Wolf Hall: A Booker winner for story lovers

There’s nothing arty farty about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker Prize winner is solid entertainment for anyone who loves a good story.

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the king’s most trusted adviser and the most powerful man in the kingdom.

Now why should that interest anyone except history buffs?

I was surprised by how contemporary it is.

There are no “forsooths” and “begorrahs” here, no archaisms to look up in the dictionary.

Mantel writes in modern English and yet recaptures the old England beautifully.

It’s like a postcard from an exotic place. The lords and ladies wear doublets and gowns, shoot bows and arrows, and marry partners chosen by their parents before they are out of their teens — but they are no different from us in their feelings, impulses and motivations.

This is a book about politics, sex, intrigue and ambition.

Henry VIII’s England is like a modern dictatorship. We see his deputy, Cromwell, draft new laws to stifle dissent and get them passed by parliament.

We see the religious persecution under Cromwell’s predecessor, Sir Thomas More, who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned anyone found with an English translation of the Bible.

Yet the ruler himself, Henry VIII, wants to be loved by his people. And it is remarkable the devotion he inspires.

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Second Indian Booker winner in three years

The award for the best English novel by a writer from any country except America goes to… an Indian for the second time in three years!

Aravind Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize worth 50,000 pounds ($87,000) for Commonwealth writers for his novel, The White Tiger, set in India. Indian Kiran Desai won the award for The Inheritance of Loss, spanning India and America, in 2006. Irish Anne Enright was the winner last year for The Gathering.

Adiga, 33, who read English literature at Columbia and Oxford and writes for Time magazine, lives in Mumbai.The White Tiger, about corruption, poverty and exploitation in India, is his first novel. Links to his Time articles appear at the end of this post.

“Adiga is the fifth Indian author to win the prize, joining VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, who won the prize in 1971, 1981, 1997 and 2006 respectively,” notes the Man Booker website. Roy also won with her first novel, The God of Small Things.

The only other debut novelist to win the prize was the Australian DBC Pierre in 2003 for Vernon God Little. 

Adiga is the second-youngest novelist to win the award and cites the black American writers Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as influences, says The Times.

About The White Tiger

Adiga also admires the Indian writer RK Narayan, he said in a Rediff interview, where he said he started writing the book based on his experiences as a Time magazine correspondent in India. He was struck by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor — and the fact that, despite the huge poverty, there was “so little crime in India compared to that in New York, South Africa and Latin America”.

 The White Tiger is a clever, dark, unusual novel where:

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The White Tiger: Clever but…

I am surprised that Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is on the shortlist for the Booker Prize but not Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. Would anyone want to read The White Tiger a second time?

No doubt it’s a clever book but I was repelled by the details.

What makes it unusual is that it’s written as a series of letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, of all people, by an Indian explaining how he made good, rising from a servant cum chauffeur to a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. It’s a satire, I guess, about the corruption, exploitation and poverty that exist in India. But there’s nothing funny about this book beyond the smart-alecky style in which the letter writer addresses the Chinese leader.   

The letter writer, Balram Halwai, has every reason to be cynical from all that he has seen in life. His own success is built on a crime – the murder of his employer and the money he stole from him. Instead of being caught and punished for his crime, he ends up with the police on his payroll, bribing them to help him in his business.

The author’s success lies in his ability to make us look at life from Balram’s perspective.

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Sea of Poppies: Riveting history

Englishwomen in the early 19th century bathed only twice or thrice a week in India – and mocked the Indians for bathing every day. The memsahibs – Englishwomen – were bathed in their bathtubs by their maids who soaped and scrubbed them, asking what to them sounded like “Cushy?” “Cushy?” — if they were satisfied. So the maids were called “cushy-girls”. In Bengali and Hindi, “khushi” – which to the English sounded like “cushy” – means “happy” or “pleased”.

Little nuggets like this fill the pages of Sea of Poppies. The author, Amitav Ghosh, shows how Indian languages and culture and cuisine made inroads into Anglo-Indian society – the Britons in India. They had their own code. They were expected to speak only “bazar Hindustani”, a pidgin language, and inter-racial sex was frowned upon. Yet, there’s one scene where a rich Indian’s mistress observing the guests at dinner from behind a screen (because Indian women at the time were not allowed to be seen by strangers) is startled to see an elderly Englishman. He had sex with her when she was a courtesan, she tells her female companies, describing in Bengali the things he did to her. The Englishman, who overhears her, flies into a rage and has to be restrained by others from beating her up with his walking stick. It turns out he knows Bengali. “There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand,” he says.

It’s a comic scene, but it underlines the racism of the British rulers in India.

Sea of Poppies shows the suffering they caused. Peasants were forced to cultivate poppies instead of food crops and sell the harvest to the English India Company, which ruled the country and held a monopoly in the opium trade. There’s a harrowing description of an opium factory where the poppies were converted into balls of opium, which were then shipped to China. The novel is set in the 1830s when the Chinese rulers banned the opium trade, provoking the British to go to war to lift the ban by force.

