Havens, menaces or challenges: Forests in literary imagination (Column: Bookends XCIII)


From Snow White to Tarzan, Robin Hood to Alice, Lord Rama to the Pandavas, Ali Baba to Winnie the Pooh, Dorothy (of Oz) to Harry Potter, from works of Shakespeare to Henry David Thoreau, Rudyard Kipling to Bill Bryson and Enid Blyton to Cheryl Strayed, there is one common thread, wholly or partly, to some of our most remembered and favourite literature – forests as a setting for key action.

Earth’s dominant terrestrial ecosystem, forests are commonly taken to mean a large area with trees or other woody vegetation though there isn’t any common global definition – 800 definitions are available around the world! What is however more acceptable and indisputable is their role in human imagination and culture, be it folklore, fantastic or legendary, and modern literature, whether children or adult. They can represent a place of refuge or menace, of succour or challenge, of restful contemplation or exciting adventure, a metaphor for nature at its most basic and untrammeled by human civilising, and a source of sustenance – or danger.

But best-served are those who take some benefit from their sojourn in the woods. As a Shakespearean character ruminates: “And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

This was the Senior Duke, perfectly content in his exile in the Forest or Arden in “As You Like It” (Act II, Scene 1) but forests are not always that welcoming and instructive for the Bard’s other creations. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some unwelcome changes afflict various characters, especially poor Nick Bottom in the forest (though everything gets amicably and amenably solved in the end), while in another, the appearance of the Dunsinane forest (or a branch of it, excuse the pun) before Macbeth’s castle spells his doom!

In ancient Hindu epics, Lord Rama and his brother Lakshman first exhibit their mettle by ridding some forests of demons before their eventful exile to the forest, as do the Pandavas who raise their capital after clearing a notorious forest and then spend part of their own exile in forests.

But some of the most memorable and universally-known stories set in the woods – Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel and many more of brave young princes and fair maidens, both equally unfortunate (till the end) – owe their survival to a pair of brothers in 19th century Germany who specialized in collecting and publishing folklore of their country. Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) – or the Brothers Grimm as they came to be known – introduced these tales to generations of avid young readers who found more magic in the no less magic pursuit of reading.

Seven editions of “Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales)” came out between 1812 and 1857 with stories added and subtracted, till the final edition set the number to 211, of which at least, three-fourths were set in wooded environs.

Alice encounters forests in both Wonderland and the land entered “Through the Looking Glass”, while Dorothy finds two of her friends – the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion – in one.

Another beloved childhood story – of honey-loving, teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred-Acre Wood – came out in 1926. Continuing the fantasy tradition was British author Enid Blyton with her Faraway Tree series – “The Enchanted Wood” (1939), “The Magic Faraway Tree” (1943), “The Folk of the Faraway Tree” (1946) and “Up the Faraway Tree” (1951). The series today represent the dictates of changing times with the original names of a more innocent generation – Jo, Bessie, Fannie and Dick – now Joe, Beth, Frannie and Rick, while Dame Slap who used physical chastisement on her students now Dame Snap, who just yells at them.

Harry Potter is what is termed an urban fantasy but a major part of his adventures and tribulations take place in the Forbidden Forest next to Hogwarts.

Set in real life but no less fantastic in their own way are the ballad-derived tales of the Lincoln-Green clad English outlaw Robin Hood, who robs the rich to give to the poor, and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Forests’ colonial cousins, the jungles of Africa and Asia, host the likes of John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke or Tarzan, who was raised in the African jungles by great apes and rejected civilization to return to the wild; Mowgli, the wolf-raised, animal-taught child in Central India’s jungles and the crime-fighter Phantom or “The Ghost Who Walks”. These were the creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling and Lee Falk and debuted in 1914, 1893-4 and 1936.

In travelogues, two of the best rambles through jungles are American Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” (1998), and Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (2012), which take care of both seaboards, have been made into movies and are the best accounts of human’s attempts to survive in the wild (or away from city comforts) after acquiring the needed skills.
As environment suffers from a consumerist culture’s dictates, these works are all the more important to warn us of what we stand to lose.

