The Glass Palace
Amitav Ghosh’s fourth novel is a vast panorama that spans three generations of interlinked Indian and Burmese families and three parts of the British Empire. The action is set in the towns and cities along the great Irrawaddy River and in what Ghosh describes as ‘that tidewater stretch of coast where Burma and India collide in a whirlpool of unease’.
The book begins in 1885 as the British seize Mandalay and the remaining independent portions of Burma and force Thebaw, the last Burmese king, into exile. Witness to the ragged retreat of the once-glittering court is Rajkumar, a stateless orphan who aids the escape of Dolly, one of the Queen’s maids. The British strengthen their grip on the country and Rajkumar grows rich trading hardwood and rubber. A man of power and influence, he travels to India to find and marry Dolly.
The surging river of history sweeps up the family of Rajkumar and Dolly and their tale encompasses both war and the struggle for national identity. Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi have cameo roles and there are vivid scenes set in the feudal rubber and teak plantations and the closed, confused world of the collaborationist Indian National Army.
Finally, though, The Glass Palace is an ambitious failure, lacking the pungent authenticity of Ghosh’s previous novels. The meticulous backdrop is poorly integrated with the family saga at the heart of the book. Dramatic tension is lacking and too often the characters resemble puppets enacting a hollow drama on a gorgeously set stage.
Localization: A Global Manifesto
It must be a positive sign of the times that, for many opponents of globalization, the emphasis is shifting towards practical alternatives. People are more inclined to fight for the positive than against the negative, and in this respect Colin Hines makes a very timely contribution with his new book.
He is one of the most passionate, relentless and articulate advocates of a perception of the world that departs very sharply from prevailing economic orthodoxy. Hines wants to restore to the idea of protection the force and legitimacy it had before the worms of economic determinism got to work on its roots. He moves the argument away from a fatalistic form of ‘realism’ towards the environment on which we rely in the place where we live – the antithesis, as the title suggests, of globalization. Since it can apply everywhere yet celebrates diversity, the approach allows for the organizing principle to be: ‘Protect the Local, Globally.’ The manifesto that results is clear, coherent and persuasive, offering an invaluable guide to action.
Whether localization really is an overarching idea ‘whose time has come’, as Hines insists, is another matter. It remains hard to see why anything or everything is inherently preferable just by virtue of being local. Positive aspirations are explicit in opposition – the fight against injustice is also the fight for justice. Time can be a fickle dictator. Manifestos have been known to mislead as well as inspire. Nonetheless, and for the time being, everyone in search of one can do no better than start here.
Endless Filth: The saga of the Bhangis
This is a book many Indian reviewers could not bring themselves to describe. ‘Water mixes with the shit and when we carry it on our heads, it drips from the baskets on to our clothes, our bodies, our faces. When I return home, I find it difficult to eat food sometimes.’ Thus Leelaben, a Bhangi woman, describes an average working day in this furious account of the plight of the shit-shovellers of India. Condemned by hereditary caste roles to their lowly occupation, the Bhangis clean the municipal latrines of the larger towns in India, in some cases removing the shit with their bare hands. They endure serious health problems – death by drowning must number among the most horrific of the occupational hazards – as well as the abuse, dire poverty and social exclusion that go with the job.
A hundred years after Gandhi broke profound social and religious caste taboos by cleaning the latrines of his ashram himself, the Bhangis remain the ‘lowest in a system of graded inequality’, untouchable even for other untouchables. Endless Filth breaks through the euphemisms of respectable India – where flushing toilets are known as ‘glamour rooms’ – in order to fuel the growing campaign to implement better facilities and integrate the Bhangis into society. Its real target is the caste system that prevents them from entering kitchens, collecting water from wells, touching others or finding alternative employment.
This is a tale of human waste – and wasted humanity. The public outcry required to create the political momentum for change will surely be fueled by accounts like these.
The Wind Will Carry Us
This film’s photography is striking: arid beauty of vast countryside is juxtaposed with a labyrinthine, multi-tiered Iranian village where one dwelling’s roof is another’s floor. Unfortunately, the metaphor of confinement – illustrated further when characters dart through alleyways and openings to unlimited space – make for claustrophobic viewing and a tension that is never resolved.
The main character of Kiarostami’s award-winning film is known simply as ‘the engineer’. He has travelled 450 miles from Tehran to photograph the unique mourning ritual of a remote village. But the plot is kept deliberately vague: we don’t learn his purpose until the film’s end. He is waiting for a frail elderly woman to die. As the visit stretches from days to weeks, he tires of doing nothing – and we tire of watching him, the film’s quirky humour providing insufficient relief from the tedium of his egocentricity.
He does, however, learn to appreciate the villagers’ hospitality – offered generously despite their poverty. And instead of awaiting opportune death he saves someone’s life and thus apparently reforms. But the movie requires so many mental gymnastics to make sense of the laboured plot it leaves little room to care about the main character. We sympathize with the villagers only because their lives are hard, never experiencing who they are. The most three-dimensional people are the women, whose endurance of sexism is sufficiently explored to give them spirit and the film occasional emotional depth. But the promising political messages of The Wind Will Carry Us are wasted.
