, with ‘Pakeezah’ his looks grew on me, and now I am totally on the same page as those who regard him as downright gorgeous. Moreover, then I hadn’t seen any of his earlier films from the 50’s and early 60’s where he was really handsome. He had aquiline, rather chiselled features, and could project an attractive intensity on the screen when he chose to. For me, he’s also the first man to sport a moustache who doesn’t automatically start looking like an ‘uncle’ because of it.  I wish I could see him in his earliest films ‘Rangeeli’, ‘Aabshar’ and ‘Ghamand’. Chances are these won’t be very good films, because Raaj was a new comer then, and probably took whatever came his way. But still, I’d love to see such a young Raaj Kumar.


Post 1973 came a very steep decline in the kind of films Raaj acted in, and the kind of performances he gave. It’s not as though Raaj hadn’t been a part of bad films before this (indeed, he had his fair share of bad film’s in the 50’s and 60’s as well). What is unusual is how consistently poor these films were, and how they represented a whole new level of awfulness. Raaj, how could you say yes to something like ‘Karmayogi’??..Ughhhh…yuck!  Almost his entire output in the 80’s and 90’s was uniformly terrible. ‘Police Public’ (1990) strikes me as being a marginally better film, but is not what you would call a good movie. Many of these films, even a hard core Raaj Kumar fan like me, cannot sit through (It’s really difficult to even sit through just the parts of the film which feature Raaj Kumar).  Granted the 80’s were a bad decade for movies, but even then I find most of Raaj’s choices, in this period, utterly unfathomable. From what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, intellectually inclined man and must have known that most of these films were total trash…Why then did he consent to act in them? His acting in these films, moreover, was often very exaggerated and affected. Any excuse for this? This is what Raaj himself has to say:

“….Another film which I really enjoyed working in was ‘Oonche Log’ where I played a police inspector. The story was really brilliant but astonishingly both the films (Godan and Oonche Log) flopped badly. People only wanted me to deliver high voltage dialogues and I was forced to adopt a particular style to cater to the audience…Yes, I know none of my present films have the touch of my earlier classics like ‘Mother India’, ‘Godan’ or ‘Pakeezah’. But I have to survive as acting is my only profession. Today the standards of films have really deteriorated a lot and no director is interested in making a serious film like Mehboob Khan, B.R. Chopra or Kamal Amrohi.” (3)

Basically Raaj is saying that films were his bread and butter, and he had to make do with whatever came his way….Still Raaj, I hardly think you would have starved to death if you had said no to movies like ‘Desh ke Dushman’, ‘Jung-Baaz’ or ‘Galiyon ka Badshah’ (shudder)….I don’t know how you saw your own films without groaning, shutting your eyes and covering your ears. When going to his worst films of the 80’s and 90’s on youtube, I see comments saying things like ‘Raaj Kumar is the KING!’ or ‘Kya Dialogue Delivery Hai!’ Apart from financial reasons, there’s a real chance that Raaj allowed responses like this to get the better of his own judgement.


A still from ‘Karmayogi’ (ughh) . Seriously Raaj, WHY?

Raaj Kumar: The Man

I really know far too little about the man himself, to be able to provide any real insights here. As stated, from what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, well-educated and intellectually inclined man. Raaj Kumar, originally Kulbushan Pandit was born in Loralai  (now in Pakistan) in 1926 (some articles say 1927).He came from a large family of nine children. Raaj recalls “I knew no loneliness since I come from a big family. We never needed any outside entertain­ment. We used to sing, dance and fight in our home”. His father was an Army officer, and the family originally hailed from Kashmir. (4)   A recent “documentary” about Raaj Kumar was made, which was actually really awful, and just consisted of the presenter showing footage of his films ( footage easily available to anyone with internet access) and regurgitating verbatim the content of old (and pretty poor) internet articles on him. (5) Scarcely any actual research was conducted. They did, however, also briefly interview his son, and he provides some interesting snippets about his father. Kulbhushan graduated with an Arts degree from the then prestigious Government College in Lahore. He won a gold medal in philosophy, and wanted to go on to study English literature at Oxford. For whatever reason, this didn’t eventuate, and after working for some time as a sub-inspector at the Mahim police station in Bombay, he turned to films. Raaj Kumar’s son Purru speaks of how well before his actual entry into movies, Khulbushan was approached by Sohrab Modi, who wished to cast him as the male lead in an upcoming production. Because Khulbushan was then still interested in heading to Oxford to study literature, he refused the offer. Raaj Kumar discusses how he subsequently entered films in this video interview:

