Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Three books about India have won the Booker Prize

By Ramlal Agarwal

Some readers interpreted this as British nostalgia for the Raj. In fact, the novels have no trace of nostalgia for the Raj but rather disenchantment with it. They depict the tragedy of the British caught up in India for one reason or the other. They are not about what India means to the British but what happens to them in India. In short, they emphasise the British experience of India. They are also among the saddest fiction written in the seventies.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.A. Farrell is based upon the Mutiny of 1857. It describes the life of the British under siege at Krishnapur, The Siege pushes the British residents to the wall, but they put their resources together and start fighting back. The residents must deal not only with sepoys, but also with natural calamities such as cholera. Dr. McNab has a true scientific spirit, and despite the fact that he has no laboratory to work in, he invents a suitable method of dealing with cholera due to his powers of observation and analysis.

The Siege of Krishnapur, a historical novel, seems to suggest the total situation of the British living in India. The British in India were in a state of siege throughout their stay here and had to contend with extremely hostile forces—human as well as natural. They had to be eternally vigilant against a cruel climate and alien people whose ways they could hardly understand. India overwhelmed them in a variety of ways.

This is brought home in a seminal incident. It happens when the English relax after a hard day’s battle. Some of them gather at Lucy’s house for tea. When they start sipping tea on the veranda outside, a cloud of cochchafers attacks them suddenly and their cups brim with drowned black insects. Lucy leaps to her feet with a cry which is instantly stifled by a mouthful of insects. They land in her hair and crawl in the crevices and cornices of her body. She tears away her clothes in a frenzy and becomes stark naked. Her friends watch her faint. Soon Fleury whips his Bible out of his shirt and tears the boards off. He takes one and gives the other to Harry, the soldier, and they start shaving the black foam of insects off her skin. One wonders whether the scene is tragic or comic. Heat and Dust by Jhabvala, though a smaller novel than The Siege of Krishnapur, deals with the nature of the British experience in India in a more concentrated manner. It deals with Royal India, the India of Imperial rule with its Maharajas and Nawabs, and Independent India, the India of petty government officials. The two India’s are matched and telescoped.

Jhabvala follows this technique to emphasise the fact that, notwithstanding the fact that the English came out to India as victors of victims they suffered alike, the heat, the dust, and the alien culture ruffled their cool, frayed their tempers, and mauled them up. What is worse, India, as the novel suggests, especially mauls those who want to understand, appreciate, and love it.

The way it does so is described in an incident the Nawab relates while closing in on Olivia: “Listen,” he said. Once it happened that a Marwar prince did something to displease him, I think he did offer opium out of the correct silver chalice-it was only a very small thing, but Amanullah Khan was not the man to sit quiet when insulted … He invited this Marwar prince and all his retainers to a feast. A ceremonial tent was put up and all preparations were made, and the guests came ready to eat and drink.

Amanullah Khan greeted his adversary at the tent’s door and folded him to his chest. But when they were all inside, he gave a secret sign and his men cut the ropes of the tent, and the Marwar prince and his party were entangled within the canvas. When they were trapped there like animals, Amanullah Khan and his men took their daggers and stabbed them through the canvas again and again and again till there was not one enemy left alive. We still have that tent and the blood is so fresh and new, Olivia, it is as if it had happened yesterday, ‘What the Nawab does to Olivia is not very different from what Amanullah Khan did to his guests.

Staying on by Paul Scott presents an English couple who decide to stay on. Colonel Smalley does not mind the heat, but he is running out of his resources and Mrs Bhoolabhoy, who owns the lodge he had rented, deals him a blow by making it harder and harder for him to live peacefully within his resources. The consequent tension disrupts his married life and ultimately claims him. Colonel Smalley gives his reasons for staying on and why things started falling apart in a letter he writes to his wife: I am happier hanging on India, not for India as India, but because I can’t just merely think of it as a place where IT drew my pay for the first 25 years of my working life, which is a hell of a long time anyway, though by rights it should have been longer, but there you are. Suddenly, the powers that be say, Right, Smalley, we are not wanted here anymore, we’ve all got to bugger off, too bad you’re not ten years younger or ten years older. I thought about this a lot at the time, and it seemed to me I’d invested in India not money, which I’ve never had, not talent (Ha!) which I ‘ve only had a limited amount of, nothing India needed or needed or has been one jot the better for, but was-alt-I had to invest in anything, me. Where I went wrong was in thinking of it that way and expecting a return on the investment in the end, and anticipating the profits, when they didn’t turn up. I know I acted like an idiot, Luce, for years and years. The longest male menopause on record, one long Holi.

The novels are an imaginative recreation of their sufferings in India, presenting a completely different picture of British life in India than that depicted in history.

The novels won recognition in England not because they present India in a ridiculous manner but because they remind the British of the cost they paid for the Raj. In an article called “Cross-Cultural Encounter in Literature” published in The Indian P.E.N. (Nov., Dee, ’77),

Nissim Ezekiel says, “I found Heat and Dust worthless as literature, contrived in its narrative structure, obtrusive in its authorial point of view, weak in style, stereotyped in its vision of characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene.” Nissim Ezekiel damns the entire British literati which praised the novel and gave the Booker Prize to its author. Ezekiel suspects the Bonafede’s of the British critics just because they praised the novel, which, according to him, ridicules India, He does not take into consideration the fact that the novel presents the point of view of the heroines, and any attempt to project India, which is outside their awareness, would render it a meaningless work. If the three prize-winning novels present the agonies of individuals caught up in an alien culture, and as such, they are in the tradition of novels depicting man as an outsider. If read properly, they unfold a wealth of literary achievements of rare quality. It is a pity that our parochial attitudes restrain us from responding to them fully.

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