Reginald Massey’s Book Page

  • Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander  
  • Glyndebourne Summer and Bitter Strawberries by Minoo Golvala  
  • Taste of British South Asian Theatres: Aesthetics and Production by Chandrika Patel

In 1996 there was organised at New Delhi’s India International Centre an important seminar titled The Muse and the Minorities: Social Concerns and Creative Cohesion. I was invited to speak there and considered the subject of The Writer in Exile: Choice or Compulsion? Many other writers delivered their testimonies. I must mention some of them: Mulk Raj Anand, Keki N.Daruwalla, Karan Singh, George Verghese, Ishaq Jamkhanawalla, Bapsi Sidhwa, Indira Parasarathy, Raja Ram Mehrotra, Ashgar Ali Engineer, Dadi D. Pudumjee, Kuldip Nayar, Justice Rajinder Sachar, and A.G. Khan. There were many others there who also made marvellous contributions.

Atmospheric Embroidery 
The poet Meena Alexander was there (she is currently Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College, Graduate Center City University of New York) and her latest collection of poems Atmospheric Embroidery (Hachette India) has just been sent to me. I agree with my friend Keki Daruwalla that she is “one of the finest Indian poets writing today”.

img162There was a time when snooty English critics said that Indians, no matter how Anglicised, could not write poetry in the English tongue. Why? Because Indians never made love in English. But the stern march of history has overtaken them.

Indians from all over the subcontinent now make love in English. How else would a Bengali, for example, express his or her emotions to a lover who happens to be a Malayali? In any case in the 19th century Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824 – 1873) wrote several poems in the English language. Later Manmohan Ghose (1869 –1924) who was friendly with leading poets such as Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson was praised by none other than Oscar Wilde.

The verses in this collection are truly atmospheric that have been embroidered with infinite care. The weight and colour of the syllables remind one of exquisite Rajput miniatures. And, at the same time, she is truly international. Having lived in various Indian cities as well as Khartoum and Nottingham and now in New York her references are wide and her sympathies are therefore transnational.

Let me quote Fragment, In Praise of the Book:

Book with the word for love

In all the languages that flow through me

Book made of leaves from a mango tree

Book made of rice paper tossed by monsoon winds

Book of pearls from grandmother’s wrist

Book of bottle glass rinsed by the sea

– Book of the illiterate heart –

Book of alphabets burnt so the truth can be told

Book of fire on Al-Mutanabbi street

Book for a child who wakes to smouldering ash

Book of singing grief

Book of reeds vanishing as light pours through

At the Delhi seminar Meena Alexander read her paper An Intimate Violence: Living in a Diasporic World. It has been published by General Sethna and Shri Tirlochan Singh from E-33 Saket, New Delhi 110017 in The Muse and the Minorities: Social Concerns and Creative Cohesion which includes the Proceedings and Papers of the entire seminar. I recommend this compendium to all South Asians who are concerned about the subcontinent.

Glyndebourne Summer and Bitter Strawberries
Minoo Golvala, opera singer and actor, was born in Bombay during the days of the Raj. He trained at the City of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama which has an international reputation. I as a Freeman of the City of London am proud to proclaim that. His comfortable family belonged to the Parsi community who followed the teachings of the ancient Persian seer and saint Zoroaster. However, when the Zoroastrians were persecuted they migrated to the west coast of India and later congregated in Bombay. They were mainly merchants, honest and upright and were welcomed by the Hindus. Though they kept Persian names such as Jehangir, Darius and Cyrus they adopted the Gujarati language. Their fair-skinned womenfolk, especially those of the older generation, took to the Hindu sari though they draped it in a slightly different manner. In colour conscious India a white skin is much in demand and hence the Parsis were highly regarded. The first Asian to be elected to the British Parliament was Sir Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 – 1917). The British called him the Grand Old Man of India and leaders such as Tilak, Gokhale and Gandhi accepted him as their mentor.

SONY DSCThe Parsis had access to the highest echelons of British society. The only Indian woman to become a Marchioness of England was Bapsi Pavri, daughter of Khurshedji Pavri, the Parsi High Priest of Bombay. In 1952 she married the 16th Marquess of Winchester, the premier Marquess of England.

