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.

So Pran Nath, a spoilt and beautiful young man, finds himself homeless. Without quite knowing how, he embarks on a new life; he is given shelter by people who drug him and sell him to the Nawab’s palace – there are few good samaritans in Kunzru’s pre-colonial India. In the Nawab’s harem, Pran Nath is reincarnated as a eunuch, Rukhsana. He is not actually castrated; his gender remains intact but hidden. He is dressed as a woman, constantly threatened with castration or death, belittled and degraded. He becomes a crucial prop in a scheme to blackmail a British representative, Major Privett-Clampe, who has lately discovered in himself a hunger for boys. So the Picturewallah, or photographer, follows Rukhsana and the Major around, as arrangements are made to get the latter drunk and photograph him in a compromising position. The aim of this exercise is to make sure the Major won’t dare to interfere in the local struggle for succession between the Nawab and his Westernised brother. All attempts to get an incriminating photograph fail – the Major appears more interested in giving Rukhsana English lessons.

Kunzru’s view of nawabs and Indian rulers is not very different from that of the British Government of the time: that they were oversexed idiots. But there is an overdetermined air to these chapters. Rukhsana, neither man nor woman, is too earnest a metaphor for the hybridity and general miscegenation of British India (and of Hari Kunzru – the fact that he is of Indo-British parentage is now, the publicity machine has made sure, common knowledge). Kunzru doesn’t take enough liberties with his material in the first 150 pages: he is caught between treating history irreverently and researching it seriously. In the end, he has chosen hard work over fantasy.

Towards the close of the ‘Rukhsana’ section, however, comes the most brilliant set piece in the book, the best evidence of Kunzru’s talent and vast organisational skills. A hunt has been arranged in honour of a visitor, Sir Wyndham Braddock, ‘His Majesty’s Resident in the Combined Punjab States’, and his wife, Lady Aurelia. ‘Had it been at all possible, Sir Wyndham would have cancelled’ – the ‘situation in the Punjab is worsening’ after Colonel Dyer’s ‘action at Amritsar’. (Could Dyer have foreseen that he would become a stock minor character, not in history books, but in films and novels?) The hunt proceeds nonetheless, a cross between Kipling’s jungle, the colonial confusions of Forster’s Indian tea parties and Wodehousian silliness. On the one hand, ‘loinclothed men’ – tribal workers – ‘lounge around a fire, scooping rice and sloppy dal into their mouths out of big steel dishes,’ and on the other, ‘some distance further into the forest, the main party takes a light supper. Hampers. Wine coolers. Collapsible tables unpacked and spread with white cloths.’ Other kinds of preparation are being made, too: there is to be another attempt at photographing the Major and Rukhsana; and elsewhere, two drugged, caged tigers are ready to be dragged out when the moment arrives. ‘“When the Angrezi come to hunt,” the Picturewallah laughs, “there are some things it is better not to leave to chance.”’ The colonial encounter was always, to a degree, stage-managed, and the natives, taking advantage of their rulers’ misprision, were both actors and spectators. (I remember a scene from a Clive James documentary on Bombay in which, fake sword in hand, he dressed up in Oriental costume to take part in a Bollywood film. James thought he and his British audience would have a good laugh; he didn’t realise the extras were watching him, too. ‘Hanso mat,’ one of them kept warning the others in Hindi, as James loomed absurdly above them. ‘Don’t laugh.’) The hunt is a failure. Besides the fact that Sir Wyndham’s wife is flirting loudly with the Nawab (‘tiger hunting requires two main qualities; silence and patience’), several members of the aristocratic entourage, Indian and English, are agitated by a mysterious diarrhoea, and are forced to abandon their posts. In all the confusion, Rukhsana manages to escape.

He reappears in Bombay as Bobby, a pretty Anglo-Indian boy, and is taken in by a missionary, Reverend Macfarlane, ‘an educated lowland Scot’, who has, eccentrically, decided to set up his mission in the red-light district. He has done this, ostensibly, to stare Sin in the face; but the Reverend also has other interests. Among them is racial science; to this end, he studies, with Bobby’s assistance, the skulls of different races. The Reverend is married to Elspeth, once a devout Christian, now a theosophist and Hindu mystic who has renamed herself Ambaji. The two live in separate parts of the same compound, divided by a wall; they do not talk to each other.

