Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Gates of dawn

In the continuing heat, each room in the house gives off smells as though it were being slow cooked. In the dining room where we've drilled holes to start dealing with winter damp I can almost taste the stewing brick and stucco; in one of the lower kitchen cupboards an ancient mustiness mingles with the clinical smell of bleach where we've already washed and wiped. Shutters, under layers of old paint emanate baking wood, and the stones which in England only give off aromas when broken open, have identifying exhalations, tiles too - especially the trace whiff of cool marble caught and held on first entering a sheltered hallway from the hot street, remind me of my first visit to Athens fifty years ago, when heat like this was new. Despite the dryness Corfu remains deeply green; gardens are shaded by the large leaves of walnut, fig, orange and lemon, with exuberant vines cascading over balconies and alleyways, the aroma of jasmine caught in passing.
Working on the kitchen windows Lin and I had to climb on chairs to guide a large local Tiger Moth that had begun to flutter against the glass between it and the world a few inches away. 
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An email from Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul still in lowland Scotland:
Dear Simon... I am rushing to write this as I am in the midst of a jam most of which is now melting under the heat of rush but have to make decisions so I wrote to Sharon today as I need to be thinking of getting back in time for the 2nd round of presentations in India. Roughly she says Theodora gets tired with visitors if they stay for a long period and so no more than 2 nights which means 3 days. I will then try to be there by the 27th of September ... Let me know how you are. Cheers Minoti
Dear Minoti. We - Linda and I - are now at our home in Corfu until late October by which time I imagine you will have returned to India....Sharon is right. Mum loves the concentrated exchanges she has with you, but - yes - she does get tired. When I’m talking to her I tend to work in 30 minute sessions and then rest, go for a walk, go to my room or just sit quietly. Mum may sleep or go to her room. But when she’s in conversation she’s alert as ever. all the best, love, Simon
Dear Simon...Yes I have to be in India long before the 21st as that is the date for my first presentation in the India Habitat Centre on the issue of land acquisition and New Delhi.this will be, if I can pull it off, a great opportunity to challenge the GOI of today on inflicting a tragedy of the village commons. I intend inducing INTACH which is for conservation of India's heritage to consider the issue from the point of view of historic villages of Delhi. I realised too late that I would have liked you to see a book I had here on Delhi's heritage villages. But hope you come to India soon. My next one will be in November and they may webcast it. I will have to work very very hard to get that off the ground so to say as the maps will be exhibited and all that has to be prepared. I am writing all this to you for I have to struggle about this all by myself. I feel re-assured just telling you.   I thought over what you said about Theodora's getting tired -  you may not have considered that a lot of conversations one cannot carry on with one's family simply because they are the 'knowns' whereas she may have so much to share with an outsider;  also, she is alone for such a long time that there is a habit she may have developed to look inwards and looking back. Does she like music? I have a film which I would want her to see - would you know if she has seen it - 'Ladies in Lavender'- I can take it with me if she has not. besides I plan to cook a few things and I have already talked this over with Sharon - and she seems enthusiastic about it. What do you say? I am in awe about her attitude to life such that I think I will draw strength from her.  Besides I will be taking some of the copies of Maine's letters and show them to her. Any other ideas?  Minoti
Henry Maine at Cambridge
Dear Minoti. I think you may be right about the ‘knowns’ that can slow conversation between people in long connection with one other. I was inside my mother for 9 months and we've known one another for 69 years since. Even with Lin, we maintain long comfortable silences having been together since 1973, marrying in 1978, and having our two children in 1981 and 1985. We share an encyclopaedia of memories from which one of us may pick up a reference while the other - figuratively - peers over the other’s shoulder debating its accuracy, adding annotations that include additional details – debates and arguments. You and Theodora have - until last year - separate encyclopaedias which you are only starting to share. She and you can turn pages and pages that, were they being looked at within each other’s families, would be too well thumbed; not incidentally that I don’t like repeating happy memories, possibly gilding them with nostalgia.  What may interest you about both Theodora and me is that neither of us really knows very much about Sir Henry and his significance. We’ve always been aware of his fame and enduring reputation, but even after we read Feaver’s biography I felt little wiser about our ancestor.  It is only since you entered our lives that it has been possible for us, through your understanding and indeed reliance on his scholarship, that we have begun to gain insights into why this man is considered in a significant circle to be one of the great intellects of the last 150 years; only now as a result of your enthusiasm and generosity that I have begun to see links between Maine’s research into the governance of traditional Indian society, especially its villages, and his comparisons of these with village communities in the rest of Europe, and contemporary problems of governance and land usage; problems that I’ve so far viewed through different perspectives - environmentalism and sustainability. Much as I respected him in a general way, I hadn’t seen how Maine’s work might be so relevant to my enduring concerns about the urban environment, town and country relationships and new ways of organising the distribution of scare resources