Don’t laugh

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
    Hamish Hamilton, 435 pp, £12.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 241 14169 9

The story begins one afternoon, ‘three years after the beginning of the new century’ (the 20th). A figure on a horse appears on mountainous terrain. This is Ronald Forrester, dust ‘clogging the pores on his pink perspiring English face’. Hari Kunzru, Forrester’s creator, didn’t have to look too far for his character’s name: Forrester works with trees. There is a self-conscious aside: ‘In the European club at Simla they never tire of the joke, Forrester the forester.’ The man ‘takes a gulp from a flask of brackish water and strains in the saddle as his horse slips and rights itself, sending stones bouncing down a steep, dry slope’. At this point the book sounds and feels a bit like a Western. But you soon realise that nature, so important to the Western’s vision of the history of America, is ornamental, or incidental to this writer’s conception of India. Kunzru’s book, like so many novels about India in English, is less about nature than about artifice: about the creation of selves, and identity.

It begins to rain; the prose strains to describe the effect of ‘swollen droplets splashing into the dust like little bombs’. Kunzru does not have a gift for imagery, or for detail. His gift lies in his ability to re-create, and subtly transcend, a familiar Anglo-Indian narrative architecture embodied in half-breed, or seemingly half-breed figures like Kim (Kunzru takes his epigraph from Kipling’s novel) and Colonel Skinner, and masters of disguise like Richard Burton. Forrester is not the only one caught in the powerful storm. A beautiful, ‘ungovernable’ woman, Amrita, is in a palanquin on her way to get married. In the storm, which rapidly becomes a flood, she is separated from her retinue; she discovers the Englishman struggling in the water, and rescues him. Improbably, they find themselves in a cave. Before they have said a word to each other, she progresses from reviving him to unbuttoning his shirt. They make love, ‘more fight than sex’, not once, but three times. Afterwards, Forrester, almost as if he were a saint, is once more carried off by the flood.

Amrita is reunited with her retinue; the scene shifts to Agra. We hear that Amrita has married Pandit Amar Nath Razdan. As Kashmiri Pandits, ‘the Razdans belong to one of the highest and most exclusive castes in Hindustan.’ Moreover, they are rich. But Amrita enjoys the luxury of marriage to a Razdan for only a short period: she dies in childbirth nine months after the wedding. The son, Pran Nath, is extraordinarily fair. Colour is all important in this novel: it is both a general concept and an individual gift or failing, like genius or stupidity, and its meaning changes from context to context, just as Kunzru’s protagonist does. In the early chapters, Pran Nath’s English blood is hidden from both him and his family. When it is revealed by a maidservant, he is disowned by the family and made to live on the street. Later in the book, as ‘Bobby’, it is the Indian blood he conceals. Colour, that most obvious thing, is this novel’s light and shade.

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