of the individual
Four years after I was
born, on Christmas 1985, Alissa got a present from Mamma. Its all there, the
faded red ink now turned into a light purple, the distinctiveness of how the
As are formed, the long slashes. Years later, I found Signs of Life stashed
between old fashion magazines in an old bookshop. On the page following
‘Mamma’s’ inscription is my own signature; the ink this time is blue.
Signs of Life itself is an
interesting book of essays on various photographs. One man’s thoughts on
what they mean or can mean. But the inscription itself is haunting. Many
times going through it, I turn back to Mamma’s handwriting. Was Alissa
interested in photography or looking at them? Did she hate the book and never
read it? Who was Mamma: A mother, an older sister, a grandmother, some
friend? Was Mamma herself a photographer who could never really explain the
why of it and the book was somehow a token of bringing them together. There
are no answers to this, but it makes you imagine, to think.
Another old book’s first
page says “Will you remember this?” It’s my own handwriting. I wrote
that not because I wanted to remember the ‘why’ of buying it but because
it ties up to a significant event in my life, but that’s another time.
The thin-skinned thesis of
this piece is something one of my close friends uttered during a rather
taxing bull session. He said “Old books with inscriptions or any other
alien artifacts remind me of public toilets.” After which we both cracked
up laughing at 3:00 am and woke up my parents in the next room.
Anyone who has owned an old
book or two knows the annoying routine of underlined passages, meanings of
words in upper or side margins, slashed out pages. Phone numbers, email
whereabouts, the works, engrained in many old books.
The public toilet analogy
might seem rather rude to some except to those who have passed on socially
aware material. A wonderful example is of a certain black magic book I
acquired, which someone took and never gave back, that not only had many
passages blacked out but the wonderful person who had it before meticulously
wrote “F—- You” in the right hand margin on every single page, not
excluding the bibliography. You can read this but I will curse you on every
page, rather intelligent right?
But here’s the catch, two
actually if you don’t mind. The most illuminating passage out of Robert M
Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is this one: “We see
what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ
and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and
Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the
best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and
thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts
trying to find their place among the living.’’
The point in this respect
being, that books, old books, are ghosts in themselves. You see, the
inscriptions, the short notes, the long notes, the scribbles, the underlined
passages, the drawings, anything anyone has done to a particular book is not
damaging it, far from it, it’s showing someone’s presence before yours, a
token, a memento, a ghost. If I were to sell or give away Signs of Life
today, the person receiving it would in fact be visited by three, Alfred
Appel Jr. (the gentleman who wrote it) Mamma’s and mine (to say only if
it’s passed two hands).
The problem, however, is
that many people, the ones who enjoy books and collect old ones only notice
one ghost, the writer’s, the words transcribed on the page. It’s actually
a very huge difference, the one between what Anne Bogart the theatre director
calls hearing and listening. “There is a difference between hearing and
listening, and the distinction is anatomical. Hearing is basic and physical.
Listening is complex and cognitive. The ears hear. The brain listens. The
body hears and the mind listens. Hearing happens physiologically in the parts
of the ear that receive and perceive sound. Listening, on the other hand, is
born in the interaction of brain functions and synapse and neuron events that
interpret the sound. Attention and consciousness are brought to bear upon the
signals, and added to that is the imagination. The process starts with
attention and then extends into the complex cross-referencing of the brain,
including memory, perception, images, thoughts, imagination, and
consciousness. The pathway travels from sensation to feeling to imagination
And here’s the second
catch, you shouldn’t be “hearing” old books. They can only be
Start listening to old
books, front cover signatures, back page confessions, a love poem in the
middle of a book, a scribble, a doodle, underlined words, passages, abuses,
insults, they all start to form thoughts, from one person to another, a
chain, a connection. The feeling of presence, of not being alone.
For a novel that tells the
story of a double agent, The Human Factor by Graham Greene ends up quoting
Anton Chekhov and Anthony Trollope. Greene makes tantalising references to
both these authors in such a manner that one is tempted to read all three.
Graham Greene wrote his
first novel in 1929. The Human Factor came along in 1978. Despite such a long
literary career(his last novel came out in 2005), there is no sign of
decadence in Greene. His metaphors are apt and so are his literary allusions.
His concern with the condition of the modern man is arguably not metaphysical
in nature. Greene’s concern is the institutionalisation of the modern man.
