From a Correspondent with Bhojpuri Connections

March 25, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)



May 2012

Dear Mr Ghosh
It was a privilege to hear you speak at the Greewich Maritime Museum in late February. We spoke very briefly as you were signing books and you said I could drop you an email. I’ve been meaning to email you for months and actually started drafting this email the day after your talk. But life sort of takes over…As you probably gathered, my sister, Shruti, and I think your books are amazing and were honoured to meet our literary hero. I don’t say that lightly. I do read quite a lot, but few novels have made a difference to my life. Yours have – they have helped to fill in great gaps in my knowledge of history and thus given me a new way of seeing the World. So now if I hear people talking about (say) Indian soldiers deserting the British Army during WWII, I am able to say “well, actually…” – this is directly as a result of reading ‘The Glass Palace‘.Although I have lived in the UK since I was seven years old, and am now British by nationality, I remain fundamentally Indian. Yet I know very little about India as, despite a shared past, India is pretty absent from British history teaching. As a child and adolescent I felt this lack of acknowledgement very keenly. Your books, amongst others, have given me knowledge and improved my sense of self, who I am and where I come from. As a parent, I feel you have given me knowledge I can pass onto my children.I briefly mentioned to you that you may have come across my uncle, Satchitanand (‘Sacha’) Singh, at St Stephen’s College. He is our mother’s older brother and now lives in Orissa. Both my parents families are from Bihar and my maternal grandmother’s native language is Bhojpuri. My mother’s family are Rajput, I guess like the Thakurs in Sea of Poppies, and are originally from north Bihar. My father’s family are also Rajput, though once upon a time they were rather more grand. They were landowners in and around Darbhanga, with quite a large holding, which has gradually dwindled through mis-management and inheritances. More interestingly, they speak the ancient language Maithli.
My father is a doctor who left India in the early 1980s a a result of sheer frustration (he worked in government service) and family trauma from my maternal grandfather’s sudden death.
Although Bhojupuri is not spoken in my family homes, I am familiar with it and hear it at friends’ houses. Reading Bhojupuri in your novel was an unexpected delight its emotional impact was not something I envisaged. Actually more than a delight – deeply moving. It’s difficult to explain the impact of reading the line where Kaburti asks her mother to bing her back bangles. Reading that line, and the Bhojpuri songs, brought a lump to my throat. Reading it in English just would not feel the same.Anyway, I think I’ve said quite enough about my family history. Do let me know if you remember my uncle, as it will give me a great pleasure to tell him I met you.If you ever get the chance, I would like to know how you found studying at Oxford? I read PPE at St Hilda’s (1993-96) although my first love is history. But I found I could not study history in Britian – it was too incomplete, too partial. I want to understand India and Britain’s shared history, but as soon as the words ‘colonialism’ or ’empire’ are mentioned, all one hears is a load of babble about railways, things being not that bad, getting rid of suti etc.Finally, I hope you enjoyed the rest of your stay in Britain. I know you must have many contacts here, but if you or your family ever need anything whilst in London, where I live, or Portsmouth, where Shruti now lives – and also the birthplace of Dickens – please remember that we are always at your service.

With all good wishes

Smriti Singh

Dear Smriti
Thanks very much for this letter. It was nice to meet you in London, even if briefly, and I am very glad to know of your response to ‘Sea of Poppies’: it really means a lot to me that the book touched you in such a visceral way.
It’s shocking to know that the history of imperialism was taught in this fashion at Oxford in the 90s. But there are many teachers in the UK who do not take such a narrow view.
Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? Do let me know.
Dear Mr Ghosh

I’m pleased you liked my letter and don’t mind at all if you put it on your website – feel free to edit it, as it is rather long. To  be fair to Oxford, there were some excellent tutors there, and still are, but the general discourse in England about the Empire, where it exists at all, is mis-informed and self-centred. I was recently asked by a friend whether people in the ex-colonies still see Britain as great or as a declining power? Where does one begin…?

Anyway, I’m pleaed you liked my letter and will look out for it on the website.

Best wishes


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