without resort to regulation by top-down government or exposure to the market. I know Theodora will be fascinated to see your copies of Maine’s letters. Neither of us have seen any of these, the only handwriting we’ve viewed being his signature. Indeed I feel very little sense of knowing this man as a human being, driven by the ambition of his intellect to excel among his peers at Cambridge, made a full professor at 25, well before the appearance of the books that made his name. He could have been arrogant, priggish and mean, but seems to have been none of these things, being regarded by those who new him as quite shy, generous, sweet mannered, always attentive. I still cannot imagine someone who writes with such originality and assurance and deals with such complex and difficult ideas in this light. I have not heard any more from Robin Peterson in distant Canada about the contents of those files she recovered from George Feaver’s estate. Except for the books Robin sent to Brin Croft in May, which I stacked on a lower shelf in my mum’s bedroom near her window, you now have all of the material my mother had on her great grandfather, - the obituary notices cut out by Jane in the late 1880s. I guess it’s just possible that new material will come to light but I suspect you are our unique link to Sir Henry, notwithstanding Karuna Mantena’s great talent as a scholar. She incidentally sent me a kind note a few months ago saying that she could not imagine a better person than you to help my mother and I to learn more about our ancestor. I read Village Communities - all 6 lectures - last time I was at Brin Croft in early August. I begin to see that what Maine was describing does not lend itself to any easy simplification; no idealistic paean for the simple and the traditional, no obvious opposition to the progress from status to contract.  I see considerable concern about the effects on village elites and more educated Indians of the day of offering uncompromised access to legal procedures that enabled them to draw on English law to detach themselves from the older forms of governance that had had traditionally determined the settlement of disputes within and between village communities. I suspect that in raising this issue and supporting it with evidence he drew attention to unforeseen side effects of British rule that had had more obvious and dire effects in that earlier insurrection we were taught at school to call The Indian Mutiny. The insensitivity that required Hindu’s to be in touch with beef fat and Muslims with pork was a notorious lesson that has curbed the arrogance of many an imperial governor over-confident about imposing what he took for granted as being the universal and superior benefits of ‘our' way of doing things. What strikes me about Maine’s writing are the careful conditions and limitation he places around any too obvious or simple assumptions about the motives, mores and logic of other cultures. I see now why when I was at Cambridge reading Anthropology, at Trinity Hall with Sir Henry’s portrait - not very good - on the wall of the dining room at whose High Table he, as Master, once presided, I was told by one of our lecturers, that Henry Maine was 'a father of Anthropology'. It was not until I met you and, on your second visit to Brin Croft earlier this year, you gave us that fascinating tutorial on Maine’s research base, missing in George Feaver’s biography of him, that I’ve begun to digest the full import of that conclusion. I still haven’t read any of your written work though I’ve seen reviews, and you showed me your village maps. I very much hope that when I do I can strengthen my understanding of Maine’s work enough to make a clear connection between it and my committed interest in the commons and their governance, allotments and urban green space.I realise from your words how urgent it is for you to prepare a challenge to the Government of India that may be instrumental in averting the infliction of a tragedy of the village commons. Linda and I are enjoying the dry heat of September in Corfu, grateful for the breezes that start in the afternoon and blow cooler air through our house on Democracy Street.
We’ve enjoyed eating ripe grapes clustered on vines enveloping deserted houses in the village, picking dates sticky and sweet from overhanging trees that grow so abundantly some treat them as weeds. We've even found a few blackberries where the bramble roots have worked through the walls of old wells giving them the moisture needed to ripen rather than shrivel in the rainless weather. Cats and kittens roam everywhere scratching a living from throwaway scraps, occasional lizards and crickets.
I hope you will have a good journey to the Highlands (which I always miss) and enjoy again seeing Theodora and imbibing with her the spirit of Sir Henry Maine in whom we all share such interest and in the case of my mother and I, similar genes and DNA if not brain cells (:)).
I forgot to add an answer to a couple of your questions. Yes, Mum loves music. We have a radio programme you may know on the BBC called Desert Island Discs, in which a well known person is asked what they’d miss if they were marooned on a desert island. They are allowed to choose eight favourite recordings; extracts from these are played during the conversation. At the end they are asked what book “other than the Bible and works of Shakespeare” which are taken as givens, and what object,  they would most like to have with them on their desert island. I think my mother’s book was The Wind in the Willows and she especially liked a small Rembrandt sketch of a child learning to walk…I did a home-made version of Desert Island Discs with Theodora about 18 months ago with these results:
Mum enjoys Jacqueline du Pré playing Elgar's Cello Concerto
She was entranced, listening avidly through earphones and watching the screen. She has a lot of interest in the potential of internet and was impressed at how easy it was to find not only the music or aria she wanted to hear, but versions by her favourite singers, musicans and conductors.I don’t know of she’s seen Ladies in Lavender but I suspect she would enjoy watching it with you and talking about it. Simon
In Venetia above Ano Korakiana

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