The Web


I adore when one of the books that I am reading crosses another one and brings to mind more and more stories, all connected into a web of characters and events.

The hottest summer is over, as I am leafing through “Twilight in Delhi” by Ahmed Ali. Ali, born in 1910, is describing the summer of 1911 and the mood of the city on the eve of Delhi Durbar, the ceremony commemorating the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary and their proclamation as Emperor and Empress of India.

“It was the terrible summer of nineteen hundred and eleven. No one had experienced such heat for many years,” so the chapter starts. “The temperature rose higher and higher until it reached one hundred and fifteen in the shade. From seven in the morning, the loo began to moan, blowing drearily through the hopeless streets. The leaves of the henna tree became seared and wan, and the branches of the date palm became coated with sand. The dust blew through the unending noon; and men went out with their heads well covered and protected. The pigeons flew for a while and opened their beaks for heat. The crows cawed and the kites cried and their voices sounded so dull.

The sky lost its color and became dirty and bronzed. The loo did not stop even at night. the stars flickered in the sky behind the covering layer of dust. The sand rained down all night, came between the teeth, covered the beds, and sleep did not come near parched humanity.

Tempers rose and from all around came the loud voices of women quarrelling, husbands beating their wives, mothers beating their children, and there seemed no rest for men.

Fires broke out every now and then. At such times the sky was made red with the flames that shot up from the burning earth.”

As Ahmed Ali continues his story of ruin, love and broken hopes in the Muslim Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi is holding his peaceful resistance in South Africa and it will be some decades before the Independence and the dreams of “Midnight Children” by Salman Rushdie.

On the other side of the continent at that year of 1911, as “The War That Ended Peace” by Margaret MacMillan states, “It was an uncomfortable summer for [Sir Edward] Grey, [British foreign secretary]. He had suffered another personal tragedy earlier that year when his beloved brother George was killed by a lion in Africa and the Morocco crisis was keeping him in London, far from the respite of his estate at Fallodon. The Cabinet was divided over how firm to be with Germany and how much support to offer France. In the country, the wave of strikes went on and the heat wave was breaking records. (In the evenings Churchill would collect Grey and take him for a swim in his club.)”

The crisis over Morocco went on and Paul Bowles, whose marvelous novels and short stories are set in Morocco, was not even one year old at that time. But when he will cross the Atlantic to settle down in Morocco in 1947 the country would be still divided between France and Spain.

Speaking about the Atlantic, 1911 was exactly the year when the Titanic was launched in Belfast.

The heat that summer caused fires not only in Delhi. In Istanbul in the summer of 1911 a huge fire destroyed the downtown area. Right at that time Le Corbusier travels across the East getting inspiration and gathering material for his travelogue. Le Corbusier was a witness to the fire and noted that it was a melancholic spectacle. He made a lot of drawings of Istanbul that year and Orhan Pamuk expresses admiration for them in his “Istanbul.”

One could continue this thread on and on. The number of events and characters that pass from one year to another, that cross at one point and get reconnected at some other place and time once again, is enough for a lifetime.

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