(22.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)


Existentialism’s genesis in 19th century Urdu poetry (Column: Bookends XCII)


Debates on man’s purpose in life have been as old as his existence and, at some phase, call in question the role of the world – is it friendly, hostile or supremely indifferent? Taking the last position was a school of thought, predominantly European, where the individual’s start is marked by “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless, absurd world. But do the angst-ridden quartet of writers and philosophers – Kierkegaard (Dane), Dostoyevsky (Russian), Nietzsche (German) and Sartre (French) – who are acknowledged as Existentialism’s pioneers deserve all the credit or should we look closer to home?

A consistent but concise definition of Existentialism has been difficult to frame, but Sartre came the closest in describing it as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”. Also among its key features is the notion of the Absurd, which is not the dictionary definition but rather that there is no meaning in the world beyond what humans give it.

It is not very difficult to trace these sentiments expressed in the 19th and 20th century Europe, earlier in time and space to Asia – 12th century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in one of his quatrains, translated and popularised by Edward Fitzgerald, says: “Into this Universe, and why not knowing,/Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,/I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

And on the inexorable, mechanistic workings of destiny and the futility of imploring divine intercession, the Sage of Naishapur says: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” and “And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,/Lift not thy hands to IT for help–for It/Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”

But there was a poet from the Indian subcontinent itself who excelled in transmuting the mysterious absurdity of life and the human condition into verse – verse which is still popular and heard, though most of the hearers may not know anything of its antecedents.

His most famous couplet is on the ineffable paradox of life – and death: “Ab to ghabra ke ye kahte hai ke mar jaayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge”, while another famous ghazal, immortalised by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar, is the one beginning: “Layi hayat aaye qaza le chali chale/ Na apni khushi aaye na apni khushi chale” – and what could be a more poetic expression of Existentialism.

These are among the few surviving examples of the corpus of Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’ (1789-1854), the most popular poet in an era which boasted Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda and the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ himself among many others.

The son of an ordinary soldier who educated himself to rise to poet laureate at the imperial court when just a teenager, the poetic preceptor to the emperor himself and was titled “Khaqani-e-Hind” after the fabled 12th century Persian poet, ‘Zauq’s fame has unfortunately dissipated after him. But circumstances were against him – as the emperor’s Ustad meant he never had enough time for his own work, of which a major segment was anyway lost in turmoil Delhi went through in 1857. Contemporary accounts also played a part – while film “Mirza Ghalib” was ambivalent, the TV serial on Urdu poetry’s most recognised poet was slightly more partisan in favour of its hero, who is shown thinking aloud in one scene, that poetry should not merely be esteemed on the basis of usage of wordplay, polished language and skilled rhyming, but on content and style – as exemplified in his own oeuvre!

But even if only the second of his ghazals cited above had survived, it would have been enough to cement his reputation. Succeeding couplets, including those not featured in Saigal and the Begum’s renditions, go: “Behtar to hai yehi ke na duniya se dil lage/Par kya karen jo kaam na bedillagi chale”, “Ho umr-e-Khizr bhi to kahenge ba vaqt-e-marg/Ham kya rahe yahaan abhi aaye abhi chale”, and “Naazaan na ho khirad pe jo hona hai vo hi ho/Daanish teri na kuchh meri daanishvari chale”.

Most superlative are the last two deeply imbued in a pessimistic resignation: “Duniya ne kis ka raah-e-fanaa mein diya hai saath/Tum bhi chale chalo yun hi jab tak chali chale” and “Jati havaa-e-shauq mein hai is chaman se ‘Zauq’/Apni bala se baad-e-saba kahi chale”.

The ghazal seems a primer for a contemplative soul – and we can only bemoan other gems lost in ‘Zauq’s unpublished work!

(15.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Bagpipes at dawn and other challenges for Scottish soldiers (Column: Bookends XCI)


Can a story about soldiers in peacetime be of any interest for an ordinary reader? What attraction could a fairly predictable routine of a regimented life, with repetitive tasks and drills under stern discipline, have for civillians? But remember “Humour in Uniform” in “Reader’s Digest”?

Soldiers too can find themselves facing situations for which no training or manual can prepare them – this young officer is tasked to manage a football team, change a baby’s nappies, guard a haunted fort, defend regimental honour in a general knowledge quiz, and have the dirtiest soldier in the world under him.

