Where The Dance Is
A Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, has long been a respected political commentator and activist. His debut novel, When Memory Dies – a moving and sensitive study of individuals caught up in Sri Lanka’s troubles – was a compelling blend of the personal and the political.
Sivanandan’s new collection of stories, Where The Dance Is, continues and deepens the novel’s themes of loss and dislocation. The subtitle of the book, ‘Stories from Two Worlds and Three’, hints that many of the characters are adrift in hostile and unfamiliar environments, trying to carve out private spaces in the face of exclusion and suspicion. The author does not expound or over-explain; the stories emerge from the tiniest of gestures, the briefest conversations.
‘The Homecoming’, a tender and beautifully written vignette, is typical of the tone of the collection; Ravi eagerly awaits the arrival of his family from Sri Lanka, painfully aware that his small flat in London is bound to disappoint, despite his best efforts, and that his children would grow up in ‘a bleak land of grey-grief summers far from the swell of the sea… a house among houses that yielded no home.’
Sivanandan’s tone is cool and detached but always humane and sympathetic to the human foibles and failings of his characters, whether they be migrants or tourists, shiftless car mechanics or desperate ex-pats. This short book is a gem; cut and polished with meticulous care, allowing the characters to tell their stories in their own way with their own voices.
The Stone Woman
Tariq Ali’s new novel is the third in a projected quartet on Islam and its conflicts with Judaism and Christianity. The first book in the series, Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree was set in the sixteenth century as Ferdinand and Isabella completed their zealous re-conquest of Spain. The second, The Book of Saladin told the story of Salah-al-Din, the Kurd who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the twelfth century.
The Stone Woman is also set on a cusp of history; it is 1899 and the Ottoman Empire is in terminal decline, plagued by corruption and surrounded by enemies. The family of Iskander Pasha, a retired state official, have gathered at his palace by the Sea of Marmara to gossip, plot, tell tales and while away the summer months.
The central story is narrated by Nilofer, Iskander’s daughter, newly returned from exile for the heinous crime of marrying a Greek. As she tells her son Orhan the history of the Pasha family, which has served the Empire for 500 years, a clamour of voices emerge, each claiming a monopoly on the truth and a central place in the creation of history. At the centre of this web of stories, embroidered and ever-changing, sits the Stone Woman, an ancient statue of a pagan goddess, where all in the household go to confide their innermost hopes and fears.
Tariq Ali has yoked the broad sweep of history to vivid and passionate personal dramas, producing a satisfying novel that is both politically acute and tremendously entertaining.
All Souls: A family story from Southie
Radical US comedian George Carlin once said that the poor only exist to scare the American middle classes into working hard so they can avoid the Welfare State. Poverty in the US is associated with being lazy... or being Black.
Writer and political activist Michael Patrick MacDonald grew up in the ghettos of Boston, Massachusetts; a neighbourhood born of Irish famine migrants looking for the promised land. Only, as MacDonald describes it, they found themselves introduced to a more sinister form of deprivation. In his memoir, All Souls, 34-year-old MacDonald writes about growing up in provincial South Boston surrounded by suicides and murders, at a time when such atrocities, according to Southie residents, ‘only happened to black families’. Four of MacDonald’s brothers died before turning 26. His sister was in a coma at age 19. His mother Helen was married twice, though the boys didn’t grow up with fathers. For extra cash, Helen played country music in bars and sang about her divorces.
All Souls is an honest portrayal of three generations of failed American dreams kept alive through the myth that no white family needs a handout.
MacDonald got his activist start – he helped launch Boston’s successful gun buyback programme – in the Black and Latino neighbourhoods Southie preferred to ignore. Through working with minority activists who had been dealing with violence and social class issues for decades, he learned to face reality. This is a book that breaks the silence – and denial – barrier.
