Sunday, September 28, 2014

28 September: Bhagat Singh and Books

Have you heard of the Babbar Akalis or the Kuka Namdharis or of Kartar Singh Sarabha or of the Komatagata Maru incident or of the Provisional Government of India in Afghanistan? I don't blame you if you haven't. I am sure a majority of us Indians too haven't heard of these. Thus going through Bhagat Singh aur Unke Saathiyon ke Dastavez (The Documents of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades) was like reading an alternate history of India. Here were chronicles of men and women who had fought for India's independence braving everything, even the mouths of cannons. And yet these people are relegated to one-line (if they are mentioned at all) in the official history of Independent India.

Bhagat Singh, whose birth-anniversary falls on this day, is usually remembered as a fiery revolutionary. What is often forgotten is that he was also an extremely well-read man, somebody who thought deeply about the problems plaguing India. According to his comrade, Shiv Verma, Bhagat Singh always carried with him two things: a pen and a pistol. His Jail Notebook reflects his wide reading. From Jack London's Iron Heel to Rousseau's Emile to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to Lord Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon to Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man to Valentine Chirol's Indian Unrest, he seems to have read them all. Even on the day of his execution he was reading Lenin's biography.

And there is a special poignancy in these lines in the letter that he wrote to his friend Sukhdev as both faced imprisonment and certain death:

I want to tell you that in jail, and in jail alone, can a person get an occasion to study empirically the great social subjects of crime and sin. I have read some literature on this and only the jail is the proper place for the self-study on all these topics. The best parts of the self-study for one is to suffer oneself. (Bhagat Singh: Select Speeches & Writings - 102).

It saddens me that I let these books gather dust on my shelves for so long.


First Line: Lahore, 22 July, 1918.

Title: Bhagat Singh aur Unke Saathiyon ke Dastavez
Ed. Jagmohan Singh and Chaman Lal
Publication Details: ND: Rajkamal, 2001
First Published: 1997
Pages: 423
Source: Bought in 2003


First Line: For Bhagat Singh
                  Four Hundred and Four Pages (404 pages)
                  Cell No. 137
                  Central Jail Lahore

Title: Bhagat Singh: The Jail Notebook and Other Writings (Annotated by Bhupender Hooja)
Publication Details: ND: LeftWord Books, 2007
First Published: 1994
Pages: 191
Source: Bought at World Book Fair, 2008


First Line: On the day of Holi, February 27, 1926, when we were getting high on our enjoyment, a terrible thing was happening in a corner of this great province.

Title: Bhagat Singh: Select Speeches and Writings
Ed.: D.N. Gupta
Publication Details: ND: NBT, 2007
First Published: 2007
Pages: 152

Source: Bought at Delhi Book Fair, 2007

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Forgotten Book:The Hand in the Dark by Arthur J.Rees (1920)

It is September 1918. Wartime restrictions on food and drink continue in Britain but the mood is one of hope and optimism. Victory is close at hand. Time perhaps to throw a party...

Recently married couple, Violet and Phil Heredith, decide to host a party at their mansion in the country. The two had met while working at the war-office in London and had married after a brief courtship, much to the dismay of Phil's paternal aunt Miss Alethea Heredith , who had hoped that Phil would marry a girl belonging to a famous land-owning family from the country. The city-bred orphan, Violet is just not considered good enough by Miss Heredith. Violet on her part considers life in the country to be boring. Used to the excitement of life in the metropolis, she is stifled by the regulated regime in the Heredith household. And it is to cheer her up that Phil decides upon throwing a party. The party, in which the guest are mostly old acquaintances of Violet and Phil from London, however flounders from the start. Violet has one of her terrible headaches and as she desires nothing but to be left alone, the onus of entertaining the guests falls on Althea. The party is invited to visit the Weynes -another couple from London - who have decided to 'bury' themselves in the country. Prior to leaving for the Weynes, all the guest assemble in the dining hall to have their dinner where they are regaled by an exciting story about the discovery of a ruby narrated by Vincent Musard, an explorer and expert on gems. As the story reaches its climax, a scream is heard from Violet's room followed by the sound of a shot. On rushing up to her room, they find Violet dying from a gun wound. The sight of his wife dying unhinges Phil and he collapses. The police is called in and find themselves perplexed as the guests were all assembled in the dining hall at the time of murder. Further, there seems to be no motive behind the murder. Eventually though a breakthrough is made and a person is arrested. Meanwhile Phil recovers and is shocked to hear about the person accused of murder. He believes the police have made a mistake and calls in a private detective, Cowley. Painstakingly, Cowley arrives at a different solution to the mystery but whose was the hand that touched the face of the alleged murderer in the dark?