All this – and much more – was the lot of author George MacDonald Fraser, who was commissioned as an officer towards close of the Second World War (after serving in the ranks during the Burma campaign). And luckily for us, he thought it would make for some good stories.

Even as the first installments of his eventually most famous work were appearing – the Flashman series about a cowardly, lecherous anti-hero in various trouble spots throughout the 19th century – Fraser also penned a collection of “fictionalised” stories of life in a Highland regiment.

“The General Danced at Dawn” (1970) has many unforgettable characters – the apparently easy-going but perceptive colonel, the effervescent adjutant, the pessimistic padre, the meticulous sergeant-major, and so on. Fraser appears as Dand McNeill (a play on regimental motto “Bydand” or standfast in Gaelic), while others also appear under different names.

“Monsoon Selection Board” details his torturous route to officerhood and efforts to fit in his new regiment, posted in Libya, in “Silence in the Ranks” – which also introduces the dirtiest soldier – Pvt. J. McAuslan: ” … he lurched into my office (even in his best tunic and tartan he looked like a fugitive from Culloden who had been hiding in a peat bog) …”

Among the funniest are “Play Up, Play Up and Get Tore In” where MacNeill, shepherding the battalion football team around the Mediterranean, has to deal with a naval officer gambling heavily on the team including with official funds, “The General Danced at Dawn”, where a general on inspection likes their Highland dancing, joins in and attempts to set a record – for which, by dawn, are drawn in the neighbouring Fusiliers, military policemen, an Italian cafe proprietor, a few Senussi tribesmen, and three German prisoners of war, “Night Run to Palestine” about commanding an overnight troop train to strife-hit Jerusalem, and not only having to look out for Zionist saboteurs but also interfering seniors, women auxilliaries, a chaplain worried about morals, an army wife with twins and an Arab Legion soldier who locks himself in the toilet (as MacNeill learns on coming across a small group singing “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be?” outside) and “McAuslan’s Court-Martial” – a study in inspired, clever advocacy – while the presiding officer finds the abuses very interesting!

“McAuslan in the Rough” (1974) has, among others, “Bo Geesty” where MacNeill’s platoon manning a fort on Sahara’s edge, finds strange things happening when they try to drill a well, “Johnnie Cope in the Morning” about being woken every Friday by the band going full blast outside but also about a new recruit (a Negro) wanting to join the band and the complicated discussions – one of the funniest passages in English – it entails (he is eventually allowed), “General Knowledge, Private Information” about the quiz contest where McAuslan saves the day, “Parfit Gentil Knight, But” about McAuslan falling in love, and “McAuslan in the Rough”, where the battalion back in Britain, gets drawn into a golf challenge – and the slovenly McAuslan is the caddy for the impeccable regimental sergeant major.

“The Sheikh and the Dustbin” (1988) has among others “Captain Errol” where a new officer is so nicknamed since he resembles actor Errol Flynn, and has the same casual, reckless approach – until a crisis pops up, “The Constipation of O’Brien” where a night exercise descends into farce, the title story about the battalion saddled with an Arab rebel from contiguous French territory till he can be shipped back to the Devil’s Island, and “The Gordon Women”, a superbly comic tale involving poachers and illicit distillers set in Scotland. Finally, Fraser writes about meeting the colonel, now an octogenarian, and both reminiscing how some of the most improbable stories are the most true and the colonel (identified as R.G. Lees – who was second in command at the Japanese POW camp whose story inspired the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) stumping him by correctly identifying all the characters.

A valuable picture of the postwar world as the British empire was in retreat and a whole way of life was changing, the books are an engaging account of an army that fought throughout WWII and emerged victorious. They are also among the funniest.

(08.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Painting a wide panorama of WWII, pioneering popular history (Column: Bookends XC)


It is a rare feat to pen a chronicle of a historical event which is not only the first introduction for succeeding generations but also the most vivid and enduring. And an Irish-born journalist did it thrice – aided by two of these works becoming well-known films. In the process, he also became a pioneer of “popular history” or one meant for the general reader and complementing the big picture with personal experiences across the board from all sides and a rich amount of detail, instead of analysis.