The Jews and Syrian Christians from west Asia were also welcomed in India. Meena Alexander whose book has been reviewed above hails from a family of Syrian Christians. These tiny minorities have not been studied widely enough. Their contribution to India’s development has been immense. The Parsis (such as the Tatas) and the Jews (such as the Sassoons who were Baghdadi Jews) made Bombay a cultural and industrial metropolis. The Syrian Christians excelled as teachers, doctors and social workers.

Golvala’s novel Glyndebourne Summer and Bitter Strawberries: a Memoir are, to put it succinctly, brilliant. Both books can be had from Amazon Books UK. I cannot understand why Golvala did not hammer out his books years ago. He could have launched himself quite easily on a lucrative literary career. I hope that the celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta, also a Bombay Parsi, reads these books.

Golvala’s style is unpretentious and nowhere does he strain to create ‘a great work’ but what he sets down is eminently readable and amusing. When describing the English countryside in Lewes and Glyndebourne his prose reads like pure poetry. This is first class fiction based on the factual. To echo Auden: Time that pardoned Paul Claudel, pardons him for writing well.

Come on Minoo Golvala; I wait for more books from you.

India is a country riddled with caste and class and having spent his youth in India he obviously became aware of this. When struggling with his sexual desires in Bombay he tried to have it off with the family’s kitchen maid but failed miserably. He had me enthralled and at the end in stitches. The arcane aphrodisiac recommended by his friend Pervez proved to be ineffective. But then his passion for his cousin Dinsie whom he compared to a Greek goddess had no mean platonic dimensions. Bitter Strawberries is a must read; especially for the fast dwindling Parsis of this world. They are, unfortunately, an endangered species. Inbreeding has taken its toll.

In Britain in the early Sixties when landladies would take only white tenants (but not Irishmen or other ‘ruddy foreigners’) he clearly recognized the class divide amongst the Brits themselves. His landlady in Lewes was decidedly working class but lived in a middle class area and that made both her and her neighbours rather ill at ease. His novel therefore is a social document of some distinction. I too was in London at the time. The Sixties may have been Swinging but not for us ‘Persons of Colour’. When I tell the young today of what we had to endure they think that I’m laying it on. I am not. Ask Minoo Golvala or my friend Balraj Khanna the Punjabi painter and novelist.

Taste of British South Asian Theatres: Aesthetics and Production
British Asian theatre is now a part of Britain’s multicultural scene. Go to the Phoenix Theatre in London’s theatre-land and see Gurinder Chadha’s lively production Bend It Like Beckham. India is not the same country that I left and, likewise, Britain is not the same country that I as an aspiring writer came to. I can say with conviction that over the past half century Britain is a far greater country.


The University of Exeter’s Drama Department under Professor Graham Ley and Dr. Sarah Dadswell held an important Seminar some years ago. The history and development of South Asian Theatres in Britain was examined and evaluated. My wife Jamila Massey and I were invited to contribute to the proceedings. Many luminaries such as the distinguished playwright Girish Karnad were there. The proceedings were published under the imprint of the University of Exeter Press. The book British South Asian Theatres: a Documented History was published in 2011. Assisting Professor Ley and Dr. Dadswell was Chandrika Patel who was then working on her doctoral thesis.

Chandrika Patel’s recent book The Taste of British South Asian Theatres: Aesthetics and Production (Lulu, UK) is a well researched work that examines The Marriage of Figaro (Tara Arts), Curry Tales (Rasa Productions), Mr Quiver: intimate (Rajni Shah), Rafta, Rafta… (National Theatre), A Fine Balance (Tamasha), Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant Stranger (Royal Shakespeare Company / Tara Arts), Deadeye (Kali Theatre) and the Gujarati play Lottery Lottery (Shivam Theatre). These are explored in relation to the theories of the Bharata Natya Shashtra, the Indian classic on music, dance and drama. With inputs from Brecht’s Gestus and semiotics she expands her study towards a wider understanding and assessment that has thus far not been undertaken in British theatre studies nor, for that matter, in Indian theatre studies. This book must be prescribed reading for all students of theatre in both India and the west.

Reginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCEReggie Massey
for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely
published.  Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.



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