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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 72,000 times in 2015. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 3 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A one-woman UN peace-maintaining force (Column: Bookends LXXXIV)

By Vikas Datta (09:26) 

Negotiating with unsavoury warlords with bloody hands, foiling unconscionable machinations of big business bosses who have no qualms at countenancing genocides, preventing assassinations at a peace conference and other personally hazardous and morally distasteful tasks come naturally to this feisty international troubleshooter. What is difficult is protecting her job in her organization primarily responsible for global security but more of a nest of intrigue, jealousy and vested interests, and tarnished by its failures to avert massacres in Africa and Europe in the 1990s.

They have several agents from covert supranational groupings tasked to keep the world safe – in recent times, the incongruous combination (at Cold War’s height) of American Napoleon Solo and Soviet Ilya Kuryakin in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”, “Our Man Flint” of the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage (ZOWIE), and others, leave alone those tackling supernatural threats or eldritch abominations as in “Dr. Who”. But none was from the preeminent international organisation under its own name, possibly because the United Nations frowned on its use for commercial purpose, like in these popular 1960s TV series and films.

But in the new century, the field is right open for the spirited Yael Azoulay, who negotiates secret, dirty deals for Secretary General Fareed Hussein (an Indian finally in the post). Their task is not made easier by the need to accommodate the national and special interests of members (especially P5 powers), and of the new, uncontrollable elements – big business and its most worrying manifestation, the military-industrial complex, which has a vested stake in conflict and instability.

Venturing into this largely unexplored genre is British journalist-turned-author Adam LeBor (b. 1961), who began his media career with “assignments that ranged from seeking London’s best dry Martini to investigating Nazi war criminals who found sanctuary in Britain” before becoming a foreign correspondent in 1991.

Covering post-Communist Hungary and the brutal ethnic wars that ripped apart Yugoslavia inspired both his first book: “A Heart Turned East: Among the Muslims” (1997), an unjustifiably neglected account of European and American Muslims, and first novel “The Budapest Protocol” (2009), a chilling intrigue set in the Hungarian capital from World War II’s closing days to the present.
LeBor has written over half a dozen more non-fictional works including “Hitler’s Secret Bankers” (1997) on Swiss complicity with Nazi Germany, a biography of Yugoslav/Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (2004), “City of Oranges” (2007), about Arab and Jewish families in Israel’s Jaffa town, while most recent was “Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World” (2013), on the Bank for International Settlements. It was however his “Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide” (2006) on its failure in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur and how these still cast a malevolent shadow on the present that forms the basis for the Yael Azoulay series.

In her mid-30, Yael is a UN employee of 12 years standing who has “brokered ceasefires in East Timor and Darfur, charmed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and sweet-talked Shia insurgents in Iraq”. She debuts in “The Geneva Option” (2013), where she is sent to eastern Congo to persuade a Hutu warlord to surrender for lenient treatment but too late realizes what is behind her mission. By then she is out of a job, has several intelligence and law enforcement agencies – and her past ghosts – on her trail, as the narrative weaves between New York, Africa, and Switzerland to a nail-biting finish.

Short story “The Istanbul Exchange” (2013) takes her to the historic city to convince an Afghan warlord to surrender to the Americans, but our intrepid heroine soon finds herself in a murky world of secret rendition and arms trafficking to Syrian rebels.

In her second full outing “The Washington Stratagem” (2015), Yael (a former Mossad agent as we learn) struggles to foil an insidious conspiracy and more demons from her own past to commercialise the UN and destabilise the Middle East and save – again – her job (and of her boss). Unlike the first, not all questions are answered – for which we will have to wait for “The Reykjavik Assignment”, expected later this year.

Peopled mostly by duplicitous diplomats, unscrupulous businessmen, self-serving journalists (the rather vapid Sami of the New York Times and the beguiling, more promising Najwa of Al Jazeera), LeBor’s works are stirring, high-adrenalin adventures, only made mildly distracting by delving into a character’s background right when they appear. His cynical view of a hamstrung, blundering UN or murderous business is scarcely reassuring, but not entirely without foundation. But it is comforting that there are also those who work hard to set right things – if we don’t look too closely into their methods!