If your first introduction to the D-Day (the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944) is the 1962 big-screen spectacle with a John Wayne as a US colonel fighting on despite a broken ankle, Richard Burton as a RAF pilot on the edge, and an American paratrooper trapped on a church tower as a firefight rages in the village square below, Cornelius Ryan is responsible.

The same if all you know of Operation Market Garden is from seeing Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, James Caan and Ryan O’ Neal in a desperate fight to grab Dutch bridges while the likes of Maximilian Schell and Hardy Kruger do their best to foil them.

World War II not only saw authors like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Rice Burroughs become journalists but also journalists like Australians Alan Moorehead and Chester Wilmot and Soviet Vasily Grossman turn authors. Ryan, one of the latter group, was the most famous.

Born in Dublin in 1920, he moved to London in 1940 and became a war correspondent, flying along over a dozen bombing missions with the US Air Force, before being attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. This did not take part in D-Day, but only came into action after the breakout from Normandy, when it chased German forces right to the German border before lack of supplies led to a halt.

Ryan, however, had himself been in Normandy twice on D-Day (which came a day after he turned 24) – first in a bomber over the beaches and then on a patrol boat back to Normandy after landing in England.

In 1947, he emigrated to the US and worked for Time (for whom he reported on US nuclear bomb tests and the First Arab-Israeli War) and then Collier’s Weekly. At a loose end after this folded in 1956, Ryan, who had proposed a book on D-Day two hours after the invasion began and grew further determined after a Normandy visit in 1949, set to work on earnest. An ad “Personal: Were You There on 6 June 1944?” elicited thousands of responses.

This was followed up with a three-page questionnaire, and on basis of replies, thousands of interviews – of Allied and German soldiers and commanders and French resistance members and civilians – were taken and hundreds of accounts were used to construct a gripping narrative of the hours leading to and of that eventful day in all its panorama of anticipation, danger, heroism and fear.

“The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day” (1959), divided into three parts – “The Wait”, “The Night” and “The Day” – begins on a misty dawn on June 4, 1944, in the coastal village of La Roche-Guyon, which we learn is the most occupied in occupied France with three German soldiers in and around for each of its 543 inhabitants, and then into the office of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who has the task of foiling the anticipated invasion.

It ends in the same village late on June 6, 1944, after a whirlwind journey – to the Allied High Command deliberating on the final nod, British and American paras girding up for a night drop, French resistance on sabotage missions, German officers trying to gauge if the increased activity is the invasion in earnest or a diversion, and finally, the huge Allied armada setting forth and the desperate fight on the beaches.

Ryan’s next was “The Last Battle” (1966) about the Battle of Berlin in 1945, for which he not only interviewed hundreds of Western Allied and German participants but was also given the rare privilege of access to Soviet archives and Soviet generals involved.

But what became as famous as his first was “A Bridge Too Far” (1974) about the gallant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to shorten the war by the largest airborne drop on the Dutch-German border. Ryan, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1970, wrote the book during his illness and died a mere two months after its publication. The film came in 1977.

Ryan, who had written three books earlier including two on Gen Douglas McArthur, left a posthumous account of his struggle with his fatal illness in “A Private Battle” (1979), co-written by his wife on the basis of his notes.

Some journalists never learned to stop working!

(01.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Celebrating diversity, humanity and beauty: India’s first modern poet? (Column: Bookends LXXXIX)


He was a poet both for, and ahead of, his times, pioneering not only the development of a language and form of poetry but also fashioning a modern ethos – one recognising the diversity of his land and its people, of principles of faith transcending outward appearances and rituals, and of the centrality of the individual in existence. And then he had a refined aesthetic sensibility in depicting various facets of the human condition – especially love and beauty – and mysteries of existence, no less than Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam.

“Us ke farogh-e-husn se jhamke hai sab mein nur/Sham-e-Haram ho ya ho diya Somnath ka” is an illuminating and eloquent call to go beyond the apparent, but Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ gives us much more in this vein: “Kis ko kehte hai nahi main jaanta islam-o-kufr/Dair ho ya Kaaba matlab mujhko tere dar se hai”, “Labrez jalwa us ka saara jahan mein yaani/Sari hai voh haqeeqat jaave nazar jahan tak” and then “Kiska Kaaba, kaisa qibla kaun haram hai kya ahram/Kuche ke us ke bashindon ne sab ko yahin se salaam kiya”.

