Malgonkar’s The Princes

June 18, 2015

The Princes by Manohar Malgonkar (1963) continues to impress me.

This novel, that I paid 50 cents for in June 1998, intrigued me.  I’d long wondered how Viceroy Mountbatten was able to achieve the assimilation of hundreds of princely states into the national government of independent India.  I’m also constantly interested in other cultures distinct form our own and other modes of thought.  Seven years later when I got around to reading The Princes, I did not expect to be so gripped.

Ahbay, the only child of the Maharaja of Begwad, Hiroji, tells this story of the transition of one imaginary but purportedly typical state.  I fell into awe of the range, consistency, and dramatic intensity of its telling.  Malgonkar covers Ahbay’s childhood, youth, school days, military career in WWII, and young adulthood as his father ages to 50 and Begwad passes to the nationals.  This historical transition frames the novel as does the overall conflict of the maturing and westernized, liberal Ahbay with his traditional, even archaic father.  The drama proceeds through 32 chapters, each a model of tight storytelling.

Robert Coles says in The Call of Stories that what good literature does is show lives that are complex, ironic, ambiguous, and fateful.  Though my principles are for lives that are direct, meaningful, goal-oriented, and self-controlled, I recognize Cole’s grasp of what it is that characterizes the classics and the successfully serious in fiction.  These characteristics have become my aim, too, and I seek them out in what is most worth reading.

The Princes is akin to Ali and Nino (read and reviewed in 2004) in that vast historical changes occur as a background to human lives.  And it is the “little things” of personal lives that carry the drama.  Father and son are at odds; Mother disappoints son, and what restoration is possible between them?  Youth thinks he is in love forever, though the woman seems loose at worst, a devious gold digger at best.  The maharaja heralds tradition, but is there more than his attachment to privilege?  Slowly the naturally kind, intentionally liberal sees that his role in life is to honor his father, adopt the same values—at least in action—and serve the state according to those princely values that are at stake.

Most interesting to me is the handling of character.  Though scores of people troop through the story, a core emerge in first, second, or third place.  They play out their interrelationships with one another, mostly with Ahbay, and they change, deepen, or we see them from differing angles.

What Malgonkar does so well is show the personal face of what we usually call feudalism—socio-political relationships based on loyalty and honor.  Here is the ethos that from one view is restrictive and open to abuse, but from another is the essence of aristocracy, faithfulness to the highest values of fealty and responsibility.

Along with appreciation of this realization comes revulsion of so much else that is part of the system.  The penchant for hunting dominates the calendar.  The time on horseback absorbs daily routine.  Sports preclude academics in school and college.  Men control; women serve.  Marriage is for succession, whether of raj or untouchability.  Concubinage recognizes the nature of sex, at least for men.

Though Ahbay becomes the devoted son of his father, and though he takes on more responsibility, the story never becomes one of standing against the machinations of the oppressed.  The story is one of the continuing giving away of the old to the new with as much honor and dignity as one can manage or carve out for oneself.

The novel attracted me so much, I sought to know more of Malgonkar.  Born in 1913, he had a life parallel to Ahbay, though not of that class.  He saw himself as writing old-fashioned romantic novels and was politically active, to the right of center.  The Princes is the most critically well-received of his novels; he also wrote articles and non-fiction.  I also became interested in A Bend in the Ganges (1964) set against the 1947 partition and The Devil’s Wind (1972) about the 1857 Sepoy mutiny, the only novel telling the story from the Indian point of view.

Further, my myopic view that the demise of the princely states had been a willing one was far from the truth.  As The Princes shows and Lawrence James’ Raj (1998) confirms, the various rulers hoped to retain their independence and paramount relations with the British Empire after independence.  No way could this happen, and everyone from Gandhi to Mountbatten, regardless of how he portrays himself in the BBC film of his life, brought about the end of the prince’s exceptional status.

Note: This post is a updated revision of a review I wrote about ten years ago.


Value Politics

June 9, 2015

Values in Regard to Politics

Note: I began a draft  of this post on February 2 and then lost track of it until June. In part, this reflection led me to drop out of the discussion group a couple months later. I also mulled over the demands upon me during a break in San Antonio as I sorted out the press of other projects against the uncertainty of the future and my time to work on them.