(20.09.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

The Dervish Wars and the Empire Strikes Back – in an African city (Column: Bookends LXXXIII)

By Vikas Datta (09:53) 

It is not even two centuries old but this city, nestled in the embrace of two tributaries of the Nile and a crossroads between Arab and Black Africa, became more notorious as an arena for a clash of civilisations and the British Empire’s most devastating loss of face – an episode extensively recounted by several protagonists, inspiring authors from Rudyard Kipling to Wilbur Smith, drawing in Winston Churchill and Flashman and rendered on celluloid by Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier.

The call for Jihad – the first modern manifestation – by the messianic Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah “Mahdi” (1844-85) against Sudan’s Turco-Egyptian rulers (and their British backers) and the long war (1881-1898) that ensued ensured Khartoum became one of the most-known African cities as far as popular culture is concerned.

The city, whose name derives either from the Arabic for hosepipe (given the early settlement’s shape) or safflower (a vegetable oil source in Egypt), came up in 1821 as a post for Egyptian troops of the Khedive. It however came in the limelight in 1885, when the Mahdi’s forces, having overrun most of Sudan abandoned by the British-Egyptian forces, captured the city after a lengthy siege and slaughtered the garrison including its commander, Gen. Charles George ‘Chinese’ Gordon. A British rescue force was still far off. For the next decade or so, Sudan was abandoned till the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ensuring retribution, led to a better planned British campaign for reconquest, and then joint Anglo-Egyptian rule.

It is this part of Khartoum’s history most in focus, both in fiction and non-fiction – right from when the events described were fresh in public memory till now.

“Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan” (1891) by Gen. Sir Francis Wingate, who oversaw intelligence from Sudan, was an authoritative account. After helping the escape of Father Joseph Ohrwalder, a Roman Catholic missionary and Rudolf Carl von Slatin, an Austrian officer coming to Africa for business but ending up governor-general of Darfur, Wingate (later governor-general of Sudan and high commissioner to Egypt) also translated into English their memoirs – “Ten Years in the Mahdi’s Camp” (1892) and “Fire and Sword in the Sudan” (1896) respectively.

“The River War: An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan” (1902) by then army officer-cum-journalist Churchill, who overcame the opposition to his presence by expedition commander Lord Kitchener, speaks for itself.

In fiction, the first was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light That Failed” partly set in Sudan, while prolific British author and Empire champion George Alfred Henty, known for popular adventure fiction for younger readers, penned “The Dash For Khartoum: A Tale of the Nile Expedition” (1892) and “With Kitchener in the Soudan, A Story of Atbara and Omdurman” (1903).

Then there is A.E.W. Mason’s “The Four Feathers” (1902) about a young officer’s attempt to expiate, in the Sudan, his cowardice that left him disgraced before family and friends, and Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk (“Quo Vadis”) Sienkiewicz’s “Desert and Wilderness” (1912) about two European children sucked up in the war.

Modern works include Wilbur Smith’s “The Triumph of the Sun” (2005), part of his Courtney family series, John Ferry’s “After Omdurman” (2008), written in the early 20th century style, John Wilcox’s “The Siege of Khartoum” (2010), sixth of the Simon Fonthill series, and British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub’s “In the Hour of the Signs” (1996). George McDonald Fraser’s “hero” Sir Harry Flashman is also inveigled into accompanying Gordon to Sudan (in “The Road to Charing Cross” in “Flashman and the Tiger”, 1999) but it never got developed further.

Why is this colonial episode so important? Look at it differently – A western intervention leads to regime change but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. A prime minister flounders, alliances fall apart, and a general makes policy in the field. The media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos… Sounds familiar? A compelling account of the legacy can be found in Dominic Green’s “Armies of God: Islam and Empire on the Nile, 1869-1899” (2007).

But there are other views of Khartoum in other times too – Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela’s third book “Lyrics Alley” (2010), based on her uncle’s life and set in the hopeful days before and immediately after independence, is about a wealthy business family facing the conflict of tradition and modernity, commerce and art – and looking after paralysed heir Nur. A range of characters – patriarch Mahmoud, his wives – tribal Waheeba and cosmoplitan Nabilah, other family members Fatma, Sorraya, Batool and Zeinab add colour.

