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Tough Times, Tough Men
Like Eleanor Catton’s superb The Luminaries, that won the Man Booker Award last year, and revealed a little know chapter in the history of New Zealand (the gold rush), this year’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, brings out a shocking episode during World War II—a story of unspeakable cruelty, eclipsed perhaps because the horrors of the Holocaust simply dwarfed everything else.
In 1943, the Japanese Emperor ordered the construction of a railway line— the 415-km-long Burma- Thailand railway—to be built by 30,000 prisoners of war of many nationalities converted to slave labour. The men were forced to work under inhuman conditions, with little food, no healthcare and hardly any tools. The Japanese armymen who had to meet unrealistic targets without any resources, treated their prisoners worse than animals. To the Japanese way of life, a prisoner of war should have died of shame rather than be dishonoured; on the other hand they wanted to show the whites, that Asians could also manage great feats of engineering.
Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan’s book The Narrow Road To The Deep North (the title comes from a poem by the great master Basho) is a tribute to his father who survived the horrors of the Death Railway, or The Line, as it came be known, while thousands (the number is put at 14,000) died of starvation, illness or torture by the Japanese.
The narrator is Australian military surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, the commanding officer of just one division, trying to keep his men alive under hellish conditions. He was later feted and lionised for his heroism on the war front, but the horrors that he witnessed, do not allow him to feel any pride.
For the reader, the relentless suffering of the men gets to be stomach-churning (a cheerful soldier, Darky Gardiner, is beaten mercilessly till the attackers can go on no more, and then dies an ignoble death drowning in the communal latrine’s river of filth), but Flanagan concedes that the Japanese commanders were helpless too. For a Japanese, failure is akin to death—the system of hara-kiri (ritual suicide) is part of their culture.
The Japanese commanding officer, Nakamura, ill and drug-dependent himself, tries his best to meet crazy targets with a dying workforce. Later, he cunningly escapes being tried as a war criminal, and realises the real perpetrators were never punished; as it always happens, the juniors took the rap.
Evans is haunted not just by the POW experience, but also his all-consuming affair with his uncle’s young wife Amy, as he goes through his loveless marriage of convenience to the dull Ella, and many infidelities.
Flanagan said about the book in an interview, “”I felt I carried something within me as a consequence of growing up as a child of the death railway. People come back from cosmic trauma but the wound does not end with them. It passes on to others.
“I didn’t want to write this book but in the end I couldn’t escape it. If I didn’t write it, I’m not sure I could write another book. I had to deal with things which could become a stumbling block within me. I had to define them.”
It took him 12 years to write the book, in which the reader can only imagine the terrible ordeal the men suffered— the indignity of their grim existence, as bad as the physical privation.
The novel has already been hailed as a masterpiece and an epic comparable to the best in contemporary fiction. It is not an easy read, the love story is also full of guilt and torment. Dorrigo Evans is a complex protagonist— heroic but not particularly admirable. Still, what one takes away from the book, is a story of courage and will to survive.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Chatto & Windus
Extract From The Narrow Road To The Deep North
WHY at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans' earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grand-mother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and ove Bless you, his mother says as she holds him and lets him go. Bless you, boy.
That must have been 1915 or 1916. He would have been one or two. Shadows came later in the form of a forearm rising up, its black outline leaping in the greasy light of a kerosene lantern. Jackie Maguire was sitting in the Evanses' small dark kitchen, crying. No one cried then, except babies. Jackie Maguire was an old man, maybe forty, perhaps older, and he was trying to brush the tears away from his pockmarked face with the back of his hand. Or was it with his fingers?
Only his crying was in Dorrigo Evans' memory fixed. It was a sound like something breaking. Its slowing rhythm reminded him of a rabbit's hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare, the only sound he had ever heard that was similar. He was nine, had come inside to have his mother look at a blood blister on his thumb, and had little else to compare it to. He had seen a grown man cry only once before, a scene of astonishment when his brother Tom returned from the Great War in France and got off the train. He had swung his kitbag onto the hot dust of the siding and abruptly burst into tears.