He also sought to inspire humans about their potential and purpose: “Mat sahal hamein jaano phirta hain falak barson/Tab khaak ke parde se insaan nikalta hai”, “Ab aise hai ke sana ke mizaaj upar bahm pahunche/Jo khaatir khwah apne ham huye hote to kya hote” and “Ilahi kaise hote hai jinhein hai bandagi khwaish/Hamen to sharm daman geer hoti hai khuda hote”.

This can help explain why Mir’s poetry seems as relevant today, was praised by his celebrated successor Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ (“Rekhta ke tum hi ustad nahi ho ‘Ghalib’/Kehte hai agle zamane mein koi ‘Mir’ bhi tha” – though they differed on a cast-out lover’s fate! Mir says “Yun uthe aah us gali se ham/Jaise koi jahan se uthta ha” and Ghalib holds “Nikalna Khuld se Adam ka sunte aai hai lekin/Bohot be-abru hokar tere kooche se ham nikle”), has been rendered by some great singers, and has a devoted band of scholars – Indian, Pakistani and foreign – studying it.

One of his most famous ghazals “Patta patta boota boota haal hamare jaane hai” was used in both Bollywood and Lollywood (“Ek Nazar” with Amitabh Bachchan-Jaya Bhaduri, 1972, and “Chirag Jalta Raha” with Mohammad Ali and Zeba, 1962) – though with changed lyrics, courtesy Majrooh Sultanpuri and Fazal Ahmed Karim ‘Fazli’ respectively.

Then his ghazal beginning “Faqeerana aaye sada kar chale” became one of the most hauntingly beautiful use of the form in a Bollywood film – remember “Dikhaye diye yun ke bekhud kiya” from “Bazaar” (1982)? The title is actually the sixth or seventh sher and the song makes use of it, the next two and the one before it!

Mir was a prolific poet, with over 1,900 ghazals in his six voluminous diwans which also have a significant number of masnavis, rubais, qasidas and more (Ghalib’s fame rests on 234 ghazals) as well as a collection in Persian.

Then in Persian only there is “Nukat-us-Shura”, a biographical dictionary of contemporary Urdu poets,”Faiz-e-Mir”, containing stories of sufis and faqirs, meant for his son’s education, and “Zikr-e-Mir”, an autobiography – which is not a very reliable account of his life but gives a good feel of turbulent 18th century north India, where the once-mighty Mughal empire was powerless, and invaders – internal and external – looted and massacred with impunity. And there is a collection of rather salacious anecdotes too.

But it in his ghazals that Mir holds his own. Does his “Nazuki us ke lab ki kya kahiye/Pankhudi ik gulab si hai” pale before Shakespeare’s “From fairest creatures we desire increase/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” (Sonnet 1) or “For nothing this wide universe I call/Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all” (Sonnet 109) or Robert Burns’ “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose”? Was his “Mir janagal tamam bas jaave/Bin padhe hamse rozgar ae kaash” any less than Omar Khayyam’s “Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire/To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,/Would not we shatter it to bits — and then/Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”

Want to read Mir but don’t know Urdu? The laudable rekhta.org and Columbia University’s Frances W. Pritchett’s magnificent site provide transliterations. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi’s magisterial “Sher-e-Shor Angez” is ruled out but you could seek Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell’s “Three Mughal Poets: Mir, Sauda and Mir Hasan”. Mir’s memoirs can be found in English – courtesy C.M. Naim – and for a fictional view, there is Khushwant Singh’s “Delhi”.

(25.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Crime, Disaster – and an Author (Column: Bookends LXXXVIII)


They can plan and commit the most perfect crimes and, on the other hand, solve the trickiest conundrum or unravel the most twisted conspiracies – on paper! But can mystery writers exhibit their skill they imbue their detectives with in real life too?

Leaving alone detectives-turned-authors – a prime example was Dashiell “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett, who was once a Pinkerton agent – there have been only a few who tried to do so.