Khartoum also saw an infamous terror attack on diplomats by the Black September group in 1973 and was Osama Bin Laden’s base 1991-96 before the Taliban invited him to Afghanistan. These haven’t inspired any books yet – but who knows what might turn up?

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

So near, yet so far: The fuzzy logic of India-Pakistan relations (Column: Bookends LXXIX)

By Vikas Datta (11:35) 

India and Pakistan have just celebrated their 69th Independence Days. But born in a climate of pervasive hostility, indiscriminate violence and unimaginable suffering and forced translocations for their peoples, the two countries have yet to overcome their toxic birthright to live as better neighbours than they have done so far. What are the reasons for the continuing mutual suspicion? The bitter memories of Partition? The Kashmir issue/dispute? The lingering distrust of the ‘Other’? There are no easy answers but that hasn’t stopped various interested parties from trying to reason why.

Objectivity is very difficult to attain – especially if you belong to either of the nations. Are works on the twisted, tangled India-Pakistan relations prejudiced (subtle or blatant) rants or disingenuous/self-serving justifications with some hidden agendas, or sincere attempts to chart how and why Pakistan-India relations have evolved this way? The answer depends on what you choose to believe.

Among the problems in making an objective assessment is of fixing a point when ostensibly irreconcilable and hostile political differences arose – and did they owe to personality clashes, or wider historical/cultural factors? Does such a point lie at Partition or well before 1947 or was there any such decisive moment and it was rather the cumulative effect of decades of political estrangement. There is a host of such issues that can bewilder and perplex.

Only time can answer these questions but for those who choose to satisfy their curiosity now only, half a dozen accessible works can be illuminating.

An overview of India-Pakistan relations extending down to the present day (by a Pakistani/Indian) used to be as rare as travelogues of India/Pakistan by a Pakistani or Indian (one each – Yoginder Sikand’s “Beyond the Border: An Indian in Pakistan” and Raza Rumi’s “Delhi By Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller” – leaving out India-born but American passport-holder Stephen Alter’s “Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border”) but two have come out in this year only. These are Indian diplomat Rajiv Dogra’s “Where Borders Bleed: An Insider’s Account of Indo-Pak Relations” and journalist Dilip Hiro’s “The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan” (both 2015).

Dogra, a former Indian consul-general in Karachi, seeks to provide an anecdote-studded account of the region’s recent history, beginning with the run-up to the Partition, its aftermath, other issues that have impacted bilateral relations since and various arbiters of its destiny from the departing British to successors on either side. He also speculates on some “what if” scenarios – no division or a re-union. However, his own professional involvement does mean an element of subjectivity and it is up to the reader to judge the validity of the implied malignity/criminal squandering of advantage but there is no doubt about the less than salutary role of the great powers – but then great power diplomacy is about advantage and influence, not principles.

Hiro’s work, whose title seeks to stress how that terrible month seems to have never ended, follows mostly the same approach but seems a little more equitable and at places quite revealing (especially for Indians conditioned to a particular view of the freedom struggle and its (their) titans (the despair of Mohammad Ali Jinnah as well as many Congress leaders at the direction that the Mahatma was taking the freedom struggle – also corroborated by veteran journalist Durga Das in his memoirs “India from Curzon to Nehru and After” ). One problem is some small but egregious mistakes – Shahzada Yaqub Khan instead of Sahabzada and the like.

If we accept the Partition as a watershed moment, then academician Yasmin Khan’s “The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan” (2008) provides a crisp, balanced analysis of how the murderous madness ensued and played out but also what effect it had on mutual mindsets then (and up to now), while journalist-turned-writer Nisid Hajari’s “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition” (2015) contends how the then unleashed paranoia and hatred, in conjunction with the Kashmir and Hyderabad issue, dug a virtually unbridgeable chasm – and laid the seeds for global terrorism and nuclear proliferation in Pakistan.

Taking the effect forward through oral testimonies is Anam Zakaria’s “Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians” (2015) which has some touching and saddening examples of the illogicality and iniquity of the division (but also some quite counter-intuitive reactions), though is ultimately disheartening, going by responses of young, impressionable minds.