To say that Karimbo – ‘stamp’ – was born out of adversity is something of an understatement. This recording brings together several generations of Mozambique musicians as part of an initiative to use music to promote peace after years of civil war and to carry social messages concerning AIDS, child prostitution and drugs to outlying areas. Producer Roland Hohberg managed to lay down just two tracks with musicians such as 1960s marrabenta star Lisboa Matavel, young rapper Chiquito and 20-year-old female singing star Chonyl, when the country was hit by another disaster – flooding.
The song ‘N’dambi’ comes directly from this experience. Jorgito’s subdued vocals are to the point and even the music – usually a loose confection of rhythm guitar, lithe vocals and some gentle percussion – momentarily staggers under the weight.
In general, however, this is a gently paced album. The jazz-inflected nuances of the marrabenta rhythms sway equally through songs about the joy of dancing or the grind of poverty. Matavel himself takes the lead on ‘Shihitani Sha Mina’ – ‘my life’. This wry reflection on a human’s mortal span is contained in four short lines and extended by a lilting women’s chorus. It’s these small details that make one realize how connected Karimbo is to the community that made it while its subtle calls for change are no less forceful for their tenor.
Anyone who has seen Shirin Neshat’s outstanding video installations will have heard the voice and music of her fellow Iranian exile, Sussan Deyhim. The two women — one using vision, one sound — make a powerful impression, but once heard Deyhim is unforgettable. Put it this way: Peter Gabriel used her voice to raise Lazarus in his soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ.
Released by – and available only from – the art website Eyestorm, Turbulent comprises four ten-minute soundtracks that Deyhim made for Neshat. A composer who transported her background of classical Persian music and a deep interest in Sufi devotional music into Western studios, Deyhim has meticulous intuition and real avant-garde sensibilities. In ‘Soliloquy’ she combines original source material — Tibetan ritual music, Kurdish shortwave radio broadcasts, Turkish Koranic cantillation and some inspired cello — with her own vocal improvisations to create a weave that’s both timeless and resolutely up-to-the minute.
But the most stunning track is ‘Turbulent’, consisting of two songs set side-by-side which comment on the audibility of women in revolutionary Iran. Women are still not permitted to sing in front of men and for a period singing itself was punishable. The track starts with a popular Iranian song – ‘Yadghar Doost’ – sung by male artist Sharam Nazari. It’s a measured, string-driven song, almost courtly in its progression. There’s a pause, then Deyhim begins her riposte: a magnificent performance, rising from a dark, breathy beginning to guttural sobbing and ululations that assume their own momentum. It may be wordless, but it — like Deyhim — speaks volumes.
REVIEWS EDITOR: Vanessa Baird, email: [email protected]
Music is something we carry within ourselves. As with so many aspects of life, we refine and develop its appreciation often unconsciously. Just as there is no logical end point to a quest for expression in life, so it is for music. So when improvised music pushes the outer limits of tonality and structure, it does not end there. In some vital way it is a beginning.
On the whole the mainstream is ignorant of improvised music and the people who perform it. Major record companies, in a conflation of art and commerce, promote a particular sound to prominence by denying the twin pillars of fire and passion. It is the small labels which continue to nurture the flame – small but significant labels such as Leo, FMP, Hat Hut, Emanem, Intakt and Victo. These represent music as a mirror of the times reflecting the greater social truth: that spontaneity is lacking in our modern cultural systems.
Improvised music is a representation of the unconscious underbelly of a society that has thrust its anxieties and fantasies into the safe keeping of a popular-music tyranny. It seeks to shift, change and revolutionize ways of hearing things, pushing people out of the corners of their lives, out of habits blemished with mundane inactivity, into discovery and renewed awareness. And if ever the dominant state of affairs needed to be challenged, it is now. The merging of social and political systems has created a haven for mediocrity, its neutral politics defeating all critical engagement.
How do words explain the exciting pluralism and collaborative spirit that allow improvising musicians equal space to develop their ideas? How does one communicate the dense textures, describe the open harmonic approach? In many ways improvised music represents the underground tradition of all great art. It is engagement and interaction of the highest order.
Will there be a move towards a new improvised music in the twenty-first century as people free their minds and become impulsive? Will we allow talent and innovation to become the dominant standard instead of the sterile populism imposed by cultural dictators? The ordinary has overwhelmed music and converted it into impotent convenience. New forms of music must undoubtedly emerge. Either that or music will be pushed to the margins of people’s lives where it will become a mere commodity.
We need to re-evaluate the social role of music. There is an element of activism inherent in improvised music that is sympathetic to progressive politics. The true end of history is the death of activism and involvement. Improvised music is a private exercise that imposes a fresh commitment between the performer and the audience every time contact is made. It encourages stylistic fragmentation with the refreshing tribalism of sub-cultures. Perhaps this is why music conservatives maintain their constipated agenda. They feel the need to stop the clock. They fear the dissonant crowd thriving in the underground. Perhaps they should go back to the basement and start listening all over again.
We may truly be on the verge of a very liberating epoch. With the decay of late capitalism and the rise of its ugly cousins, we cannot presume to know that what comes next will be better. We can only begin to guess what it might be. But the times demand vigilance once more and the call is out. The greatest human achievement is not competition but co-operation. There might appear to be a void in counter-cultural activity but actually there is a lot more going on than we are led to believe.