From the above interview in the link provided, it’s evident that Raaj was a very articulate man. A Cineblitz article states “Like any of his stock, he was extremely well read and was knowledgeable on a myriad of subjects. He also had a flair for many languages — English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Kashmiri”. (6)

In the late 1960’s he married Jennifer, an Anglo-Indian air-hostess whom he met on a flight, while travelling to a shooting destination for ‘Heer Ranjha’.  It was love at first sight, and after marriage, he named her Gayatri, in accordance with her kundali. Though Purru states “basically, we’ve been brought up in all faiths. We’d visit churches, dargahs, mandirs and synagogues”. (7) It appears that Raaj was very possessive and protective about his wife and children, and sought to keep them out up the public eye as much as possible. I feel like I myself am now just repeating the content of the interviews I have read…It’s probably best for me to just provide links below to all of these interviews. When I first became strongly interested in Raaj Kumar (over a year ago now) there was almost nothing about him on the internet. Now, a reasonable, if not abundant, amount of information has cropped up on him. It appears that many considered Raaj to be an egotist, and in fairness, that egotism does come out pretty distinctly in a number of his interviews. It also turns out he was scarcely ‘Mr. Shareef’ in real life and before he married Gayatri, was something of a playboy. With reference to his reputation as an ‘eccentric’, I think that Raaj Kumar was an interesting enough man in himself without having to play the part of the ‘eccentric’, whatever his motives (warding off the press, keeping his private life private by creating an alternative external persona, or just grabbing a bit of attention at parties).  In this 1983 Filmfare magazine interview, I think the interviewer K.N.S. probably gets it right when he makes the following observations:

“He seems to enjoy building a maze around him through which it is diffi­cult to move and find the real person. He seems to forget people’s names. His comments, at least as quoted, are brash and provocative. What emerges from these is a composite of someone unpredictable and nearly insufferable. In reality, at least at very close quarters, he is quite a car­ing person when he wants to be one. He has his loyalties and affections. He has his own code of chivalry and honor. His courtesy is faultless. Perhaps at one time he felt misused or ill-used and started building mental self defenses.” (8)

Well Raaj, you weren’t perfect but there were a lot of great things about you. I still know so little about you, and wish I could know more….I wish I could have met you, and told you what an impact your performance in ‘Pakeezah’ had on me. I sometimes imagine scenarios whereby some strange transfiguration of time, I happen to take the seat next to you on a flight or train journey, and then ensues an extended four hour conversation….and in this imagined conversation you obviously aren’t completely indifferent to me. You don’t throw me off with platitudes, but I get to hear what you genuinely think, and we talk and talk about films and books and all kinds of things. You were a very special actor, and are really special to me (ok….now this is getting super lame, but I can’t help myself).  When given a decent script to work with you could really show your acting prowess. In many of your films though, there wasn’t much opportunity for you to show your talents, or extend and test your own abilities as an actor. Your overall range probably wasn’t that broad; I can’t really imagine you doing comedy well, but perhaps I’m just saying this because I haven’t really seen you do comedy. After all, just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it can’t be.  Within your perceived range, you were a unique actor, had an appealing individualistic style, and could give subtle expressions. In the very few romantic roles you did, you exuded a warmth and tenderness and restrained passion on the screen which felt very real. Unfortunately, a number of the movies you were a part of didn’t really demand the subtlety, nuance and finesse you could bring to a performance (acting qualities amply demonstrated in films such as ‘Pakeezah’, ‘Godaan’, ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ and even ‘Heer Ranjha’)…but you were something wonderful; there are no two ways about that. ©



(1) Ranjan das Gupta, ‘The True Avatar of Mother India’, Friday Review Delhi, The Hindu. 11/7/2008. See:

(2) Ibid

(3) Ibid

(4) ‘Raaj Kumar: Memories’ obtained from ‘Cineplot’ (Published in Cineblitz, August 1996). See:

(5) NewsX, ‘Falshback: Remembering Raaj Kumar’. See

(6) Farhana Farook, ‘Dad was Bizarre but never boring- Purru Raaj Kumar’. Filmfare (28/01/2013) See:

(7) Ibid

(8) ‘Raaj Kumar’. Interview by K.N.S. in 1983. Obtained from ‘Cineplot’. See:

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