Marx held the objective was not merely to interpret the world but to change it. For this in the India-Pakistan context, an overwhelming shift in perceptions on both sides is needed. But miracles can happen!

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

The Bridge on the River Kwai: Fact and fiction (Column: Bookends LXXVIII)

By Vikas Datta (10:19) 

Some of the Second World War’s fiercest battles involved bridges and inspired some riveting accounts – capture of key bridges (Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day”; Stephen Ambrose’s “Pegasus Bridge”), the desperate attempt to capture the Rhine bridges at Arnhem (Ryan’s “A Bridge Too Far”), capture of the intact Ludendorff Bridge (Ken Hechler’s “The Bridge At Remagen”). But the most famous – as far as popular memory is concerned – was the one built by Allied prisoners of war over the river Kwai, but is what we know from the novel and film a fact?

Inspiring the popular novel and the multi-Oscar winning film was ‘Bridge 277’ on Thailand’s Khwae Noi River – of the 415-km-long Japanese Army’s Thailand-Burma Railway, or the “Death Railway” due to the huge toll – over 100,000 — among the over 240,000-strong contingent of Asian civilians and captured Allied personnel forced to build it.

This is recounted in some harrowing memoirs, including “The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East” (2010) by Alistair Urquhart (who also survived a torpedo attack while being taken to Japan, the atom bombing of Nagasaki and is still around at 96), “The Railway Man” (1995) by ex-POW Eric Lomax (also a successful film), and from another perspective: “Long Way Back to the River Kwai: Memories of World War II” by Dutch officer Loet Velmans (who escaped the Germans only to end up a Japanese captive). As far as fiction goes, the 2013 Man Booker winner – “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan, though dealing with another section, shows it still is a source of inspiration.

But “The Bridge over the River Kwai” was a pioneer. An English translation (by Xan Fielding, 1954) of French novelist Pierre Boulle’s “Le Pont de la riviere Kwai” (1952), it deals with a battle of wills between British Lt. Col. Nicholson (not Col.Bogey!) and Japanese POW Camp commandant, Col. Saito, who wants all prisoners, including officers, to work on the bridge and Nicholson opposing it, citing the laws of war.

The British officer is punished but his stubbornness leads Saito to back down. However, Nicholson, a blinkered perfectionist, disparages the Japanese work and switches to see the bridge’s proper construction as a symbol of his “professionalism”. Meanwhile, a commando force, led by a camp inmate who escaped, closes in on a mission of sabotage – but on the verge of completing its mission, runs into the colonel with unexpected results.

In 1957, the novel brought together David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel (and began their partnership) to adapt and transform it into a successful film with Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in lead roles. Boulle, who didn’t even speak English, went on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay (giving the shortest acceptance speech: “Merci”) as actual writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were on the Hollywood ‘blacklist’ due to suspected Communist backgrounds.

The film’s success drew sustained criticism – British veterans decried the implication of collaboration and Japanese the slur on their engineering skills!

Boulle had other intentions. Basing his novel on his own experiences as a Free French officer in Southeast Asia as well as accounts of POWs, he sketched a savagely satirical tale of fluid loyalties, absurdities and futility of war. In his memoirs “Aux sources de la riviere Kwai” (1966; “The Source of the River Kwai”, 1967), he noted his targets were his collaborationist compatriots (two Vichy French colonels who accused him of being a traitor!) and based on two incontrovertible facts – that prisoners were made to work and the Japanese, short of personnel themselves, forced captured enemy officers to administer the prison camps.

But what was the truth? It was the antithetical story of a forgotten hero, Brig. Sir Philip Toosey (1904-75), who then a lieutenant colonel, was the senior allied officer in the Japanese POW camp at Tha Maa Kham or Tamarkan (there was a Saito there too but a sergeant-major, not colonel).

Toosey did all he could for his men, facing regular beatings when complaining of their ill-treatment and fostered equality, refusing a separate officers’ mess or accommodation. On the matter of work, he and his officers (including his second-in-command R.G. ‘Reggie’ Lees – the colonel in Flashman creator George McDonald Fraser’s war stories) concluded it was inescapable but did everything possible to delay and sabotage the construction (mixing white ants with the wooden sleepers, badly mixing concrete) without endangering the men.

