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Archive for March, 2011

Bombay Mix

March 30th, 2011 No comments

I’m in Mumbai where the taxi drivers are not unnaturally obsessed with the imminent World Cup match between India and Pakistan.  But however open to it as a sporting occasion, the cricket hasn’t mellowed their feelings on booting as many Muslims as possible out of India. 

 I have two drivers in a row who, unprompted, volunteer their ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ thoughts – although perhaps the continuing high security around the Taj Malabar hotel serves as some sort of prompt, a visible reminder of what is referred to here simply as 26/11. 

Gandhi's statue in Mumbai

I want to show my 11-year-old son Gandhi’s house.  The elderly taxi driver is not impressed. ‘Gandhiji!  he snorts.  ‘Div-id-ed the country.’ (He stresses “divided” so hard the word almost falls in half).  “I don’t like him at all.  My family had land in Northern Bengal (now Bangladesh).  We lost it at Partition.  So now I am a taxi driver.’   And appreciation of Gandhi in India is often less fervent than the casual Western visitor might presuppose.  I have heard similar views expressed from Kochin to the Himalaya.  His ideals of ecumenical pacifism, vegetarianism, let alone his much debated celibacy, are not shared by many. 

There is a revealing exchange of correspondence in the Gandhi Museum with the man from whom many of his ideals came from, Tolstoy.  Gandhi is in some ways the disciple, who had collaborated at the Tolstoy farm in South Africa – yet in the letter he comes over bossily, as the one demanding attention, while the gentle Tolstoy, who by this stage, 1910, was very frail, goes out of his way to placate Gandhi by saying that he has read a biography of him.  

In some ways, how much more quietly impressive does the current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, seem, the architect of India’s financial recovery in the 1990s and now a sane advocate of dialogue with Pakistan – over a game of cricket, if that helps.

Afghan show at the British Museum

March 7th, 2011 No comments

Museums do make life easy.  Four years ago I tried to reach the fabled site of Aï Khanum on the shores of the River Oxus in north-eastern Afghanistan, the Greek city built by the followers of Alexander the Great.  Despite having Ahmad Shah Massoud’s ex-bodyguard with us, we were beaten back just a few miles from the site by the turbulent security situation close to the Tajik border. Even if we had got there, we might not have found much: recent photographs show that the lower half of the city has been comprehensively looted in recent years.

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Now the finest pieces excavated from that site are on display rather more accessibly just up the Holborn road.  The British Museum’s superb new exhibition of the treasures of Afghanistan illustrates the extraordinary cross-cultural influences that one might expect from this crossroads of Asia:   an Aphrodite with an Indian bindi mark on her forehead;  another Greek goddess riding a Persian chariot across a silver lunar landscape;  Corinthian capitals beside Indian ivories.

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But the exhibition also raises some interesting wider questions.  It has only been made possible by some brave Afghan curators who hid the artefacts while the National Museum of Kabul was looted by mujahedeen in the civil wars.  For the past five years, the treasures of ‘Alexandria on Oxus’ have been homeless, on a permanent roving international exhibition that keeps them in perpetual exile but also has the effect that they are seen by far many more people than if they had remained at home.

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