Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Review- Recalcitrance by Anurag Kumar

I first met Anurag Kumar online when he found that I was a fellow fan of the works of Thomas Hardy. We wrote back and forth on Twitter (you can follow him too. He's @anuragkumarlko.) Mr. Kumar lives in India, specifically in Lucknow which is a capital city in Uttar Pradesh in North Eastern India.

He was gracious enough to send me a copy of his book. It's called Recalcitrance and the subtitle is "A novel based on the events of the Great Uprising of 1857." The link can point you toward places online where you can get your own copy.

Now, before I continue, I should probably take a moment to point out my own embarrassing ethnocentrism going into this. I knew very little about Indian history. I had never even heard of the Great Uprising of 1857. Here was this man who I'd been communicating with in real time on the other side of the world who had written a whole book about it and sent me a copy. I'd been given a great gift. Along with a book (which, as you well know, is the best gift anyone can give me) I was given a walking tour of an event of major formative importance to one of the largest countries in the world; also a reading experience from a man on the other side of the world who wrote this on his blog about the writing of his book (which, I should probably also say, was published in time for the sesquicentennial of the uprising, which would have been 2007):

Then something awful happened the 150th year of 1857 suddenly came upon me. There were good and hard working authors ready with their stuff and with much fanfare they had their books released by celebrities - I was almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This was a historic opportunity passing me by I was on the verge of tears all the time. Then I started my book - I could have written a book on history but I wanted to say some things which can only be said in a novel. I had the material but just this Himalayan lethargy, this laziness stopped me. I wanted to complete the book but .......
I had often criticized authorities for not doing enough to let Indians know about the sacrifice and bravery of people behind the 'mutiny' of 1857 now as I passed by monuments connected to 1857 in Lucknow I felt guilty, I felt as if the martyrs are saying to me 'what have YOU ever done?', that was what broke my lethargy.
He felt the weight of history, the importance of the event and he responded with this book. As one who has also experienced the compulsion from the weight of history to write about an event in local history, I appreciate his blog entries quite a bit. I like to read contemporary people's interactions with historical events. It helps to illustrate how we are all tied into it ourselves.

The book is, as I mentioned, a novel. As usual, I don't want to give too much of the plot away because I want people to read it themselves. There are many Hindustani words used throughout the text, but there is also a very helpful glossary in the back and one quickly picks up on the more commonly used terms in the books. It takes place, as I said, through the uprising, and much of the narrative comprises the action of that event. There are many characters in the story, although I would probably say, if pressed, that the story follows the character of Chote Bhaiya. Or maybe that was just my interpretation, but I found myself identifying with that character. Although there is a great deal of conflict action, it would be misleading to call this an "action story." One of the things I greatly appreciated was that the story pays great respect to the people involved. Mr. Kumar very much takes us into the lives and minds of the individual characters in their uprising against British rule, their passions and fears. As he said in the blog entry quote above, he succeeds in doing things through the form of a novel that he wouldn't have been able to communicate with straight history text. Personally, as one being introduced to the story, it really brought me into the narrative and engaged me in ways that dry information probably wouldn't have.

The language guides the sense of urgency throughout the text. There is a heartbreakingly subtle love story which, again and as usual, I don't want to give too much away, save to applaud how well it was handled in the book.

In America, I think there's so much we could identify with, so much that this story has to tell us. I mean, there is the aspect of uprising against British rule and that historical parallel, but I also think what happened in Lucknow can speak to all of us everywhere in the time in which we live. I'm in Chico, California in 2009 and found the story of the uprising quite moving.
What's more, and hopefully not to get on too sanctimonious of a high horse (bear in mind I came into this story knowing nothing about the uprising either, so I'm probably saying this more to myself than pointing fingers at anyone else) I think we in America could stand to do a lot of work on being better global citizens. I think we all could be better informed of what is happening and what has happened in other parts of the world. What happens to Lucknow in the story is really something I think everyone should know. Although the story goes as it goes and ends how it ends, there is hope at the end of it all I think. Narenderlal says earlier in the book at one point "Remember what Mahatmaji at the Ghat told us: the mother conceives a baby and thanks God for His blessing. She goes through enormous trouble during those nine months and then there is the horrible pain of childbirth but it brings forth a wonderful creation, an image of God Himself. On being shown the face of the infant the mother forgets all her pain and hugs the little creature to her bosom. Also sometimes the baby is still born but the mother does not say to God: do not give me anymore babies, but eagerly looks forward to another birth. Similarly, he had said that our country is going through a painful phase but this will end bringing in a new life. However, this struggle must be continued if any such thing is to happen."
Those words have stuck with me so much in the past few weeks.