“The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and The Bridge on the River Kwai” by his eldest grandaughter Julie Summers is not only his biography but also deals with the novel, the film and the veterans’ dismay when the latter became popular and threatened to survive as the actual “history”.

A picture is worth a thousand words but not in this case!

(09.08.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Demystifying Iran, a complex country of contradictions (Column: Bookends LXXVII)

By Vikas Datta (08:57) 

Winston Churchill once described Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – which is what most people recall – but he also went on to say “…but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”. This quote also seems valid for another long misunderstood country: Iran.

What do we make of this perplexing country where crowds shout “Death to America” but was the only Islamic one in West Asia to have spontaneous memorials on 9/11? One proud of its long and illustrious history and culture but where the president lives on a street named after Louis Pasteur?

A country with a fairly open, modern society despite the presence of significant conservative and religious elements including clerics most dogmatic (but also considerate and pragmatic), a democracy with anti-democratic features like prior vetting of electoral candidates and an unelected leader with unimaginable powers, one where women are subject to a most restrictive dress codes (still managing to be fashionably chic!) but also comprise over half of university students, and are very visible in the workforce, with cultural traits that societies used to directness deem evasion and hypocrisy but the Iranians themselves (and many other peoples) term “good manners”.

There is no dearth of books on Iran – histories, analyses, travelogues, memoirs and so on – by both Iranians (natives and diaspora) and foreign writers. For a comprehensive history, take British diplomat-turned-scholar Michael Axworthy’s “A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind” (2008) and “Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic” (2013). For modern Iran, the distrust of West (especially their governments) can be understood from American journalist Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” (2008) and the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s context and success from Roy Mottahedeh’s “The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran” (1986).

Some incisive autobiographical accounts include Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (2000), Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope” (2006) – along with Azadeh Moaveni, who herself wrote: “Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran” (2005) and “Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran” (2009).

But for a perceptive account of what makes Iran tick, what do its people believe, what role Islam and clerics play in life and society, then the best person to turn to is Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd.

The grandson of an ayatollah, a relative of former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, and otherwise connected in a way to the establishment, Majd has a stated goal to shed light on the elusive “truth about Iran” and his three works go a long way in meeting his objective – though a definite, personal point of view (and to be fair, he never claims otherwise).

The first “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” (2008) is a masterly examination of Ahmadinejad and his presidency as well as key principles of the Iranian psyche including “haqq” or rights, “gholov” or boastful exaggeration and “ta’arouf” or equally boastful politeness and self-deprecation. With its woman taxi drivers and dispatchers, opium-smoking clerics, T-shirt-clad teenagers, and fibre optic internet connected seminaries, the book dispels many stereotypes. Of these, the most revealing one can be the conservative Ayatollah Lankareni’s response to a young overseas follower confessing a “sin”: “Repent, and don’t do it again.”

Majd follows up with “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge” (2010) about the controversial 2009 presidential elections, the protests that followed and the internal political dynamics – all framed in various versions, including opposites, of the supposed dictum of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the founder of the feared Hashshashins (or the Assassins): “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.”

“The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran” (2013) is more personal, about their experiences when he, with his American wife and infant son, moved to Iran for a year in 2011.

What Majd brings out is that Iran should be considered in its own, rather than as part of a “Muslim world” or the Middle East and is more sophisticated and affluent than some people think, knowledge of the Shia faith and its ethos is crucial to understanding the country and this will remain a part of politics and society, the regime does enjoy quite a bit of support, no sudden political change seems likely – the only thing youth want is more social freedom and their elders, more economic stability.

Time these are understood in dealings with Iran (and the last by its leaders)!

(02.08.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

The funniest storyteller’s funniest storytellers (Column: Bookends LXXIII)

By Vikas Datta (08:55) 

Winston Churchill’s most outstanding contribution during World War II, according to President John F. Kennedy, was that he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. But his compatriot, P.G. Wodehouse, went one better, in making the language an unsurpassed medium for some of the most inspired comic writing ever possibly seen in any tongue and creating a number of enduring and unforgettable characters from woolly-headed aristocrats, shrewd domestic staff, bossy and demanding aunts – and especially two irrepressible, irresistible raconteurs.