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probed cases of two men (including half-Parsi London solicitor George Edalji) who he believed were unjustly convicted and succeeded in getting them exonerated. Others seeking to solve some sensational unsolved crimes – Jack the Ripper’s identity for one – were not successful and faced derision for their efforts, be it Edgar Allan Poe, P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell, creator of forensic sleuth Kay Scarpetta.

But have there been cases we don’t know about – where some renowned writers happened to be around when a foul murder took place, were summoned or volunteered to help and solved the crime – but at the cusp of a major incident that ensured their accomplishments would be overshadowed?

Seems a fascinating idea, doesn’t it? And such is the curious pattern of human life, call it coincidence or whatever you like, some prominent writers were present in some of the most unforgettable tragedies of the 20th century’s first half – a celebrated author was aboard the Titanic, the original grand dame of crime was in London when it faced fierce German bombing during the Second World War and another renowned author, though not of mysteries, was in Pearl Harbor that fateful first week of December 1941.

This was all needed by prolific American mystery writer Max Allan Collins (b.1948) to create his “Disaster” series where murders – occurring prior or during some famous disasters – are solved by the likes of Agatha Christie, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leslie Charteris, Jacques Futrelle, S.S. Van Dine and Walter B. Gibson (the last four may seem somewhat unfamiliar to most modern readers but were most famous in their time, and two of them arguably had a hand of sorts in development of iconic characters like James Bond, and Superman and Batman).

It begins with most famous ship disaster of all time – fresh in our memories even after a century – especially due to the James Cameron’s 1997 film, which in a way, was an inspiration for the series.

Wondering if it wouldn’t be interesting to have Titanic passenger Futrelle, creator of Prof. Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen or “The Thinking Machine” who solved crimes by inexorable logic, solve a locked room murder of the sort he wrote about just as an iceberg loomed, led to “The Titanic Murders” (1999), which draws in two otherwise blameless passengers as villains and ends as just the alarm is sounded.

But as the publisher wanted a series, Collins was forced to delve deeper. “The Hindenburg Murders” (2000), postulating a possible cause of the blaze that reduced the airship to ash, stars British-Chinese author Leslie Charteris but with a little artistic licence – the creator of the sophisticated Simon Templar alias Saint who made the leap to radio, comic books, TV (played by Roger Moore) and film – did travel on the airship but not on its last voyage in 1937.

As far as “The Pearl Harbor Murders” (2001) was concerned, Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, was in Honolulu that week Japan attacked while “The Lusitania Murders” (2002), with Willard Huntington Wright ‘S.S. Van Dine’, again takes a slight liberty – he sailed on the luxury liner but not in 1915 when it came in the sights of a U-boat.

“The London Blitz Murders” (2004) actually deals with the spike in crime that took place in the blackout, particularly a string of murders with a sexual motive, where jumps in Agatha Christie Mallowan, after prevailing on celebrated pathologist Sir Bernard Spillsbury to let her accompany him to some crime scenes.

A fitting finale is “The War of the World Murders” (2005), in which William B. Gibson, a one-time disciple of Houdini and creator of “The Shadow, ‘who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men’ “, tasked with solving a crime in the time Orson Welles scares a nation with his dramatic, contemporary radio adaption of H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion.

Collins, best known for his Nathan Heller series of a hard-boiled investigator rubbing shoulders with quite a few of the famous and infamous in pre-WWII US, replicates his magic here too. He builds a fine head of tension by restricting the timeframe to just a few days, while the meticulous research, spotless evocation of the era portrayed – and for good measure, replicating style and ethos of the author being featured, make for a most satisfying read and provide the best example of literary historical crime fiction – in all senses!

(18.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Laughter on the pitch and pavillion: Cricket in its humour (Column: Bookends LXXXVII)


It now figures in fiction for all the wrong reasons now – controversies, conspiracies, crimes and even worse, distracting amorous dalliances, but cricket, in the days when it was still a gentleman’s game and not a money-spinning, over-analysed entertainment spectacle, had an honoured place in English literature, with some great authors and avid players writing about it – some tickling the funny bone mercilessly while at it.

Humour, did you think? What role does it have in a game chiefly requiring superlative skills, agility and power, of an ability for inspired, intricate stroke play, or dispatching thunderbolts at the batsman or beguiling him with spin?

