Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher

SFAEL(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Crafted from stories told him by his Bangladeshi partner, Hensher takes us into 1970s ‘East Pakistan’, on the verge of proclaiming independence. After partition, ‘these two new countries – India and Pakistan, East and West – they looked on the map like a broad-shouldered ape with two coconuts, one on its right shoulder, one under its left armpit.’ But despite their both being Moslem areas, Bangladesh retained a strong affinity with Hindu literature, its native Bengali tongue, a more moderate take on religion. And as troops were sent in from Pakistan to enforce a more fundamentalist lifestyle, terrible violence and terror ensues.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Hensher’s novels, probably because I read it on a long train journey full of distractions.

That being said, the descriptions are vivid, as one expects from his work, and a brutal rape scene stands out, as does the subsequent killing of a baby by soldiers.

The islamicisation of a school curriculum with a change of deputy head reminds me of the way the Nazis used education to indoctrinate.

A curfew made it difficult to queue for and buy food.

The black and white photos capture the atmosphere well.

SFAEL 2Quotations:

“It is quite an ordinary story, but the implications are tremendous.”

“I was a baby during the war. We stayed inside for months. All my aunts took turns in feeding me. I couldn’t be heard to cry. You see, there were soldiers in the streets. They would have known what a crying baby meant. So I had to be kept silent. No, not everyone came out of the war alive.”

“In 1947, the British left India, and it was split in two: India and Pakistan.

“Pakistan was to be for the Muslims, and India for the rest. Many people died making their way to their new homeland, killed by gangs on the railways or on the roads.

“Pakistan was a single nation, but anyone could see that it was split in two.”

“To the left was West Pakistan, where they ruled, and spoke Urdu, and wrote in an alphabet that flowed like water under wind. To the right was East Pakistan, where the Bengalis lived. They spoke Bengali, which chatters like a falling xylophone, and is written in an alphabet that looks like a madman trying to remember a table’s shape.”

“All the time Amit’s playing was full of pensive thought and possibility. Altaf felt that those pauses and falterings, like a bird cocking its head and waiting between flourishes of flight, came from Amit’s listening to Altaf’s harmonium. … And performing to the ear of so good and attentive a partner, Altaf could hear his own musical lines grow more flexible, inward, and fantastic.”

“trudging backwards and forwards with an uncomplaining gait, like a badly oiled clockwork toy that threatened to walk in circles”.

“the storks picking elegantly, like rich ladies in white draped saris, through the mud”

“out of the flood in gangs, their wet flanks flashing in the sun”.

Sometimes a new friend slips into your life unobtrusively, as if you have been walking quietly along when out from a doorway steps a familiar easy presence. He makes a brief remark in greeting, and falls companionably into the rhythm of your stride, so that you hardly remember what it was like to walk alone. So it was with Altaf and Amit

“Laddu’s face was in the dirt of the street, pressed into the mud and the scattering of fine, delicious sweets, and he saw a boot descending as he shut his eyes. ‘That is not your wife,’ the officer in charge said in a level voice. ‘That must not be your wife.’ He looked at Sharmin, screaming, and, with a thoughtful air, called her a terrible name.”

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