Most authors can count themselves lucky to create one character whose popularity withstands the test of time – but Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) managed it for most of his creations – be it vacuous but golden-hearted Betram Wilberforce ‘Bertie’ Wooster and his astute manservant Jeeves; the immaculate but verbose Psmith; the absent-minded Earl of Emsworth of Blandings Castle, who is unwillingly drawn into various family issues; the free-spirited Uncle Fred, whose London visits prove devastating for his nephew Pongo; the opportunistic but proverbially unlucky Ukridge; the colourful members of the Drones Club and others.

But the best are the loquacious storytellers of the Anglers’ Rest pub and the “19th hole” (or a bar/pub on or near the golf course) of an unnamed golf club, who have a tale for any occasion, much to the distress of their often unwilling audience.

With Mr. Mulliner and the Oldest Member, Wodehouse can be counted for his most outlandish and uproarious tales, featuring his customary tools of hyperbole, deliberate use of cliches, inspired imagery with his original and innovative metaphors, mixed metaphors and similes, transferred epithets (using adjectives meant for people for inanimate objects), creating new words by splitting compounds or removing prefixes/suffixes, sparkling wordplay, witty banter and, of course, an unquestioned mastery of English prose.

While Mr. Mulliner’s stories are based on trials and tribulations of his large number of cousins, nephews, and other relations in Britain as well as America, the Oldest Member, who is never shown playing golf but possesses an extensive knowledge about it, has an unending fund related to the game’s role in the love and work lives of his friends and acquaintances.

We’ll begin from the Angler’s Rest, where Mr. Mulliner is a regular. The stories begin with an unnamed first-person narrator introducing the ongoing discussion at the pub, followed by Mr. Mulliner intervening, being reminded of a story involving a relation, and then taking over the narration to describe the events. Initially, the narrator returns briefly to end the tale, but subsequently the story ends when Mr. Mulliner finishes.

Of the 41 stories, nine each can be found in “Meet Mr. Mulliner” (1927), “Mr. Mulliner Speaking” (1929) and “Mulliner Nights” (1933) and the remaining in six other short story collections – with “Blandings Castle and Elsewhere” (1935) and “Young Men in Spats”(1936) accounting for over half.

Among the best are about his brother, the famous chemist Wilfred and the complications in his love life, then how his Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo (a tonic to encourage “Indian Rajahs’ elephants face a tiger of the jungle with a jaunty sang-froid”) helps their nephew, shy curate Augustine and how another nephew, the stammering, crossword enthusiast George is cured (of the stammer that is). Then there is what happened when yet another nephew (detective Adrian) smiles, of uncle William’s adventure in California one night which led him to name his son John San Francisco Earthquake Mulliner (disputed by a Californian who claims it was only a fire), distant cousin Wilmot who is a “nodder” at Hollywood’s Perfecto-Zizzbaum studio and more. The list also contains nieces Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham, whose intended suitors have a torrid time, and Charlotte, a poet of ‘Pastels in Prose’ who suddenly starts writing on hunting gnus.

From the Oldest Member come 25 stories – nine each in “The Clicking of Cuthbert” (1922) and “The Heart of a Goof” (1926), five in “Nothing Serious” (1950), and one each in “Lord Emsworth and Others” (1937) and “A Few Quick Ones” (1959) – told most often to a young man who is desperately keen to be elsewhere.

There is Cuthbert Banks, who abandons golf for a literary society to impress his girl till a Russian author’s visit restores equilibrium, George Mackintosh who suddenly becomes uncontrollably voluble (even on the links) till his betrothed tries an unconventional shot, American tycoon Bradbury Fisher who plays for high stakes, Wallace Chesney whose game suddenly improves when he dons a hideously-coloured set of plus-fours, Chester Meredith, who seeks to restrain his language to impress a lady but loses control on the fairway behind the ‘Wrecking Crew’ foursome (The First Grave Digger, The Man with the Hoe, Old Father Time, and Consul, the Almost Human) and many others.

If you’ve read these stories, you will probably be unable to resist a chuckle. And if you haven’t, you’re luckier – a whole universe of fun awaits you!

(05.07.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)