A first novel evokes the Cal­cutta of the 60s and ex­plores the mean­ing of home

India Today - - LEISURE - By John Ma­son

In Cal­cutta Ex­ile, her promis­ing first novel, Bunny Su­raiya has writ­ten an en­dear­ing tale of a small but sig­nif­i­cant sec­tion of Cal­cutta so­ci­ety in the late 50s and 60s. The Raj has re­ceded from all over In­dia but, as the author puts it...‘the glo­ri­ous city of Cal­cutta (is) still lit with the last rays of the golden high sum­mer of Em­pire’. The theme of the novel is as much an evo­ca­tion of the Cal­cutta of the past as a search for the mean­ing of home.

Cen­tral to the story is an An­glo-in­dian fam­ily: Robert Ryan, his wife Grace and their grown daugh­ters Shirley and Paddy. Robert has a com­fort­able home, an ador­ing fam­ily and a cushy job as a covenanted as­sis­tant in the Bri­tish firm, Bar­ton Ferne. But he is rest­less. Proud of his Bri­tish her­itage, cul­ture and lan­guage. he is dis­dain­ful of the peo­ple of the coun­try and yearns to go ‘ home’ to Eng­land. Robert’s wife and daugh­ters, while du­ti­fully sup­port­ing his pur­pose, do not share his ob­ses­sion, each con­tent for the time to find her place in the coun­try.

While Robert can’t wait to go ‘home’, his Bri­tish boss, Peter Wilson, is in no hurry to do so. Peter knows that, as a Burra Saab, he and his fam­ily en­joy a qual­ity of life in In­dia they could never ex­pe­ri­ence in their home coun­try. Peter is set to wan­gle a five-year ex­ten­sion on his ten­ure, if he can. The thorn in Robert’s side is a 27year-old In­dian, Ronen Mook­er­jee, who has re­cently joined Bar­ton Ferne as a covenanted as­sis­tant in the same grade as 45-year-old Robert and en­joys an easy, com­fort­able re­la­tion­ship with Peter Wilson, the boss. Robert is later to learn that Mook­er­jee, who has a de­gree from King’s Col­lege, Lon­don, will su­per­vise his work. Iron­i­cally, Ronen re- sents Robert as well. Trapped in a love­less mar­riage and lament­ing his lost op­por­tu­nity at find­ing real love, Ronen en­vies Robert for his happy home.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Robert’s daugh­ter, Paddy and Karam­bir Singh, the scion of a princely fam­ily of Bikaner, in­ten­si­fies the shadow fall­ing on Robert while chal­leng­ing his set no­tion of what it is to be In­dian. Karam, who has schooled in Eng­land, is at home in both cul­tures and his charm, courtly with adults and easy with his peers, wins over ev­ery­body at Robert’s Christ­mas party. Bunny Su­raiya glances gen­tly at Robert’s cul­tural quandary. Con­temp­tu­ous of the ways of con­tem­po­rary In­dia he strug­gles to un­der­stand the nu­ances of life in Bri­tain through his be­mused pe­rusal of Tit Bits and John Bull. “The thing is, it’s all very dif­fer­ent from here, men.” It was on the tip of Grace’s tongue to say, “Then why do we have to go?”

Ex­plor­ing an­other layer in re­la­tion­ships, Bunny Su­raiya shows deep af­fec­tion for an in­sti­tu­tion of the Cal­cutta of the 60s–the do­mes­tic help. Their own lives left be­hind and re­mote, they are in­te­gral to the well-be­ing of the homes they share. In the Ryans’ home, Ayah and Apurru are an archetype of un­con­di­tional de­vo­tion. “Both the girls loved Apurru al­most as much as they loved Ayah, and when they were small he had spent hours hold­ing them in his cross-legged lap, crack­ing open mon­key nuts be­tween his thin strong fin­gers and pop­ping the ker­nels into their mouths while telling them sto­ries of his vil­lage near Chit­tagong…” But chang­ing times and Robert’s rest­less­ness turn their thoughts to home.

This is a beau­ti­ful book with haunt­ing im­ages of a place from where we have all been ex­iled—by time.

SAU­RABH SINGH /www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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