Under my byline


Posted in Books by Rrishi on 24 January 2009

Two very short book reviews.

Ian J Barrow, Surveying and Mapping in Sri Lanka 1800-1900Surveying and Mapping in Colonial Sri Lanka 1800-1900
Ian J Barrow
xii + 212

To rule the colonies effectively, European colonialists needed to know what they were ruling — land as well as people. This was the root motive for the explosion of European research and exploration of India, Africa and other parts of the colonised world during the 19th century.

Appropriately, in Ceylon by the end of the century the largest department of the colonial government was the survey department.

Which is odd because, as American historian Ian Barrow points out, it had taken the department a full 100 years to prepare up-to-date maps covering the entire island. He tells us why, and — because the story involves stubborn bureaucracy, eccentric officers, personality clashes and infighting, commercial imperatives (such as finding land for coffee plantations), scams and scandals, the trickiness of training capable “natives” to do the technical work rather than slack British surveyors, the need to build roads and gain access to the interior, not to mention the obligatory examples of bad behaviour of certain British officers towards their native subordinates and labourers — the story is an entertaining one.

This may be an academic book written largely for an academic audience, but it doesn’t contain dreary scholarly prose. Because it is full of characters and for the most part is a narrative of failures, it’s possible to read for amusement. And because Sri Lanka makes a smaller stage for the action than vast India, it’s possible in one slim book to encompass a critical slice of history. A pullout section reveals a few detailed portions from the map of Sri Lanka, dated 1899, that the survey department was at last able to compile.

(Visit the publisher’s website.)

Street Singers of Lucknow and Other Stories
Qurratulain Hyder
Women Unlimited
xvi + 228

Qurratulain Hyder was a pioneer of Urdu literature. If she didn’t actually introduce the literary form of the novel to writers and readers of this language, long devoted to poetry, then at least she was instrumental in setting it on a sound footing. She wrote five novels herself, along with several novellas and four collections of short stories — of which this is one. Hyder, who worked for the BBC as a journalist, also translated much of her own work into English to reach a wider audience.

The title story starts with a memorable scene, set in the courtyard of Pir Handey Shah’s mazar in Lucknow. The name means Saint of the Gas Lamp, and in the story nobody is quite sure who the saint was or how he came to be venerated. In the evening they sit around the mazar’s petromax lantern, listen to Bhoorey Qawwal and Party sing, and relate their own lives and circumstances to the words of the qawwalis. It is an astonishing collection of characters, yet utterly credible — because, after all, the strangest and most ordinary people are attracted to religious places.

The tale continues through a number of set pieces, conversations and stories narrated by several characters. More than a single story, it is a multitude of story-threads — and somehow that seems to be a very effective way to capture the life of a city in time.


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