Iraq Under Siege
This is not a book for the squeamish. But it is worth reading: a passionate and hard-hitting analysis of the situation in Iraq by leading voices against the sanctions. John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness and Denis Halliday, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Baghdad who resigned in protest at the effects of sanctions, are all there. Along with a host of others, they bring their own perspectives to bear on the realities of life in Iraq today and the moving goalposts that make the situation so difficult to resolve.
The book comes with a clear message: sanctions against Iraq are wrong. Building a compelling case of deprivaton and deception, of the tragedy of the Iraqi people coupled with their heroism, Iraq Under Siege concludes with details of the growing international movement to end sanctions. This is a book not only for the activist, but also for anyone concerned with justice and with foreign policy. A must if you have read NI’s issue on Iraq (NI 319) and want to know more.
Los de Abajo
This is, without doubt, a party-down album from a seven-strong band of Mexico City boys playing what’s been described as ‘psychotic mariachi rock’ – but what is actually more like a kind of salsa-ska punk.
Los de Abajo – or ‘Those from Below’: the name comes from Mariano Azuela’s novel about the Mexican revolution – are a protest band in a tradition that takes in outfits like the Levellers and Chumbawumba. Musically put, it means that the group aren’t afraid of using infectiously fun dance rhythms – here, a breakneck combination of vocals, horns and an arsenal of percussion – to drive their points home. Themes close to Los de Abajo’s heart include the Zapatista revolution in Chiapas (‘La Ironia se Acabó’ – ‘The Irony is Over’), emigration (‘El Emigrado’ is, for all its sombre subject matter, an explosive blast of salsa-fuelled indignation) and a whole slew of sly digs at Mexican politics.
But what’s most apparent is Los de Abajo’s emphasis on liberation as a continual process, rather than a unique event. It’s easily heard in the way the band splice the swinging salsa with the lurching, irrepressible vocals of Liber Terán and a blue-beat ska that seems to have wafted straight over from 1960s Jamaica. Clearly a band that takes its fun seriously.
Eco de Sombras
Meaning ‘Echo of Shadows’, Eco de Sombras is an extraordinarily adept album born of an extraordinarily awful past. The shadows that Baca harks back to are her ancestors, the slaves brought from Africa to Peru. Yet her songs and music also provide a cool lightness like no other. If there’s a submerged message in this album, it’s that any explanation of life – and love – in terms of the dualism between light and shade is too simple by far.
Its simplicity may be the first thing to strike you. ‘De Los Amores’ (‘About Love’) begins the album with a gentle, bell-like percussion, a guitar and double bass pick up the rhythms and, finally, Baca herself enters. Hers is a low-ish, honeyed sound, beautifully modulated, nothing hurried. This is an album of carefully studied atmospheres – indeed, producer Craig Street did much of the recording live at Baca’s stone-walled house in Lima during midnight sessions, and something of that sweetly melancholic mood pervades.
First brought to international attention by two previous albums, The Soul of Black Peru and a self-titled debut, Baca clearly has strong foundations to her music. From the smoky three-in-the-morning ambience of ‘Poema’ to the emphatic call-and-response structures of ‘Xanaharí’, there is real authority here. Indeed much of Eco de Sombras is informed by Baca’s work at the Instituto Negro Continuo in Lima, an institute she set up with her husband to collect and preserve the music of Afro-Peruvians and so pass it down to future generations. And part of Eco de Sombras’ tingle-factor lies in the way it straddles past and present and so creates its own climate.
While seeking out locations within the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union for an unrelated film project, director Régis Warnier was intrigued to come across French- speaking children of a lost generation of French mothers and Soviet fathers. What were they doing there?
In 1946, Stalin launched a vast propaganda campaign aimed at Soviet emigrants living in the West. He offered an amnesty, a Soviet passport and the chance to participate in the post-war reconstruction of the USSR. The number of immigrants from France alone who heeded the call could have been as high as 12,000. The unexpectedly high numbers caused paranoia in the Soviet Government, who suspected that they must have been spies.
