Monday, September 26, 2005


I've just been on a massive readfest. Clearly the superficiality of "events" I've been attending has been getting to me. I started Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell two weeks ago and ploughed through its thousand odd pages with rapt attention. It tells of a battle royale between two magicians in England during the 19th century. I was initially put off by its description as a "Harry Potter for grown ups". Clarke writes in the manner of a latter day Austen or a Thackeray. She has an incredible imagination but writes intelligently-and restrainedly-about beliefs in magic over the years. There's a Dickensian feel to her London and she does manage to pepper her narrative with real life figures- The Duke of Wellington and Byron among others. It's not a kid's book by any stretch of the imagination though its not great literature either. What did fascinate me was the "western" view of magic when compared with our more "desi" variants. Both views of magic have an uneasy relationship with religion and can be downright sinister. The big difference is that magic in the "West" is now toned down to UFO's or the "unexplained." There are still large chunks of humanity in this part of the world who continue to believe in the power of magic. Even in a country like Malaysia, with its skyscrapers and other symbols of affluence and modernity, the talk would eventually turn to spirits, demons and black magic as part of an everyday reality.
The characters in Louise Brown's The Dancing Girls of Lahore certainly believe in magic. Maha, the central character, is convinced that she is the victim of black magic because the first wife of her husband has cast a series of spells on her. Several trips are made to shrines in Sindh and in Lahore to rid herself of these and to cast equally venomous spells on the first wife. Brown writes affectionately of Lahore and the women of the "Diamond Market" - the red light area. The problem is that the characters she befriends are anything but affectionate. Apart from the odd spark of genuine emotion they come across as a bunch of manic crones intent on making the best of their lives. Yes, these are women who have been dealt a miserable hand and it would be unreal to expect them to shine through. Brown is an academic and tells her story without being patronising, judgmental or vaguely romantic- the sordidness of it all comes through in her graphic descriptions of rats running through houses, excrement all over the place, drug addicts and public urinals. There is a sense of history - the older prostitutes in discussion of how the profession has fallen to .....well, a profession as opposed to a time honoured series of arts in which young women were trained. Her friends include khusras who are either transexuals or transvestites but are not homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They are effectively substitute women. The sad part of it all is that there is no way out. The men and women portrayed here are trapped in their little walled-off city with the luckier ones making it to Lollywood or the Gulf States. Sigh.


Blogger say what? said...

Just ordered the Sussana Clark book. Seemed like my kind of stuff :D

11:22 am  
Anonymous Sin said...

Much as I adore you, I have to disagree with you re: Clarke's book. I thought it was one of the best pieces of literature I'd read in a very long time, if only because of the level of imaginative detail that kicked in. I mean, the footnotes alone are fantastic, non?

3:01 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home