Apart from the mystery (which is pretty good), I enjoyed the characterisation of the police officials investigating the crime. There is first of all the village Bobby, Robert Lumbe, whose heart is all a flutter when he hears of the murder. Then there is his brother-in-law, Detective Thomas Caldew from the Scotland Yard who feels that this case can propel him towards greater things but who finds that not only his superior officer is not going to give him much credit but even the villagers continue to regard him as 'the village urchin'. There is also Inspector Weyling who keeps on thinking of his rabbits while the case is being discussed. The Chief Constable, Captain Stanhill, meanwhile  never did anything so dangerous as to think, but accepted the traditions and rules of his race and class as his safe guide through life. Like most Englishmen of his station of life, he was endowed with just sufficient intelligence to permit him to slide along his little groove of life with some measure of satisfaction to himself and pleasure to his neighbours. He was a sound judge of cattle and horses, but of human nature he knew nothing whatever. All he is bothered about is that people of the 'Big House' should not be inconvenienced. No such compunctions, however, deter Superintendent Merrington whose larger than life figure towers above them all.  A recognized hero of the British public, which on one occasion had presented him with a testimonial for his capture of a desperado who had been terrorizing the East End of London. But Merrington disdained such tokens of popular approval. He regarded the public, which he was paid to protect, as a pack of fools. For him, there were only two classes of humanity—fools and rogues. The respectable portion of the population constituted the former, and criminals the latter. He had the lowest possible opinion of humanity as a whole, and his favourite expression, in professional conversation, was: "human nature being what it is...."

It is the interaction between these various officials (and later Detective Cowley) that in many ways move the story forward. More than the hosts and the guests at the party, it is they who hold centre stage:

"But all the guests did not go upstairs," observed Captain Stanhill, who was following his companion's remarks with close attention. "Some stayed in the dining-room. Tufnell, the butler, made that quite clear when you were examining him this morning."

"Yes—a few hysterical females cowering and whimpering with fear as far away from the door as possible," retorted Merrington contemptuously. "The butler made that clear also."

I also enjoyed reading about the changing social fabric of England. The war has made the girls independent as they move out of home and hearth. When Musard (one of the old school) remarks that the adventure he is being asked to relate might be too horrible for the ladies, he is assured that that needn't deter him as the War has made them strong-minded. The gap between the generations is widening with the elders thinking that the youngsters are lacking in both etiquette and discretion.

The novel also contains three different stories which can form a novel of their own. There is Musard's narrative of finding a ruby in the wilderness of New Zealand which carries with it a whiff of the adventure novels of yore as men went exploring the uncharted territories of the earth; there is an unsolved mystery of a man's disappearance (murder?); and finally there is a hugely funny story of a woman who thinks of herself as a horse after being bitten by a police dog.

In fact, the most charming feature of the book is its humour. Certain tongue-in-cheek remarks about the English are most refreshing... and surprising. The novel was published in 1920 but not for the author the chest-thumping of a country which has won a war. When the butler, Tufnell is sent to get the village policeman, he fancies he sees a crouching shape in the dark:

Tufnell's first impulse was to take to his heels, but he was saved from this ignominious act by the timely recollection that he was an Englishman, whose glorious privilege it is to be born without fear.

Then when Miss Heredith starts singing paeans in praise of a dead ancestor:

"Her Royal Highness held my great-uncle in much esteem, Mr. Colwyn," she added, as she proceeded to fit one of the keys into the box. "He was one of the most famous of Nelson's captains. When he died the residents of his native town erected a memorial to him. It was inscribed with testimony to his worth in a civic, military, and Christian capacity, together with a text stating that he caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. Beneath the text was commemorated his feat in sinking the French frigate L'Équille, with every soul on board."

"That hardly seems like causing the widow's heart to sing for joy," commented Musard.

The author Arthur J. Rees has been a real find and I'll definitely be reading more of him. A review of the book can also be read @ Vintage Pop Fictions.


First Line: Seen in the sad glamour of an English twilight, the old moat-house, emerging from the thin mists which veiled the green flats in which it stood, conveyed the impression of a habitation falling into senility, tired with centuries of existence.

Title: The Hand in the Dark
Author: Arthur J. Rees
Publication Details; E-Text
First Published: 1920
Pages: n.pag
Source: The book can be downloaded for free from many sites.I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg,Australia

Other books read of the same author: None


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Two Disappointing: Why Shoot a Butler?, & Endless Night

Losing one's way and ending up in a strange and (oft times) sinister situation is a plot technique often used by mystery writers. [See Death Knocks Three Times, and The Whispering House]

 Georgette Heyer's Why Shoot a Butler? also begins with our hero Frank Amberley (a brilliant barrister as the blurb has it) helplessly lost as he tries to make his way to Greythrone, the home of his uncle and aunt. It is not that he has never been to Greythrone, it is only the fact that he was trying to follow a shortcut that seems to meander forever. Finally, on a deserted road, he encounters a car and a girl standing beside it. He asks for directions but the girl (a sulky beauty - courtesy the blurb) behaves as though he is extracting her tooth for all the information she volunteers. Not used to such a treatment - because usually it is he who is treating people like dirt - Amberley decides to bother her all the more and subsequently discovers that there is a dead body in the car and that the girl (a Miss Shirley Brown as we come to know later) has a gun with her. This first encounter between the two sets the tone for the rest of the novel which consists in large part of bantering and fencing between the two of them. After a point this gets so tiresome that I just wished them to declare their true feelings for each other and spare us.

In between all these - I am more smart than you - exchanges there are three murders, a sinister house, a dusty book, cousins and siblings, dumb and dumber policemen, an omniscient aunt, and an adorable uncle who is the only redeeming feature in this otherwise mess of a mystery.

Sometime in 2012, I did a post on my Top 12 Agatha Christies. One of the books that was strongly recommended was Endless Night. Now I know very well that amongst her novels, there are only three I haven't read: Postern of Fate, Passenger to Frankfurt, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So obviously, here was a book that I had read but forgotten. Then at the start of this year, Tipping My Fedora had a wonderful post on the same book that made me all the more determined to read it. Unfortunately, I found the narrative a drag and the characterisation uninspired.

Michael Rogers, estranged from his mother, is a loner and a drifter. He meets American heiress Ellie and after a whirlwind romance marries her. The couple settle at Gypsy's Acre where they build a dream house. However, the land is supposed to be haunted and soon the dreams turn into nightmares. The novel's premise is good but the unconvincing ending spoiled the book for me. Also the characters were insipid and I could hardly relate to anyone of them.

In fact, I found only two points of interest in the book. (Since these are SPOILERS, please don't read any further if you have not read the book)

Didn't you find the hypocrisy of Andrew P. Lippincott (Uncle Andrew indeed!) just sickening? He knew the truth and yet he concealed it. How double-faced!

And then there is this moment: Ellie is singing and Michael comes in and they have this cryptic dialogue:

"Why are you looking at me like that, Mike?"
"Like what?"
"You're looking at me as though you loved me...."(126)

Did she know then? Had she guessed? This is the only thing that intrigued me in the whole book.