An initial look is not promising. Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt played the game but didn’t write on it, nor did it figure humorously in writings of J.M. “Peter Pan” Barrie and his team ‘Allahakbarries’ (named on a mistaken belief that the religious invocation meant “Heaven help us”) comprising Jerome K. Jerome, A.E.W. Mason, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.W. Hornung (whose gentleman-criminal Raffles was an ace cricketer), H.G. Wells, A.A. “Winnie the Pooh” Milne and P.G. Wodehouse (save maybe “Picadilly Jim”).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey actually solves a crime during a game in “Murder Must Advertise” (1933) and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quintet has a most unsettling account of its origins. Laughs also don’t figure in more recent works, be it Anuja Chauhan’s “The Zoya Factor” (2008), Joseph O’Neill’s haunting “Netherland” (2008) about a lonely Dutch business executive in post 9/11 New York finding a sense of belonging by joining a cricket club, Tarquin Hall’s “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken” (2012) or Timeri N. Murari’s “The Taliban Cricket Club” (2012).

“The Goat, the Sofa & Mr Swami” (2010), R. Chandrashekhar’s matchless synthesis of politics, diplomacy, bureaucracy and cricket – which is what the sport is now – does however succeed with its riotous finale in a Delhi stadium.

The first humorous treatment is in Charles Dickens’ rollicking, voluminous debut “The Pickwick Papers” (1836), whose chapter seven sees the Pickwickians at the Dingley Dell Cricket Club vs All-Muggleton game. Also introduced is the game’s first commentator, who – to give him credit – is admirably succinct “Capital game-well played-some strokes admirable.”

Mr Jingle, with his singular speech, has also played in the West Indies: “Warm!-red hot-scorching-glowing. Played a match once-single wicket-friend the colonel – Sir Thomas Blazo – who should get the greatest number of runs – won the toss-first innings-seven o’clock A.M.-six natives to look out-went in; kept in-heat intense-natives all fainted-taken away-fresh half-dozen ordered-fainted also-Blazo bowling-supported by two natives-couldn’t bowl me out-fainted too-cleared away the colonel-wouldn’t give in-faithful attendant-Quanko Samba-last man left-sun so hot, bat in blisters, ball scorched brown-five hundred and seventy runs-rather exhausted-Quanko mustered up last remaining strength-bowled me out-had a bath, and went out to dinner.”

Pune-born Archibald Gordon (A.G.) Macdonell’s neglected classic “England, Their England” (1933) has, also in its chapter seven, a match pitting a London team against locals in a Kentish village, with a titanic contest between a fast bowler and a soft-looking but lusty-hitting author – and what happens when the bowler feels compelled to make a supreme effort but the umpire feels mischievous. It sadly is too long to fit here but if you can’t get the book, Ruskin Bond-edited “The Rupa Laughter Omnibus” has it.

But high levels of sportsmanship were not always seen.

A minor unlikable character in Thomas Hughes’ “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (where cricket plays a major part), arch-cad Flashman (who got his own series courtesy author George MacDonald Fraser), is once prevailed to play for the alumni at Lords and performs the game’s first hat-trick – dismissing Nicholas Felix, Fuller Pilch (the greatest batsman of his time) and Alfred Mynn by skill, sheer luck, and straight cheating. “I’m not sure that the sincerest tribute I got wasn’t Fuller Pilch’s knitted brow and steady glare as he sat on a bench with his tankard, looking me up and down for a full two minutes and never saying a word,” he records in “Flashman’s Lady” (1977).

Adrian Allington’s “The Amazing Test Match Crime” (1939) lampoons not only the game but English society and crime too as Europe’s most notorious gang “The Bad Men” (including an Englishman damned for knowing the rules but not playing by them) scheme to disrupt England’s final test match against Imperia to decide the Ashes but are foiled by an unlikely and unexpected protagonist.

The antagonistic Herecombe and Therecombe village sides play a match that lasts till midnight but only see two balls bowled – and the first where a fielding side appeals against poor light. You can learn what happened in “The Bad-Tempered Cricket Match” in “Herbert Farjeon’s Cricket Bag” (1946).

Don’t dismiss all these as anachronistic curiosities but a testament to a pastime now reduced to a tense occupation by unconscionable commercialisation.

(11.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )