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It Hasn’t Been a Good Day:
William Dalrymple, Bosnia, Punjab, Zimbabwe and … Robin Williams





It hasn’t been a good day.

I started it off feeling sullen and grumpy. It’s ended with leaving me grumpier.

I began the day, in the early hours, by finishing a book I’ve been reading these last few days: William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi”.

An immensely readable book, not one that is easy to put down once you’ve started. The British author is a masterful story-teller -- he shames Khushwant Singh’s lame attempt at chronicling Delhi’s history.

Dalrymple adds humour and delicious narrative to finely detailed research and paints a holographic picture of a city that barely hides the skeletons of successive waves of marauders -- the Mughals, the British and now the Hindutva riff-raff.

I don’t know if Dalrymple set out to do it, but he certainly succeeded in establishing that each group has been, despite hollow pretensions to culture, sophistication or spirituality, equally boorish in their clawing rise to power and in the way they have wielded it through the duration it has been in their grasp, and their pathetic road downhill once they lose it.

There are some interesting exposés. For instance, the fascinating interview with the Hindu archaeologist of international renown, Prof. B.B. Lal, who specializes in ancient sites associated with and referred to in the poem-epic, Mahabharata.

He acknowledges, after some prodding, that the protagonists of the Mahabharta historically were barely past the cave-man age and were living in mud-huts at best. Their structures were made of “wattle and daub”, he says -- wooden strips interwoven and daubed with wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. No marble. No urran-khatolas. No sudharshan chakras. No nuclear power. No stem cell technology.

“The Indraprastha of the Mahabharata,” he said, “was basically created by the pen of a poet.”

The city of Indraprastha, of course, you'll recognize as the much-touted, great and glorious capital of the kingdom led by the victorious Pandavas in the Mahabharata epic, pinned down to have been located in the region of present-day New Delhi.

The “great battle” in the ancient epic was in reality between cave men, not demi-gods; they were engaged in a “tribal feud fought with sticks and stones.”

The rest is all embellishment added roughly 1300 years after the event, with a liberal dose of poetic license by poets and dreamers. [See Dalrymple, pp 325-32.]

There was a residual depressing part in the read, however, as I realized midway through the book that Dalrymple himself is, unwittingly, an example of the decadence that hides behind a veneer of skin-deep sophistication in his subjects. He tells a good story but is never able to go under the surface to understand the larger forces. His superficiality remains stuck at the level of gawking and condescending Orientalism, something he never manages to free himself from while himself scoffing at other pretentious Brits, for example, or the current-day buffoons that run the country.  

What was even more saddening was watching a good writer, over the course of 350 pages, fail to get past exotic and miniscule architectural detail or self-serving mumbo jumbo and make inroads into understanding either the elaborate planning that goes into brutalizing a people for decades and centuries, or into the dark depths of human nature itself which seem to have become the hall-mark of all people, at some time or the other in history.

It was painful to watch Dalrymple keep tripping on, and lowering himself to cheap mimicry every time he was confronted with something that begged some serious digging and analysis.

A good travelogue. However, the author disappoints, but only because he does have, like so many of his compatriots, the gift of the gab.       

*    *    *    *    *

And then, irony of ironies.

As I jump into my car for a quick visit to Toronto later in the morning, I switch on the radio to partake in the usually delightful fare from CBC, and lo and behold, a Dalrymple-type character is being interviewed -- a female version, as if it were -- on what appears, on the surface at least, to be an unrelated subject: the atrocities committed against the white farmers who stayed behind in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Mandy Retzlaff is one of the farmers who managed to escape the horror and the terror of the violence that had ripped through post-colonial Zimbabwe. She was being interviewed, having graphically recounted those dramatic days in her book, “One Hundred and Four Horses: A Story of Farm and Family, Africa and Exile.”

Like Dalrymple, she’s a good story-teller and paints us a vivid picture of the horror that she and her family experienced at the hands of marauding mobs intent on driving out or killing the ‘white’ farmers who had chosen to stay behind, even after Zimbabwe became truly independent and under majority rule.

As Retzlaff relates the betrayals and the outrages committed under Mugabe, I find myself troubled by the fact that she deftly avoids the ‘elephant in the room’ and the journalist interviewer lets her off scot-free with telling us only part of the story.

She forgets to mention, for example, that she and her fellow sufferers, were in fact left-over Rhodesians, the flotsam and jetsam from the earlier decades of white supremacist rule under a racist idealogue named Ian Smith.

Had the world already forgotten him? The country was then called Rhodesia and its leader, Ian Smith, I clearly remembered, was the Idi Amin and Saddam Hussain and Osama bin Laden of his age. A son of British immigrants, he had ruled with an iron fist, defying international anger and censor, over a land peopled almost completely by black Africans, brutalizing them to no end.

"Not in a 100 years‘ time will I allow Rhodesia to be ruled by a black baboon", Ian Smith had boasted publicly over and over again in or about 1965.    

It wasn’t until he was hounded out of power through international sanctions in 1979 that the world’s full attention then turned to similar apartheid crimes in next-door South Africa, where he ultimately sought refuge decades later, and died a forgotten non-entity in 2007! 

Not a word about this recent horrible past of the land we now know as Zimbabwe; nary a word of it from Retzlaff, not a whisper from her interviewer.

All I can say, listening to what is indeed a tragedy, is that you can’t beat a people down and treat them like baboons, and then complain that some of them, by now obviously madmen and criminals, are behaving like baboons!

Like Dalrymple, Retzlaff tells a good story … but quite misses out -- or skips! -- on the beef.

*    *    *    *    *

I rush home at mid-day to meet a visitor who is scheduled to arrive at my residence for the early afternoon.

I am blessed with regular visits from readers of from far and wide. It provides an added dimension to my inter-connectedness with the world at large, sitting here in pastoral Ontario. I welcome the feedback, the exchanges of ideas, the suggestions …

But it comes with a price.

Invariably, many who come are distressed by the goings-on in the world and the conversation inevitably turns to India and Punjab and the state of the panth worldwide.

My challenge is to not only help them pull themselves back up by their boot-straps of chardi kala, but to protect my own state of mind. I need to constantly nurse it and shelter it from despair, so that I can keep an even keel -- a semblance at least of sehaj -- in grappling with the otherwise constant onslaught of news that flows into my bubble from every corner of the globe.

If I manage to send my visitor off, after a few pleasant hours of conversation, feeling a little more upbeat than when he came in, I am still left with the tumult of my own thoughts and then have to spend the rest of the evening uncluttering my head.

If only I too could put up a sign, Dante-like, outside my door. Unlike Dante's foreboding to the condemned soul, I hope my visitor is leaving behind the Inferno of the world as he steps in, not entering the gates of another Inferno.

Abandon all despair, ye who enter here,“ would be the right sign for my abode.

I wonder if it can be reduced to something more pithy. Say, in Latin or in Sanskrit, so no one can understand a word, except me?

*    *    *    *     

As I settle into the evening, I turn to one of the few things that can help me unwind, especially when I’m alone. A movie!

I pick up an unknown entity at the rental store close by: “Twice Born”. I risk it because it has two good actors: Penelope Cruz ad Emile Hirsch.

It turns out to be a gripping story, well told on the screen. With a bundle of surprises at every turn.

It does the trick: it distracts me from the day.

Until it gets past the romance -- both Cruz and Hirsch, as well as some of the others, are charmers -- and gets into the nitty gritty of the story.

It turns out it’s about the Bosnian War, around the terrible goings-on in Sarajevo at the hands of a band of monstrous Serbians.  

I’ve been ambushed. What I had sat down to enjoy as a love-story of sorts turns out to be quite something else: I’ve been transported into the thick of yet another set of brutalities between man and man.

I don’t mind the film entirely, though. I muse and wonder why our own story-tellers haven’t been able to relate our stories with such finesse and aplomb.

I marvel at how efficiently and poignantly the story is related … so effortlessly, it appears … so seamlessly. No preaching, no history, no shouting, no complaining …

If only …

*    *    *    *    *

I visit my computer for the last look-see of the day and am instantly hit with sad news.

Robin Williams, the clown prince of the last few decades, is dead. Possibly a suicide.

He was an year younger than me, I note immediately. That’s so very young, I say to myself. It saddens me because I enjoyed his work, all the way from his television days in the early 1980s to his recent, sporadic appearances on the big screen.

I liked his clowning in particular. He was always Lear’s and Timon’s jester for me, always speaking truth to power, as the expression goes.

Amazing, isn’t it, how the only truth-tellers we see in the world today are … comics and comedians.

What a loss!

*    *    *    *    *

P.S. - Maybe it is time for me to turn to a career as a stand-up comic, you think?

This article can also be read on The Huffington Post by CLICKING here.

August 12, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Mandeep Singh (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), August 12, 2014, 11:10 AM.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

2: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), August 12, 2014, 12:13 PM.

I read "White Mughals" by Darlymple and the Delhi book is on my reading list. "White Mughals" was a tedious read and I was hesitant to read Delhi, but now I think I will wait. As for the suicide of Robin Williams, I don't know how many times today I have been on the verge of tears and anger. Really bizarre response on my part, I did admire him but never such an emotional response for someone I did not know. Truly sad.

3: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), August 12, 2014, 1:53 PM.

Sad indeed. I never could imagine someone who made his audience laugh so much could be battling depression. It has shocked and saddened many of us.

4: A. Singh (London, United Kingdom), August 12, 2014, 3:44 PM.

At the risk of continuing this theme, it is probably worth sharing a recent find that does not appear to have received much attention. In 1837, Mr John Roebuck, MP, in response to the King's speech said: "The Irish Church was a nuisance which must be pulled down and abated at once, and the golden temple must be pulled down by the democratic party in the State, for it never would be by his Majesty's Ministers; and till it was laid low there would be no peace for Ireland." This apparent use of the words 'golden temple' in this context is very disturbing - even if it was over 170 years ago.

5: Don Wilmer (India), August 12, 2014, 11:45 PM.

I think you were looking for "the beef" and couldn't find it in WD's latest. But then it isn't about getting into the harsher realities/critical events that shaped the city. The book is a journey, a good one. Not a clinically written academic paper. I think, WD can hack one anytime but who would want to read? I won't. I won't pay my hard earned money to William Dalrymple to depress me. I read the newspaper for that! P.S Enjoyed reading your critique though. Wish I could write like you :)

6: Harpal Singh (Sydney, Australia), August 13, 2014, 11:08 PM.

Passing of any one living ought to be a somber occasion, not a sad one. Somber - because it reminds each one of our own mortality and limited lease on life. Not a sad one - because how can a completion / closure / finalization be sad? An unchecked and excessive nurturing of our outer (without), inevitably leads to an impoverished / starved inner (within). The starved withing (soul) ends up like a ship without an anchor ... and finally meets it's destiny as a shipwreck. "Eh sareera maeriya - iss jugg mein aaye ke / kya tudh karam kamaaya ..." Waheguru.

7: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), August 19, 2014, 10:21 AM.

I met Robin Williams at LHR airport 6 years ago. He thought that I was a religious leader or mystic. But once I told him that I was an American, he laughed out loud. I asked him if he include Sikh characters in his movies. He gave me an email address but I never followed up to discuss it. I still have my little one's photo with him. He was truly a charismatic person in real life as well as on the screen.

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William Dalrymple, Bosnia, Punjab, Zimbabwe and … Robin Williams"

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