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An interesting book



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Hi all! In my down times I have been slowly reading "Fish, Blood and Bone",=20=
a=20
novel by Leslie Forbes. I think it would be of particular interest to list=20
members as one of its central themes is the search for an unusual green opiu=
m=20
poppy that is said to be able to cure cancer. In the process of that search,=
=20
the narrator also searches for a collection of botanical watercolors that=20
were created and then left behind during the British occupation of India.=20
Like Forbes' other book "Bombay Ice," this is a convoluted story, part=20
mystery, with many different story lines. To pique your interest, here is th=
e=20
excerpt in which she finds and is able to view the collection.

    "I walked into a room shuttered against the heat and could not begin to=20
imagine its height and length. It was so dark that nothing was visible excep=
t=20
the ghostly white lungi of the bare-chested clerk as he opened first one=20
great window and then another=97no more than three in all, just enough to=20
illuminate the room's vast expanse and throw three dazzling white envelopes=20
of light acorss the wide dark floorboards on whose surface the clerk's bare=20
feet had left footprints like Man Friday's. He switched on a fan and unlocke=
d=20
a glass case rising into the roof beams, one of many such cases lining the=20
room. He lifted down some large flattish cardboard boxes and placed one afte=
r=20
another on the wooden tables under the irregular breeze of that lethargic=20
fan, box after box evenly spaced apart, mimicking the rectangles of sun the=20
windows have laid on the floor down that long dark high room.
    When they had all been arranged in a row, he blew the dust off the first=
=20
box and opened it to reveal a flash of colour, like the first face card=20
turned up in a game of Patience. He paused=97the narrator of the play, the=20
umpire, the curtain-raiser=97and then 'The Roxburgh Icones,' he said,=20
indicating the closest of the ten boxes, and waving to the others,=20
'Etcetera.' He began to take pictures out of the first box and place them in=
=20
front of me, hardly pausing between each flower: a Madonna lily, an opium=20
poppy, a primula the colour of moonlight, orchids from Sikkim, honeysuckle=20
and jasmine and vanilla-scented clematis and wild Himalayan roses in white,=20
pink and gold. A waterfall of colour and blossom.
    ...The more transient colours had faded beyond recognition. Green had=20
turned to white. Pictures had cracked and been repaired with tape that had=20
yellowed and left its own pattern of ageing, the repairs now defining the=20
art. I remembered the Kew historian telling me how European paper was=20
sensitive to the monsoon climate, which caused gradual degradation of the=20
structure. 'And strong light makes them very brittle.' He had smiled. 'That=20
too we get a lot of in India. They should really be stored in an acid-free=20
environment.' He explained that the last time he'd seen Calcutta's=20
collection, no such effort was being made, and added apologetically that the=
=20
paintings were viewed as relics of the Raj. 'So there was=97is=97a great fee=
ling=20
of ambivalence about them.'
    'But they were painted by Indians.'
    'Ah, yes, but Indians using British paper, British paints, a British=20
style. the vernacular is important, I suppose, whether in art of language, a=
s=20
a kind of code.'
    'For Them and Us.'
    He smiled at my American bluntness. His was a more oblique approach, a=20
diffeent history, of evasie measures taken against invaders already in=20
residence.'In this case, paintings using traditional Indian pigments and=20
paper have survived much better.'
    'So why didn't Roxburgh get his Indian artists to use indigenous=20
materials?'
    'Ah.' It seemed this was going to be his only answer, a faint sigh.=20
Almost reluctantly, he contined, 'The English preferred a less highly colore=
d=20
effect.'
    'Because they came from a greyer country?'
    He raised his hands in a gesture to summon that generation of imperial=20
ghosts. 'What a pity we cannot ask them.'"

Barbara Harman

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