From secret agents to police officers, Greene is a master of the art of
showcasing moral ambivalence in different characters. To him, the issues of
morality and righteous action come as naturally as the South comes to
Faulkner. The subject explored in the human factor is a strange one, the life
of a double agent. Greene said of the novel that it was an attempt to rid the
proverbial secret agent of the thrill and violence of 007. At the end of the
day, the secret agent also goes home after a day at work like any other
office worker. Still The Human Factor is not without its own share of
violence and paranoia. Mostly, the violence is Pinteresque in nature. It is
subtle, a violence born of communication failure, and an unfulfilled desire
to communicate; it is unfulfilled because one happens to belong to the
agency; or the firm.
Novels about secret
agencies always seem to focus on the ability to provide thrill. The
protagonist is self righteous and totally sure of his moral superiority over
the others. There is chase and easily defined villains. With Greene, all such
certainties one expects to encounter in spy fiction are turned upside down.
Villains are mundane and so are the heroes. A consistent reference throughout
is the solitude and loneliness which seem to be everyone’s lot. For some
people the breakdown comes with the need to talk, to communicate freely. For
some, it is signified by nostalgia. For the most part though, characters in
The Human Factor fail to rise to dignity by a very small margin. This lack of
dignity is, once again, bred by secrecy: thou shall not talk. The paranoia
and apathy experienced by the agents also contributes to the lack of dignity.
More than any other factor The Human Factor deals with the dreariness of
secrecy; its unglamorous and official nature. Here, men are not sure of being
right. The right ones seem to be villainous in nature as well as apathetic
and uncompassionate. Unsurprisingly, such is the nature of secret warfare and
that it quickly becomes squalid and loyalties go rotten. Here, there is
little room for self assuredness. In any case, the doubting man has always
been the philosophical hero, the man sure of his so called truths is the one
primed to suffer a fall. Just like pride, righteousness hath a fall too.
A very interesting dilemma
in the novel is present in the form of conflicting loyalties. How do people
who aren’t committed to a cause stay loyal to it if they cannot believe?
Their only moral sustenance comes from being hired by an organisation.
Another dilemma to face: what loyalty does an organisation has the right to
demand? A free man’s loyalty must always be bespoke by himself and his
deepest, unfathomable urges and beliefs. With the tenets of modern life, the
individual has only to believe in his own sense of right and wrong. A very
important issue here is the response of human beings when appeals are made to
their sense of justice. For man, the biggest tragedy is to live without his
sense of justice. But this is exactly what an institution might require you
to do. To live and abandon one’s sense of humanity, of right and wrong,
must surely demote one from the position of modern man; these are indeed the
only laurels that man has won for himself so far. With Graham Greene,
characters lament the gray areas, where right and wrong are not as easily
definable as they once were in the novels of Trollope, where you could spot
the bad guy a mile away.
such an atmosphere of lies and deceit, the secret agency becomes just another
tool for hindering the progress of mankind. The agency becomes the opposite
of what it means to be human; for it to survive; it must feed on secrecy and
paranoia. It must keep reducing men to marionettes. Sanity and humanity both
become hostages in this scenario.
Greene uses the finest
paintbrush to create his characters. Overall his work shows a compassionate
understanding of human beings; where villains seems hardly any different from
heroes. Even though his themes can be increasingly Catholic in nature, they
have such universal appeal that they seize to be applicable to just one group
of society. His themes become studies of human nature, of modern man in self
created institutions, of persona desires amidst a backdrop of communism and
capitalism. Greene is an artist well noted for exploring the conscience of
One of the juiciest parts I
have ever played on television was that of Abdul Karim, later to be known as
Munshi Abdul Karim. He was one of the two Indians chosen to serve Queen
Victoria. The Queen had written to her officials in India asking for two
Indian servants to be sent to her for a year’s duration. She wanted them to
be at hand to help her address the Indian princes who were due to attend her
Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.
Karim was working as a
clerk in Agra. He was given a crash course in English language, social
customs and court etiquette, fitted out with smart English clothes and
dispatched to London. He was 24 at the time.
Nobody has ever written
anything about who the other servant was, or what services he provided, but,
our hero (or scoundrel, in the words Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private
secretary) became her favourite The Queen was then 68 and had been a widow
for 26 years.