Meanwhile, Bobby has begun to exhibit his natural gifts as an impressionist. He too speaks English ‘with all the prim inflections of an educated lowland Scot’. Mimicry is at the heart of the colonial encounter: a theory Homi Bhabha wrote about, impenetrably, now animates a popular novel. Ideas travel. Bobby’s gift for mimicry soon has him passing himself off as an Englishman, and familiarising himself with the British quarters of the city. In many ways, Kunzru has a surprisingly bookish, literary imagination rather than a historical one: he is constantly referring to other fictions. English literature occupies the backrooms of his intellect as much as Indian history does: here, for instance, he is playing with Kipling’s fictions about colonial subterfuge – Kim and some of the early short stories – in which a white man makes an incursion into ‘native’ territory having learned the language and customs and donned the native apparel. Kunzru inverts this narrative, and new social and emotional meanings emerge. Kipling’s white man and Kunzru’s Indo-English protagonist are attracted to the world on the other side of the racial dividing-line. For Kipling’s characters, the desire is less easy to fathom; it is a romantic, almost magical impulse. In Bobby’s case, the drive is quite obviously, and nakedly, associated with self-betterment. It has none of Kipling’s odd tenderness (odd in that we know that Kipling did not feel especially tender towards Indians); it has, instead, a quality of knowingness and cynicism. It’s as if the novel were combining two disparate, even competing, 19th-century sub-genres: the narrative of colonial and racial subterfuge, and the narrative of class, manners and social climbing.

Kunzru is said to be fond of cities, and the section set in Bombay is certainly quickened by the pulse of the city. Although it is never described directly, Kunzru’s Bombay – its streets, restaurants, homes and red-light areas – is a realm of possibility allowing Bobby to exchange one identity for another. Towards the end of the section we find Bobby walking with Jonathan Bridgeman, a bibulous young man who has grown up in the colonies. His parents are dead and he has no other family to speak of. He is soon to sail to England, to attend a public school and then Oxford. His financial arrangements are in the hands of a London solicitor. During the walk, the two are accosted by a gang of unusually irate Indian youths. Bobby escapes. Returning later to the alley where he left Bridgeman, he finds him dead, probably of a heart attack. Discovering a crucial introductory letter in the dead man’s pocket, he takes the opportunity to become Jonathan Bridgeman, and sails for England.

The shift to England allows Bobby, now Bridgeman, to experiment with his new self, and Kunzru to experiment with the novel of ‘Englishness’ from the vantage-point of displacement; not from a post-colonial point of view – the impressionist, we are told, has no ‘point of view’ – but from a point of no return which, it becomes increasingly apparent, is how the narrator thinks of the post-colonial’s place in history. Thus, in his chapter on Bridgeman’s days at public school, Kunzru both revisits the terrain of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and questions its assumptions about identity. Describing Bridgeman’s invention of himself as an English gentleman in London and Oxford, Kunzru can imagine he is both writing and mocking Great Expectations. Perhaps only an account of gay life in early 20th-century England could invest the well-worn Bildungsroman with a comparably unspoken but pervasive notion of secrecy.

At Oxford, Bridgeman falls in love. The object of his adoration is Astarte Chapel, daughter of a distinguished anthropologist and an ethereal, unattainable type – a sort of pop Sue Bridehead. Here, the novel slightly loses its hard edges, becoming a little schmaltzy, as if it had turned into a veiled personal reminiscence. You suspect that a conventional marriage will not suit Astarte Chapel, just as, in the end, it did not suit Sue Bridehead. But it is a conventional marriage that Jonathan offers; he proposes to her, and pursues her to a trendy London bar – trendy because it is all black – in order to get her answer. Here, to his horror, Bridgeman discovers that the man Astarte loves is a black blues musician: ‘You should hear him play. He’s wonderful . . . he’s different.’ Astarte’s parting words to Jonathan, said not unkindly, but pityingly, are the joke the novel has been building up to, summing up Jonathan’s paradoxical success and failure: ‘You’re the most English person I know.’

Thereafter, Bridgeman loses interest in things, and so, rapidly, does Kunzru. He sends Bridgeman to Africa, to accompany Professor Chapel and his party as a minor hanger-on whose help is required to research an obscure tribe. One night, Bridgeman seeks out the tribe alone; and they, in effect, abduct him and exorcise him of his ‘European spirit’, until finally he begins to lose consciousness of himself. This, you feel, is what he wanted all along. And it is ample proof that Bridgeman had become truly European after all: who but a European would seek out an African tribe in order to lose himself? The novel, Kunzru’s first, is a cleverly orchestrated play of such paradoxes, and it marks an accomplished beginning.