First Line: THE SIGNPOST was unhelpful.

Title: Why Shoot a Butler?
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publication Details: NY: Bantam, 1970
First Published: 1936
Pages: 248
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) The Black Moth, The Reluctant Widow


First Line: In my end is my beginning....That's a quotation I've often heard people say.

Title: Endless Night
Author: Agatha Christie
Publication Details: London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1967
First Published: 1967
Pages: 224
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) And Then There Were None, Ordeal by Innocence, Sparkling Cyanide

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Mas Negro Que La Noche (Blacker than the Night)

An arm clad in black with lace at the cuffs ending in a wrinkled beringed hand is shown petting a cat even as a disembodied voice speaks to the cat, Bequer, as you'd to a child. The credits roll on even as the wrinkled hands knit expertly... but suddenly a heart attack. Bequer mews in terror.

A struggling actor, Ophelia (Claudia Islas)  reaches home after a shoot only to find an unknown girl sleeping in her bed. Turns out the girl is Marta (Lucía Méndez - who reminded me of a young Aishwarya Rai) , a model, and cousin to Aurora (Susana Dosamantes), one of Ophelia's two flat-mates The other being Pilar (Helena Rojo) , a divorcee, called jokingly a vampire by Ophelia since she lives on the money given to her by her ex-husband. Marta too has been let-down by a man since her boyfriend turned out to be a married man with a daughter to boot. Now Marta has nowhere to go and thus moves in with the other girls after agreeing to share in the rent and other house-hold expenses. 

Meanwhile, Ophelia is informed by a lawyer that her aunt Susana is dead and has willed her house to her. Ophelia is skeptical: she had not parted with her aunt on very good terms and people do not bequeath their possessions just like that. She is sure there is a catch somewhere. The lawyer assures her there is no condition attached except for one - and that too is a request - that she take care of Bequer, the cat. Aurora (who has accompanied Ophelia to the lawyer's chamber) is disgusted - it is clear she is no cat-lover but Ophelia has no problems.

The four excited girls make their way to the old mansion only to be (non) greeted by Sophia (Alicia Palacios), their aunt's maid - who would give Mrs.Danvers a run for her money. Stone-faced Sophia shows the girls around -all of them chattering like magpies. To them, the artifacts round the house are nothing but junk - Sophia comments acidly that modern tastes are horrendous. She takes them to the aunt's bedroom and Ophelia declares that she will keep the room locked in memory of her aunt but Pilar scoffs at this sentimentality and declares that she has no qualms in sleeping in the room and on the bed (on which the dying woman was laid). However, a few hours later she regrets this foolhardiness as she wakes up to find the rocking chair in the room - rocking. She screams and everybody comes running but it is only Bequer (Blacker than the night - as Sophia sepulchrally declares) who has come home after its wanderings. Pilar declares she is sleeping in the room no longer. 

The girls settle down though they feel that Sophia grudges them being over there and that Bequer is nothing but a nuisance. One fine day, Ophelia returns home with her fiance Pedro (Julián Pastor) , only to find Sophia calling for Bequer. On inquiring, she is told that the cat has been very naughty that day having gobbled up Aurora's canary. From that day, Bequer disappears and its body is discovered four days later in the cellar. It apparently died of hunger. That night, Aurora is awakened from her sleep by the sound of someone crying. The others do not hear anything except for Sophia who declare that the old lady has come back to haunt them.

 They scoff at her but soon enough terror is unleashed. How many of them will survive the darkness of the night?

If you like horror without blood, gore, or grossness, you will like this movie. Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada,  this Mexican film was released in 1975 and is today's entry for Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/ or Other A/V @ Sweet Freedom.


Though, of course, one should not look for too much of reasoning in a horror movie, I wonder why the old lady's ghost did not stop the girls while they were carrying out their heinous act?