I belong to a monthly all-male discussion group that considers various topics and their political dimensions. We are all professionals of some sort, most retired. Except for an avowedly conservative member, we tend to be liberal or progressive with one libertarian. Our discussions are free-wheeling, largely contextual, and nearly never conclusive. My view remains that these meet-ups are far from the symposiums dating from ancient models, neither in manner nor pursuit. Amazing how conversation has lost its rigor in the last 2500 years. At least, so it seems to me.

Our convenor does his job well in making sure everyone is heard. He prompts the discussion with opening questions and even offers summaries in the absence of group conclusions. My major disappointment is that no thread develops in these discussions; hardly ever does a statement grow and morph with subsequent speakers. What we have, by in large is an exchange of views.

So mostly, I participate as a means of hearing others that I do not otherwise meet and examining my own views beyond my usual attention to what I read and think about. I can’t say that I learn much except how others think and speak.

In January we decided that in February we would look at Minnesota legislative politics in regard to transportation and education issues. No one was given the charge of sources, so some filled the void with email references to partisan bills newly introduced or to newspaper articles. The convenor in one email described this process as “loosey,” an apt term, I thought.  Then he suggested a most admirable approach. We should come prepared to state our values as far as they influence our political decisions. Now we are getting somewhere, I thought.

I went to work in my usual way. First mulling over what I specivically think. Then jotting some thoughts. Next writing more definitive statements. The morning of, I was at the typing and rewriting stage. Finally printing eight copies for distribution. I was very pleased with myself but did worry that it was too cerebral and might be regarded as presumptuous, or worse, pretentious. I would see how the discussion went.

Alas, there was no discussion on values. The closest we came was mention of Jonathan Haidt’s The Religious Mind. In the flow of talk, I expressed myself in a couple areas, fueled by what I had thought about and written. Next month we are talking about the impact of drones.

On the way home, I thought I might as well get some more use out of what I had written and therefore supply the following as I had prepared it to share.

Definition: Human values are principles, intrinsically desirable, that guide and govern actions toward appropriate and beneficial outcomes. Values in order to be operational follow from human virtues. Virtue (the strength to do what is right) is both intellectual and moral.

  1. Politics, being the means of achieving agreement for the common good and general benefit, centers the human experience.
  2. In a representative government, the locus of power resides in the public through duties shared and exercised by the people and their elected representatives.
  3. The burden upon the public as the electorate is to engage in the political process in order to select and replace representatives who best serve them through the political system.
  4. Effective selection of political representatives depends upon the knowledge and discernment of the electorate.
  5. Existence of an informed and competent public assumes that learning the ability to learn remains a lifetime requirement.
  6. The mechanisms of learning are multiple and at the disposal of the learner.
  7. In a democracy, the people provide formal education for one another as one mechanism of learning, one that aims at being foundational – that is, learning how to learn fseor the lifetime.
  8. The strength of politics and its achievement depends heavily on these values and their practices in the general culture.

These 8 expressions are primarily stands reached by examining history and philosophies of human well-being.

1. Today the media in emphasizing conflict to the extent of the language it uses – “battleground states,” “war chests,” and the like – presents politics as adversarial when politics exists to bring us to accord and harmony. We are made to think that agreement is impossible unless some party holds the majority in order to make decisions for our benefit. Certainly we have governmental challenges, but it is partisanship not politics that is to blame.

2. The result of the emphasis on partisanship is that the public grows cynical and loses the realization that they are the responsible body in the politics of representation. We fail to realize that politics is a shared endeavor, and we neglect to do our part as citizens.

3. The duty of the electorate to select representatives faces a challenge when the preferences of some outweigh the good of all and the long run of history. The public is not meant to be divided into competitive parties when the aim of politics is to reach agreement.

4. Knowledge and discernment come to the aid of comity. They open and widen understanding; they generate and sustain tolerance. They change perspective from I-am-first to we-live-together.

5. Learning if it is to be fully useful must continue in the face of change, forgetting, and responsibilities that do not end.