Watching his brother, Dorrigo Evans had wondered what it was that would make a grown man cry. Later, crying became simply affirmation of feeling, and feeling the only compass in life. Feeling became fashionable and emotion became a theatre in which people were players who no longer knew who they were off the stage. Dorrigo Evans would live long enough to see all these changes. And he would remember a time when people were ashamed of crying. When they feared the weakness it bespoke. The trouble to which it led. He would live to see people praised for things that were not worthy of praise, simply because truth was seen to be bad for their feelings.
That night Tom came home they burnt the Kaiser on a bonfire. Tom said nothing of the war, of the Germans, of the gas and the tanks and the trenches they had heard about. He said nothing at all. One man's feeling is not always equal to all life is. Sometimes it's not equal to anything much at all. He just stared into the flames.
A HAPPY man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. In his old age Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or had himself made it up. Made up, mixed up, and broken down. Relentlessly broken down. Rock to gravel to dust to mud to rock and so the world goes, as his mother used to say when he demanded reasons or explanation as to how the world got to be this way or that. The world is, she would say. It just is, boy. He had been trying to wrest the rock free from an outcrop to build a fort for a game he was playing when another, larger rock dropped onto his thumb, causing a large and throbbing blood blister beneath the nail.
His mother swung Dorrigo up onto the kitchen table where the lamp light fell strongest and, avoiding Jackie Maguire's strange gaze, lifted her son's thumb into the light. Between his sobs Jackie Maguire said a few things. His wife had the week previously taken the train with their youngest child to Launceston, and not returned.
Dorrigo's mother picked up her carving knife. Along the blade's edge ran a cream smear of congealed mutton fat. She placed its tip into the coals of the kitchen range. A small wreath of smoke leapt up and infused the kitchen with the odour of charred mutton. She pulled the knife out, its glowing red tip glittering with sparkles of brilliant white-hot dust, a sight Dorrigo found at once magical and terrifying.
Hold still, she said, taking hold of his hand with such a strong grip it shocked him.
Jackie Maguire was telling how he had taken the mail train to Launceston and gone looking for her, but he could find her nowhere. As Dorrigo Evans watched, the red-hot tip touched his nail and it began to smoke as his mother burnt a hole through the cuticle. He heard Jackie Maguire say --
She's vanished off the face of the earth, Mrs Evans. And the smoke gave way to a small gush of dark blood from his thumb, and the pain of his blood blister and the terror of the red-hot carving knife were gone.
Scram, Dorrigo's mother said, nudging him off the table. Scram now, boy.
Vanished! Jackie Maguire said.
All this was in the days when the world was wide and the island of Tasmania was still the world. And of its many remote and forgotten outposts, few were more forgotten and remote than Cleveland, the hamlet of forty or so souls where Dorrigo Evans lived. An old convict coaching village fallen on hard times and out of memory, it now survived as a railway siding, a handful of crumbling Georgian buildings and scattered verandah-browed wooden cottages, shelter for those who had endured a century of exile and loss.
By Mansi L.Panse
A Forgotten Chapter
A well researched, empathetic glimpse into the lives of young unknown revolutionaries led by Master-da Surjya Sen, who laid siege to the British armoury of Chittagong and ultimately laid down their lives in a fervent bid to free the mother land of foreign yoke at such an young age. This glorious chapter in India’s struggle for freedom would have forever remained hidden from the eyes and ears of India but for the yeoman service rendered by Manoshi Bhattacharya. What makes this book extremely special is the ever shifting perspective and the action that moves forward in swift subtle strokes from one point of view to another. The result is what TS Eliot attempts in The Wasteland, a series of pictures in the cinematic graphic technique of montage.
Even though the book is about that summer of 1930, it has a much broader canvas and takes in the entire history of that period with painstaking research. Never before have characters been brought alive merely through dialogue. And the dialogue, in the manner of Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, is very well diversified. This is evident from the speeches of the Britishers and the Indians.
Bhattacharya, with an uncanny ability to get into the skin of the characters, delineates an unforgettable gallery of characters with slap-dash bravura, so that our hearts warm not only towards Surjya Sen and his loyal followers but also towards Police Commissioner Charles Tegart. To sum up the book is a must read for every freedom loving Indian.
by Manoshi Bhattacharya
Published by Harper Collins