Culture & Thought -- Books: India All Over Again --- Experience Gambling,
Sex Slaves and `the White Man's Burden'
By Salil Tripathi
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
On the first page of Rohinton Mistry's new novel, "Family Matters" (Knopf,
487 pages, $26), Jal tells his step-father, Nariman Vakeel, "Please don't
go papa, we beseech you." The unguarded reader might think something is amiss
with the language and tone of the novel, which is after all set in the 1990s
in Bombay. Who, indeed, would use a 19th century word like beseech in everyday
conversation? But as we read further and get absorbed in the quotidian existence
of Jal and his sister Coomi, (and their half-sister Roxana and her family
of husband Yezad and sons Murad and Jehangir), we realize that words like
beseech -- and the many other phrases and courtesies sounding anachronistic,
set in freeze-frame like a sepia-toned photograph -- are entirely appropriate.
For "Family Matters" is not only the story of a microcosm, but it is also
about lost time, of the Empire's lost children, unable to find a place for
themselves in a rapidly transforming world. Nariman Vakeel is at ease in
the rarefied world of academia, of Western philosophy and Shakespeare's Lear
and T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton." He is well-versed with the form, but unable
to lead a happy life, succumbing to parental wishes, spreading unhappiness
around him, living out an insufficient, incomplete existence.
Pray, do not mock him, for Nariman is an ailing widower. He lives with his
step-children, Coomi and Jal. Although he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s,
he wants to assert his independence. He goes for a walk against their advice
(hence “we beseech you”), and disaster strikes. With his leg in plaster,
and no immediate signs of recovery, Coomi and Jal decide to dump him at their
half-sister’s tiny flat. The parallel with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia is
Mr. Mistry is at his best describing how Roxana's stretched family creates
space for the invalid father. First sugar is reduced in tea, then toasts
go unbuttered, and finally meat disappears from curries. Yezad realizes that
helping one's elders is the only way to learn to face one's own death; and
as Roxana watches her son feeding his grandfather, the boy wiping a stray
grain of rice stuck on his face, "she felt she was witnessing something almost
sacred." Nariman appreciates the acceptance and love, but he is helpless
to change destiny. He remains haunted by his past: his own failure to marry
Lucy because she was a Christian and not a Parsee, her gradual loss of sanity
and the bizarre death of Lucy and his wife, both falling off the ledge of
the terrace of their apartment.
Hankering for a better life abroad remains an obsession. Yezad's main frustration
in life has been that a decade ago a Canadian immigration official had turned
down his application to migrate. He finds his sons' addiction to Enid Blyton
painful: "It encouraged children to grow up without attachment to the place
where they belonged," he believes. Were they to taste the muffins and kippers
they crave, they would better appreciate their mother's "curry-rice and khichri-saas
and pumpkin biryani and dhansak." But in the end it is the children who appear
at peace with a tumultuous Bombay, and Yezad who grows more fanatical and
orthodox in his adherence of Parsee rituals.
The enduring cliche about Parsees is that they are Westernized, honest, urbane,
fun-loving, eccentric and tolerant. Like all cliches, there is some truth
in it, and like all cliches there are exceptions. Mr. Mistry pays most attention
to the cliche of honesty, showing how changing circumstances alter behavior.
Little Jehangir starts accepting bribes from rich classmates by marking their
poor homework right, slipping the saved money into the envelopes in which
his mother keeps cash, only to get caught by the teacher. Yezad speculates
on matka, a Bombay gambling pastime, frittering away the family's savings
set aside for food. Later he conceives an outlandish plan to secure a promotion
and pay raise: He tries to convince his whimsical boss to run for political
office. The boss is a tolerant man who can't stand the bigotry of the Hindu
nationalist Shiv Sena party, which is taking over the city. But he is murdered
after he foolishly challenges the party's thugs who want him to change the
name of his shop from Bombay Sporting Goods to Mumbai Sporting Goods.
Bombay had managed to keep the virus of communal violence from its veins
until 1993. Salman Rushdie portrayed the transformation in "The Moor's Last
Sigh" (Pantheon, 1997) with characteristic linguistic pyrotechnics and magical
wizardry. Mr. Mistry's approach is expectedly understated: Nobody who has
read his earlier works, including "A Fine Balance" (Knopf, 2001), would expect
If Mr. Mistry's novel deals with arguably India's most Westernized minority,
Hari Kunzru's ambitious first novel, "The Impressionist" (Dutton, 416 pages,
$24.95), deals with the whole process of Westernization, and focuses on the
other lost child of colonialism: the hybrid, a man with two ethnicities racing
through his veins, astride two cultures, at home in neither.
Hyped as the biggest British publishing sensation since Zadie Smith's "White
Teeth" (Random House, 2000), "The Impressionist" is a complicated narrative
stretching across three continents -- Asia, Europe and Africa. It begins
in the sun-baked dusty Indian plains, the Kipling terrain where an English
civil servant meets a half-crazed Indian bride during a flood. The civil
servant is swept away in the flood, but she survives and marries a finicky
Kashmiri pandit, only to die at childbirth. The child, Pran Nath, is the
civil servant's son, but Kashmiris are pale-skinned so nobody notices anything
or suspects he's a bastard. But then a servant reveals the secret after Pran
Nath takes a step too far in his lawless reign as an unruly teenager.
Banished from the house and disowned by his caste, Pran Nath is sold as a
sex slave to the court of the Nawab of Fatehpur. There, elaborate plots to
use the boy to seduce a British official fail spectacularly; the official
wants to educate and civilize Pran Nath. He teaches him poetry even as the
Nawab's associates wait anxiously to film the act of debauchery and humiliate
the civil servant to ward off a potentially lethal battle of succession.
Pran Nath then escapes the dynastic intrigue and becomes Pretty Bobby in
Bombay, lording over the city's red light district. With the British Raj
in decline and slums festering around him, Pran Nath catapults himself in
Britain, behaving the perfect Englishman, out to reclaim his inheritance.
Zelig-like, he blends in perfectly in polite company before joining an expedition
to West Africa, where Conrad-like, he seeks to unravel the mystery of "the
White Man's Burden."
Mr. Kunzru's novel tries to do too much, and yet appears strangely circumscribed.
The prose appears tired at times, which is a pity, because the plot is a
delight for a student of colonialism and the literature it spawned. Not only
does it abound with detailed observation of the period, it also makes allusions
to Kipling, Conrad, Masters, Macaulay and Forster, among many others, as
well as colonial-era heroes and villains, like Dyer, Clive, the less-chronicled
hedge-planters and Skinner.
With its wide historical sweep, it is unfortunate that Mr. Kunzru chose to
write most of the novel in the present tense. It doesn't help dramatize the
context, nor does it make his language necessarily poetic, as Michael Ondaatje
succeeded. The theme cries out for a lurid canvas and an epic narrative,
with the grotesquerie of the empire in full view. Somehow, the forced discipline
of the present tense limits the novel's scope. But that's perhaps intended;
in Mr. Kunzru's narrative, ultimately, the illegitimate child of the empire,
Pran Nath, emerges as a fake, impotent crossbreed. That may be the ultimate
irony, considering that Mr. Kunzru is but the latest of a long line of writers
of Indian heritage who are rewriting the canon of English fiction.
Mr. Tripathi, a London-based writer, is working on his first novel.