6. Many ways to learn run parallel with one another and meet learners as they differ and change. Parents and other adults guide and model for children and one another. Conversation moves from the phatic (establishing relationships) to the enlightening. Books and libraries, though existing for millenia constitute an enormous heritage and have been greatly extended to the public in the last 200 years. Media may distract from learning but continues to be full of potential in support of learning. We can choose to learn or choose to be entertained to an extent that becomes a distraction and interferes with learning.

7. Schooling, though loaded with a number of expectations, at basis only succeeds when it prepares us for life through setting us on the path of learning how to learn and thereby pursuing our own on-going learning. We then  progress from the basics to increasing breadth and complexity while enabling ourselves with learning skills the chief of which are thinking, deciding, choosing, communicating, creating, and participating in community life – all aspects of learning and means of learning in themselves.

8. Alas, we live in a culture that often assumes schooling to be the whole and end of learning. Instead contemporary culture promotes consumption over the renewing of ourselves.

In short, I am not hopeful about our prospects. I continue to desire course corrections, but I bother myself that improvements are not ahead. Our adversarial nature and innate selfishness without the redemption of commonality and human well-being hold our future precariously, tipping to ruin and loss.

All I Want in Life Is …

June 4, 2015

Fifteen book-related statements and what I say in comparative parallels.

1. Books. Especially books. Books remain my favorite objects in this long life. Among my 6,000 volume library, I have kept some books going back to early childhood.

2. Books. Particularly books with lasting value. I pride myself that I am not caught up with current best-sellers just because other people are reading them. Rather, I want books that may be reread with increasing enjoyment or that continue to provide the information I want as time goes by.

3. Comfy chair to read books. A quiet place to read. I favor quiet: noise repels me. I generally have a book within arm’s reach at all times. I read most often at my desk, in a hard chair, or sitting up in bed.

4. Books. Classics of literature and in other fields. I know the value of some books purchased may dwindle or I may change my priorities, but those classics that are a generation or more old promise continued value and usefulness to me and my pursuits.

5. Money for books. Opportunity to find the books that interest me at discount prices. I find that rather than money the best resource for acquisition is patience and the enjoyment of searching. Some of the very best books in the world can be had for very little money.

6. Library full of books. The fruitful necessity of enough room for the books I want to keep. I once had twice the number of books I have now before downsizing took its toll. We chose the house we occupy in part because what was the family room in the lower level would accommodate about 6,000 books. I want to keep living within such an accommodation.

7. Bookmarks. Bookmarks that are unique, attractive and of the cause each promotes. Bookmarks are a side issue, but I appreciate them. For books that I do not want to deface with library marks, I put the call number on a bookmark I made by covering cardstock with attractive wrapping paper and attaching the call number patch to that.

8. Books. To keep on discovering more meaning in books. Books have not exhausted me, and I have not exhausted them. I trust this symbiotic relationship will continue.

9. A man who reads books. Becoming a better man through books. I can always improve and so much of what I have valued and learned is due to books in total more than to any other factor.

10. Stacks of books. Getting through the stacks of books I have waiting for me to read them. Alas I doubt that I shall ever get to any kind of appreciable end.

11. Time to read books. Better use of the time I have remaining to read the better books. As far as I can tell we all have the same amount of daily time and the challenge is to find good uses for it. My time wrestles against a variety of interests and a habit of volunteering.

12. Shelves for books. That the crammed shelves I have hold up. The only improvement possible is moving or installing compact storage. At this stage, neither seems affordable or necessary.

13. Books. To maintain a steady state library. The idea of maintenance in library size is a realistic one at this point in my 75 years.

14. Tea to drink while I read books. Remembering to keep in shape by regular breaks from reading. Reading books has to compete with church, family, gardening, bicycling, other exercise, and miscellaneous entertainments – all for my continued well-being.

15. Books. To spread the necessity, values, and enjoyment of books. When you are possessed by such a wonderfully profitable opportunity, how can you keep it to yourself?

The above 15 list appeared to me on Facebook and was printed on 1 September 2014. I finally got around to stating my own wishes. The original is clever and emphatic. My responses represent my preferences about the subject at hand that I want to reveal as best I can.

Corrected and slightly revised, 1 January 2016.


Copyright © 2015 by Roger Sween.