Friday, October 24, 2008


During the last days of World War II, as the Russian Red Army approaches Berlin and Germany's defeat seems imminent, Hitler and the elite of the Third Reich escape to the Reich's Chancellery bunker in subterranean Berlin to make plans and strategize. As reports of the war filter in, it is obvious to Hitler's generals and top officials that the war is lost, yet they are reluctant to show him the real situation. Terrified of Hitler's manic burst of rage, anger and theaterical chest-thumping, these men indulge the Fuehrer to the end in his fantasies of overturning the present situation and ultimately winning the war.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall) is told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary during his last days. The film opens to a interview of the real Traudl Junge, an elderly lady who, as she reminisces about her days in Hitler's bunker, gives us a peek at those last days of Hitler's life. Later in life, Junge went on record (and this is shown in the film) to say that she had no idea then that Hitler and the Nazis had perpetrated such heinous crimes; despite being just a lowly secretray with no real role in the scheme of things, she felt bitter and angry at herself for having been part of Hitler's staff. She also said that the Hitler she knew was very different from the maniac the world saw. That, in a nutshell is the main theme of Der Untergang : that the Nazis, too, had a human face, and that men who can make others commit heinous crimes often have their own ways of conveying inspiration, tenderness and understanding.

Bruno Ganz is absolutely brilliant in the role of Adolf Hitler. He wavers between softness and tenderness (the scene where he sings with the Goebbels' kids, and his understanding toward Traudl) and maniacal tendencies. We see a childlike demeanor when he sets eyes on a miniature model of an opera house and his fragility at his last hour, when he stands broken, defeated and shattered. One wonders why director Oliver Hirschbiegel drew so much flak for this humane, balanced treatment of the characters. Nowhere in the film do they arouse any sympathy in us. On the contrary - watching a maniac being capable of kindess and tenderness is a bit unsettling.

We see Hitler’s complete lack of compassion toward his on people, yet it is strange that the same people are inspired by him. There is this scene where Hitler steps out of the bunker to award medals to young kids for valor. It is Hitler's decision that these teenage boys and girls, or "Hitler youths," fight a losing battle against the Russian army across the bridges in Berlin. But these kids are in awe of him and worship him. Later, we see how Hitler doesn't blink before ordering the flooding of the underground system to halt the unstoppable Russian Army, despite knowing that all hospitals with injured men operate underground. The film then cuts to a character saying “der Fuehrer is der Fuehrer.”

The serious, somber film has its share of light moments. Himmler's line “When I meet Eisenhower, should I give him the Nazi salute or should I shake his hand?” had me chuckling.

Der Untergang has a fabulous score, touching and melancholic. Obviously with a subject matter such as this, one does not expect anything joyous. Stephen Zacharias' musice, while restrained and unobtrusive, still conveys the bitter tragedy. While the opening cue of "Des Fuehrers Sekretaerin" captures this feeling of despair beautifully and sets the tone for the whole film, I was particularly moved by the "Eva Brauns letzter Brief," a lovely movement carrying strains of poignancy and sadness. The last part of the score and my favorite, "Spaete Einsicht" has traces of some buoyant feelings, probably to capture the sentiment that the end of a war is also the time for a new beginning.

The film ends with brief information on what happened to the others in the bunker. Traudl Junge eventually escaped past the Soviet lines. Of the more famous ones, Himmler committed suicide during his imprisonment and trial; Jodl was hanged after the Nuremberg trials.

Der Untergang is an absolutely must-see film, revealing the human face of tyrants and maniacs, a face that can inspire, cajole, and force people to commit horrible acts, believing them to be for the greater good. What can be more chilling than Magda Goebbels telling Hitler of her decision to leave her six young children dead than live without National Socialism and the Fuehrer?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Amitav Ghosh

For me, the topic of displacement of people with the rise of empires almost always brings to mind The Glass Palace, where Amitav Ghosh’s King Thebaw watches the milling crowds at the Rangoon harbor and wonders

“What vast, what incomprehensible power, to move people in such huge numbers from one place to another-emperors, kings, farmers, dockworkers, soldiers, coolies, policemen. Why? Why this furious movement-people taken from one place to another, to pull rickshaws, to sit blind in exile? And where would his own people go, now that they were a part of this empire.”

Ghosh continues building his oeuvre with Sea of Poppies, a tale of mass migration and displacement of Indians with the rise of British power. Set in 1830s, this is the story of the people on the Ibis, a ship that will sail from the Bay of Bengal to Mauritius. Originally a slave ship, the Ibis has undergone a bit of a transformation after the abolition of slavery. When the story begins, a refurbished Ibis - minus the earlier shackles and chains - is ready to transport indentured labor to British colonies, its cargo men and women from agrarian Eastern India and Bengal who will sail to Mauritius to work as labor on plantations. Called girmitiyas (a corrupted derivative of the English “agreement” that they have signed to work as labor), these people will by sailing the Black Waters (Kaala Pani) lose not just their hearth and home forever, but also what is most precious to the Hindus of the time: their caste. Why, then, would they want to leave their land for the unknown?

