Culture friction

Culture friction

Jefferson Chase looks at a novel set in India in the early 20th century

Whisky & Culture | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Jefferson Chase

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There are a lot of qualities that can help make a great novelist. These days it seems one of the most frequent is being able to draw on Indian heritage.

The latest 'Indian' author to wow my socks off is England’s Hari Kunzru. His father is from Kashmir while his mother is a British Anglican. Kunzru was an established journalist when he published his 2002 debut novel The Impressionist, but there was no preparation for the book’s massive scope.

Set in the early 20th century, the story revolves around the adolescent orphan of a white Englishman and an upper-caste Indian woman, who’s called Pran Nath and whom twists of fate take from place to place, requiring radical reinventions of identity. Perhaps the funniest section of the book has our hero as a male concubine in a fictional region of India called Fatehpur. There he is charged with seducing the local representative of the Crown, a Major Privett-Clampe.

Even Privett-Clampe, a waddling, boozed-up parody of British Imperialism, has human depths

This is not an easy task, given the major’s fondness for pre-noon libations:

On his head is a crumpled green crepe-paper crown, a relic of the religious festival the British have been celebrating that day. The Major has been sweating, and the hat’s cheap dye has begun to stain his forehead. A tumbler and a half-empty bottle of domestic whisky (‘Highland Paddock’, manufactured in Calcutta by the illustrious firm of Banerji Brothers) sit in front of him.

The friction between British and Indian cultures causes no end of satiric targets to pop up, and Kunrzu is very adept at allowing the colonisers’ own words to shoot holes in their pretentions of superiority:

‘You’ve got some white blood in you’, [the major] continues, gesturing at Pran with his tumbler. ‘More than a little by the looks of you…The thing is, boy, you have to listen to it.

It’s calling to you through all the black, telling you to stiffen your resolve.

In many respects, The Impressionist is like an Indian Vanity Fair – with Pran as a male equivalent of the scheming social climber Becky Sharp. But Kunzru also shows more sympathy for his characters than Thackeray ever chose to. Even Privett-Clampe, a waddling, boozed-up parody of British imperialism, has human depths:

If you were to open his file at the India Office, you would see nothing but success written there…So why does the Major have his first whisky at nine?Why does he forsake his loyal wife for the corruptions of a half-caste boy? Why does he brood for hours in his office, thinking of the service revolver in the locked drawer?

All in all, Kunzru seems like a pretty good guy as well as a terrific novelist. He’s a vocal critic of racism, Vladimir Putin and a committed supporter of Oxfam and Salman Rushdie. Plus, he’s reportedly a UFO enthusiast. So I can’t wait to read more of his fiction.
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