In 1982, Farrukh Dhondy
who, by then, had become a well-established television playwright wrote a
one-man play about Karim. He tilted it The Empress and the Munshi. He sent me
the script and said, perhaps to flatter me, that he had written the part for
I was then producing for
Associated Television. My remit was not only to produce, and present a weekly
magazine programme which was seen only in the Midlands, but to produce
off-beat musical and dramatic programmes which were screened on mainstream
television. Dhondy’s exceptionally well-written play, I thought, deserved a
nationwide screening. It didn’t take me long to convince the top brass of
ATV that we shouldn’t let the BBC grasp it.
Since I was playing the
only part in the play myself, I asked Michael Hays, an ex actor-turned
director, if he would like to take on the assignment. He swooned with delight
after reading the script. Michael was not one of the most sought-after
directors at the time, but we had an equation. He had directed me in a few
television plays and I felt that — more than anyone else — he would alert
me about my failings and coax me to go beyond my capacity without alarming me
about my shortcomings.
Dhondy’s play opens with
the scene when Munshi Abdul Karim is squatting in front of a bonfire tearing
and tossing scraps of papers into the bonfire. He has been ordered by King
Edward the VII, Victoria’ son to destroy every letter, note and memo that
the Queen has sent to him over the 13 years he had served her. Munshi is
reminiscing and relishing the time spent with her. But he is also puzzled and
sad. Sharabani Basu in her recently published book Victoria and Abdul
describes the plight of the Munshi almost exactly as though she had seen the
Karim began his life with
the Queen by waiting at her table. He impressed her with his dignified
bearing and was soon assisting her with boxes of official correspondence. She
even took to discussing their contents with him. He made a curry for her one
day which Victoria pronounced to be excellent. She decreed that curry should
be served regularly at her table.
Victoria also became
fascinated with Karim’s language. He convinced her that Urdu was the most
beautiful language in the world. (He was a born hyperbolist). And so the
Empress of Indian began to learn Urdu and Karim was appointed the Munshi —
teacher — a much better title and a huge honour. Within a year, she wrote
to her daughter Vicky, the Empress of Germany: “Young Abdul (who is in fact
no servant) teaches me and is a very strict master and a perfect
Worried that he might be
missing his family the “perfect gentleman” was allowed to bring his wife
(wives in Dhondy’s play whom the Munshi declared were his aunts) over from
India. Even his nephew and his mother in-law were allowed to accompany the
At Balmoral, the Queen,
much to the resentment of her children, had a house built for him. His
photographs hung in her bedroom. She showered Abdul Karim with medals
including the CIE companion of the Indian Empire. He was given the best rooms
in the hotels and villas where the Royal party stayed, his own royal carriage
When Karim fell ill she
would attend him herself, smoothing his pillows. When he returned to India
for his annual leave she wrote to him daily. Karim, a wily creature was quick
to exploit her devotion. He demanded a special pension for his father and he
asked for himself a grant of land in India from which he could receive an
income. She overrode the objections of the Viceroy and granted him his
wishes. Alas! All his endowments were confiscated after Victoria’s death.
The favours that Victoria
bestowed upon her handsome Munshi infuriated the rest of the Royal household.
They referred to him as a “Blackguard” even though he was no longer a
menial in the Royal house. Victoria was so furious that she ordered that the
word “black” was not to be used in connection with the Karim family.
But the intrigues against
the Munshi grew. At one stage, the entire Royal Household threatened to
resign if Victoria insisted on taking Karim on her annual European holiday.
Victoria, as always took the Munshi’s side turning angrily on her mutinous
staff. The household backed down realising that there was little they could
do to dislodge the Munshi while the Queen was alive.
But as soon as the Queen
died in 1901, the man who had arrived in Britain 13 years earlier as a mere
waiter and had risen to become the Queens closest companion was hounded out
of the Palace. His cottage was raided and he was ordered to burn all the
letters that the Queen had sent him signing them as “Your affectionate
Mother” As anyone would have done Karim had treasured them.
Postscript: The Empress and
the Munshi received excellent notices when it was shown in 1984. We had
selected a country house in Worcestershire to film the play. The Duke who
owned the estate was a shrewd businessman who not only negotiated long and
hard over the rental fees of those portions of the estate that we needed for
filming. It amuses me to this day that I received a letter from him a month
after the shooting was over that one of his ashtrays was missing and could I
compensate him. The sum demanded was astronomical. I referred the letter to
the legal department and never heard anymore about it.