Why did they return? They knew about the great purges of the 1930s but they also knew that 20 million had recently perished in the defence of their country. Perhaps idealism drove them back. Maybe they imagined a new light was shining on their homeland.
This French-Russian co-production is homage to history’s forgotten. The luminous Sandrine Bonnaire is perfect in the role of a French woman landing into a living nightmare. Oleg Menchikov is equally convincing as her Russian husband, forced into co-operating with the system but secretly working to liberate her from captivity.
East-West resonates with authenticity, tension and atmosphere. Régis Warnier has given us a history lesson that is neither revisionist nor self-congratulatory. The insight he offers is that what ultimately ruins people is gossip and suspicion and what never diminishes their true humanity is something no system can defeat: loyalty and love.
on Deepa Mehta
Deepa Mehta has a rare talent for courting controversy. After the controversial Fire (about a lesbian relationship) and Earth (about the Partition of India and Pakistan) she has provoked fundamentalist ire with her latest venture, Water.
Filming at Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh was halted earlier this year because the local government feared violent disorder. Mehta tried to shift filming to Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal – but they weren’t exactly welcoming either.
So what’s all the fuss about? Set in the 1930s, Water tells the story of a child widow abandoned in an ashram at Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred river Ganga, and forced into prostitution. That, say hardline Hindu critics, denigrates their religion and the sacred river. They also object that it ‘shows India and its culture in a bad light’.
One of Mehta’s main opponents is Vidya Nivas Mishra, a former univer-sity vice-chancellor and ex-chief editor of Nav Bharat Times. He says: ‘Freedom of expression doesn’t mean people can abuse one another. Why call it “water”? The story of a child widow abandoned in an ashram has nothing to do with the holy Ganga. The reference to the Ganga is not for truth’s sake but for publicity. I fail to understand why the film was given permission. The script has a disparaging remark about Lord Krishna and also brands the Brahmin as an embodiment of corrupt practices.’
Not everyone thinks this way, of course. In February this year more than 1,000 prostitutes marched through Calcutta in silent protest to support Mehta: ‘Disrupting Water is a fascist attempt to deny centuries of our history and our contribution to society,’ said Mala Singh, Secretary of the National Network of Sex Workers.
The founder of the Clean Ganga Campaign, Veer Bhadra Mishra, had another perspective: ‘What is all the fuss about? I am just amazed that we all have time and the inclination to tear a slim script to shreds, to induce violent acts, to prevent filming... Can we not concentrate on... clearing up the poor Ganga which is being sullied with constant abuse?’
Speaking to the Toronto Globe and Mail, filmmaker Mehta, who has Canadian citizenship, said: ‘A right-wing Hindu group was behind the Fire protests. But this, Water, is far worse. The film hasn’t even been made and they have the power to stop it. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find a way to restart shooting. They [the political authorities] really don’t want me to make this film.’
Such clampdowns are today causing mounting concern among India’s democratic and artistic community. Writer and poet Javed Akhtar put it this way: ‘As long as you are saying everything is hunky-dory, you can make a film. What becomes a problem is when you question the present morality, the status quo, the basic structure, the accepted norm. That is becoming more and more difficult.’
However, fundamentalist intolerance does not reflect the views of the majority of Indian people. Actor and parliamentarian Shabana Azmi (who starred in Fire) stresses: ‘On the surface it seems that all of India is becoming intolerant but it is a section of Indian society. There is a systematic attempt by a minority to press people into identities based on religion. We have to resist such definition. Fundamentalists desire to impose a monolithic view and understanding. When that becomes a definition of nationalism it becomes very frightening. India’s pluralism and her composite culture is her greatest strength.’
The protest that halted filming of Water in Varanasi was hardly massive: according to Azmi there were only 12 protesters on site and 400 police! However, local authorities in the state of Karnataka have now offered to let Mehta film there – and offer protection to her while doing so. Mehta was reported to be biding her time and keeping her cards close to her chest.