“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957/1979) Book Review

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“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957/1979) Book Review

I first became aware of British author, M.M. Kaye back in the early 1980s, when I read her famous 1978 bestseller, “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Intrigued by the author’s portrayal of the British and Indian societies in 19th century, I read another one of her novels – namely “SHADOW OF THE MOON”.

First published in 1957, “SHADOW OF THE MOON” was re-released 22 years later to cash in on the success of “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Like the latter, the novel was set in 19th century India. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” told the story of Winter de Ballesteros, the only daughter of an aristocratic Spaniard whose family lived in India and the beloved granddaughter of an English earl. Orphaned at the age of six, Winter is forced to leave India and live with her mother’s family in England for the next eleven years. Betrothed at an early age to Conway Barton, the nephew-in-law of her great-aunt and an official of the East India Company, serving as Commissioner of the Lunjore District, Winter finally leaves England to return to India in order to marry him. Barton’s military aide, Captain Alex Randall of the British East India Company (aka “John Company”), is assigned to act as escort for Winter’s return journey to the East.

Unfortunately for Winter, she encounters two misfortunes upon her arrival in India – the discovery that her new husband is a debauched and overweight drunk who had married her for her fortune; and that she has fallen in love with Alex Randall. She is unaware that Alex has also fallen in love with her. While Winter struggles with her love for Alex and her unhappy marriage, events slowly come to a boil that lead to the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in which Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army rise against the British between May 1857 and June 1858. The violent outbreak of sepoy troops against the rule of the British East India Company forces both Winter and Alex to experience the violence that explodes throughout most of India and acknowledge their feelings for one another.

For a novel that is supposed to be about the famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, most of it seemed to be set before the rebellion’s actual outbreak. The novel’s first six chapters focused upon Winter’s parents and her childhood in both India and England. The next thirty-four (34) chapters focused upon Winter and Alex’s journey to India, the introduction of Anglo society in India, Winter’s marriage to Conway Barton in Lunjore, the growing tensions between the British rulers and those who have much to resent them, Winter and Alex’s growing feelings for one another . . . well, you get the picture. By the time Winter, Alex and other British residents encounter the rebellion in Lunjore, Chapter 40 had arrived. Only Chapters 40 through 51 featured the actual rebellion.

Ironically, this does not bother me. I suspect that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is basically a romantic drama with a historical backdrop. M.M. Kaye was born in India to a family that had served the British Raj for generations. She spent most of her childhood and early years of marriage in India, which made her a strong authority on the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies of the British Raj. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is filled with strong historical facts about Great Britain during the first five decades in the 19th century, the East India Company, the Anglo-Indian and Indian cultures in the 1850s, and the politically charged atmosphere leading up to the Sepoy Rebellion and facts about the rebellion itself.

Reading the novel made it easy for me to see why M.M. Kaye had gained such fame as a historical novelist. Along with Alexandre Dumas, Susan Howatch, John Jakes, George MacDonald Fraser, James Michener, Ken Follet and Cecelia Holland, I consider her to be among the best historical novelists. Not only is “SHADOW OF THE MOON” filled with interesting facts about the British Raj in the 1850s, it is a well-written romantic drama about two people who managed to find love despite the obstacles of a loveless marriage and political turmoil. The two main characters – Winter and Alex – are well written characters that managed to avoid the usually clichés found in many inferior romantic paperback novels. Well . . . Winter and Alex’s characterizations managed to avoid most of the clichés. There are a few clichés about them that seem very familiar:

*Winter’s age spans between 17 and 19 in most of the novel. Most heroines of historical tend to be between the ages of 16 and 21.

*The age difference between Winter and Alex is 13 years – which is typical for the heroine and hero of most historical romances.

*The heroine, Winter, spends most of the novel stuck in an unhappy marriage with a much older man.

Despite these minor clichés, Winter and Alex turned out to be two very interesting and well-rounded characters. Surprisingly, I can say the same of the supporting characters, whether they be British or Indian. A few characters stood out for men – notably Alex’s cynical Indian orderly Niaz; a sharp-tongued British socialite named Louisa “Lou” Cottar; an intelligent and intensely political Indian nobleman who becomes a dangerous enemy of the British Raj by the name of Kishan Prisad; Lord Carylon, an arrogant and temperamental English aristocrat with a strong desire for Winter; and Conway Barton, the latter’s corrupt and narrow-minded husband, who lacks a talent for political administration.

Aside from a few clichés that are a part of Winter and Alex’s characterizations, I have a few other quibbles regarding the novel . . . or Kaye’s writing style. First of all, she had a tendency to describe a historical event or character in a slightly grandiose manner. One example featured the death of a famous military figure named John Nicholson. Kaye also had a bad habit of announcing an important sequence before it unveils . . . taking away any moment of surprise for the reader. This was apparent in the following passage:

“‘Two more days to go’, thought Alex that night, leaning against the wall and watching a quadrille danced at the Queen’s Birthday Ball.

But there were no more days. Only hours.”

In the following chapter, Winter, Alex and a host of other characters experience firsthand, the horror of the rebellion in Lunjore. I would have preferred if the beginning of the Lunjore rebellion had taken me by surprise.

Despite Kaye’s occasional forays into over-the-top prose, she created a sweeping and detailed novel filled with romance, adventure, historical accuracy and well-written characters. Although “THE FAR PAVILIONS” is considered her masterpiece, I must admit that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” remains my most favorite novel she has ever written.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

 

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject.

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on the Wikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers – hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.