The opium trade had far-reaching consequences, leading not only to the Opium War and the British conquest of Hong Kong but also contributing to the Indian diaspora. Indian peasants who got into debt and lost their land were sent off to remote British colonies to work as indentured labourers.

Sea of Poppies tells their story.

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Booker winner with the most touching ending

Staying On by Paul Scott

Maybe I found the ending so moving because I am married, getting old, and know how one can wind up unwanted at a place where one has spent several years. But this is a book which touched the hearts of others as well. It was the 1977 Booker Prize winner.

Though Paul Scott is best known for the Raj Quartet, a series of novels about the final years of the British raj in India, Staying On was the book which won the Commonwealth’s highest literary award.

Scott did not get to enjoy his success. He died a year after winning the Booker. The Raj Quartet was made into a television series,The Jewel in the Crown, six years later, in 1984.

Staying On is also set in India. It is about Tusker Smalley, a retired Indian army officer, and his wife, Lucy, who did not return to England when India became independent in 1947. They are in their old age when the story begins in the early 1970s. Lucy worries about her fate if her husband dies. She had not wanted to stay on. Though they live among friends in an Indian hill station where Tusker had been posted as an army officer, she has reason to worry. Tusker is sick and refuses to answer her questions about how much money he has: she knows it can’t be much.

But not even she can foresee the lightning that strikes without warning, with devastating consequences. Mrs Bhoolabhoy, their Punjabi landlady, serves them notice to vacate the bungalow which has been their home. She wants to sell the property and her adjoining hotel to a consortium which plans to redevelop the site. Tusker sees the letter and has a fatal heart attack.

Lucy, who was out at the time, comes home and is numb with grief. Earlier she had read a letter from Tusker explaining why he had stayed on when India became independent. He was already in his mid-40s then, too old to make a fresh start. He wrote about how little they had and why he could not save more. He did not want to talk about such things, so he was writing to her, he explained in his letter, adding that he was sorry for making such a mess.

The ending

Lucy goes to bed after taking the sleeping pill given by her doctor and seeing other family friends. But she can’t sleep. She gets up, drinks some brandy, thinks about the letter — the only love letter she had — and her life with Tusker. It is so poignant. This is how the book ends:

It’s all right, Tusker. I really am not going to cry. I can’t afford to…

All I’m asking, Tusker, is did you mean it when you said I’d been a good woman to you? And if so, why did you leave me? Why did you leave me here? I am frightened to be alone, Tusker, although I know it is wrong and weak to be frightened —

— but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, walking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must must get over it but don’t for the moment see how, so with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself while you yourself go home?

What could be more moving than that?

India and the Booker

The Booker Prize (now the Man Booker) has been won by novels set in India six times in the 40-year history of the Commonwealth’s biggest literature prize. That’s excluding The Life of Pi, the 2002 winner by the Canadian writer Yann Martel, which I haven’t read but which is also partly set in India. I discovered that going through the list of winners published by the Observer, which is asking readers to name their favourite Booker winner.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the 1981 Booker Prize winner, was declared the Booker of Bookers in 1993. The other India-based Booker winners are:

  • The Siege of Krishnapur, by JG Farrell (1973)
  • Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
  • Staying On, by Paul Scott (1977)
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (1997)
  • The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (2006)

The Irish writer Ann Enright’s The Gathering was the winner last year. Also on the shortlist was the Indian Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People along with former Booker winner Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nicola Barker’s Darkmans and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip. (The winner is chosen from a shortlist of six.)

While Kiran Desai won in 2006, the only other Indian to make the shortlist since 2000 was Rohinton Mistry for Family Matters in 2002.

Kiran Desai’s mother, Anita Desai, made the shortlist in 1999 for Fasting, Feasting. Apart from Roy, who won in 1997, the only other Indian shortlisted in the 1990s was Mistry, again, in 1996 for A Fine Balance.

India’s early success and long dry spell

Indian writers and novels set in India seem to have done best in the Booker’s early days. They won four times between 1973 and 1981 but never again until Arundhati Roy took the literary world by storm in 1997. Rushdie was shortlisted twice, for The Satanic Verses in 1988 and Shame in 1983 — but Vikram Seth never. That is really surprising: he is one of the finest contemporary writers.

Personally, I think the Booker is overrated. I didn’t enjoy reading Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin, the 2000 winner. Some of the winners between the late 90s and the early noughties were a little too trendy for my taste. Reading the reviews was enough to put me off.

But there’s no denying that nothing moves books like a Booker. Although this year’s longlist — the initial nominees — won’t be announced till July 29 and the winner revealed only on October 14. the Booker website is already busy. The judges’ panel is headed by the former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo and includes writer and broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli.

Here’s the complete list of Booker Prize winners:

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