This is India in the 19th century. The East India Company’s hold on Bengal is complete, and the eastern provinces beyond Bengal are also under the purview of the Company Bahadur’s rule. With policies that enforce opium cultivation and destroy indigenous agriculture and trade, this rule spells havoc for India’s villages and towns. Bearing testimony to this is the motley crowd on the ship, all products of the disaster brought on by opium cultivation and trade.

There is the young mother Deeti who, having lost her husband and her fields to opium, is now on the ship to escape her fate. Forced to cultivate opium as part of the Company’s colonial policy, Deeti and other rural folk have abandoned centuries-old agricultural traditions. Their land yields no grains or fruit, and they have no control over their opium produce either, as it is procured by factories at arbitrary prices. One of the accomplishments of this Deeti character and indeed a major highlight of this book is the detailed description of the Ghazipur Opium factory through Deeti's eyes, based on an account by one J.W.S. McArthur, a superintendent of the Ghazipur Opium factory in the 19th century. His book “Notes on an Opium Factory” couldn’t have been put to better use. The narrative sees Deeti on an errand to the factory into a world of “the uniformed burkundazes at the gate and the stacks of poppy flower rotis” (we are told elsewhere that these are used to package the opium). We see, through her eyes, the huge sheds with lofty ceilings and gigantic scales to weigh the raw opium and “bare bodied men sunk waist deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving, as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading.”

It does not escape Deeti’s notice that “the assemblers’ hands moved with dizzying speed as they lined hemispherical moulds with poppy-leaf rotis, moistening the wrappers with lewah, a light solution of liquid opium.”

Further ahead, Deeti crosses into the most sacred sanctum assembly room, where husband Hukam Singh works and where, as per the regulations laid by the East India Company, each package of opium “consists of exactly one seer and six-and-a-half-chittacks of poppy leaf rotis, half of fine grade and half coarse, the whole being moistened with no more and on less than five chittacks of lewah.”

On the ship, too, is Raja Neel Rattan Haldar, the zamindar of Raskhali. In their heydays, the Raskhali rajas were sought and courted by company officials to obtain finances for opium trade with China. As Neel faces financial ruin, the company’s officials bring charges of forgery against him, leading to a deportation sentence to Mauritius. If the Raja’s fall from grace and the deplorable treatment as a common criminal seem too far-fetched, we need only to look into the history of colonial Bengal. Readers with any interest in the history of the time will recall Raja Nand Kumar’s treatment at the hands of the British. In the late 18th century, Raja Nand Kumar fell out of favor with the East India company governor Warren Hastings; Nand Coomar was charged with forgery and kept in jail under pitiable conditions. It is said that Hastings’ closeness to Sir Elijah Impey, then Chief Justice, saw Nand Kumar to the gallows at a time when forgery was not awarded capital punishment.

Also on the Ibis are Pauline Lambert and Jodu. Pauline, the daughter of a French botanist, is raised by an Indian nanny whose son, Jodu, is almost Pauline’s twin. Pauline catches the fancy of Zachary Reid, an octoroon who has sailed with the Ibis from Baltimore. Zachary has by dint of luck and labor moved up the ladder to become the second mate of Ibis on his second trip on it.

Then there are the Englishmen, who seem quite tame in comparison and who (when they aren't going about some nasty business, as company official Mr. Burnham often is) are happily conversing in a Hobson-Jobson kind of language. This is immensely entertaining (“Is this little Rascal your Upper-Roger?”) with tidbits such as "tumashers in the sheeshmulls," "domepoke and chitchky of pollock-saug" from the "bobachee-connahs." Mrs. Burnham gets to mouth funny lines like “there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?” and “there is paltan of mems who’d give their last anna to be in your jooties.” Meanwhile, the locals fill the narrative with sprinklings of bhojpuri aisan mat kara and dekheheba ka hois while the seafarers (lascars) have their lascari lingo. This is a wonderful literary device by which as many languages as people inhabit the text.

Of the few reservations I had is the somewhat Bollywood-esquethe handling of villainous character Bhyro Singh's arrival on Ibis. And although zamindars flew kites in the 1830s, how many would, in the slow and easygoing days of early 19th-century Bengal, where time almost stood still, stop to ask for a "ten minute" break (p 155)? Also discussing the price of Patna opium in dollars “four hundred and fifty dollars a chest” (pp239) in the 1830s did seem a bit out of place. These are very minor points, of course, and the fact remains that the Sea of Poppies is a hugely entertaining and enjoyable read - and an absolutely un-put-down-able book. The next two parts of the trilogy will be eagerly awaited.

First Published @ Curled Up with A Good Book

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Watch Pervez Musharraf in conversation over dinner.