Book: Surf your way to India

ECLIPSE OF THE SUN by Phil Whitaker, Phoenix House pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Adjectival autobiography would be a rather ugly but accurate description of the Indian novels which have been enjoying success recently. The style of Eclipse of the Sun, a novel set in India by an Englishman, is the opposite - simple, but elegant. As it's a story of Small Town India written by an English doctor living in Oxford it cannot be autobiographical. Phil Whitaker at last takes us away from the elite of those autobiographical novels, whose narrators speak English as their mother tongue, to the Indian middle classes for whom English is a struggle. It's the India of limited ambitions, where tradition still holds but is corroded by sycophancy to foreigners and all things foreign. These are Indians living with the old and the modern, and often taking extreme positions on one or the other side. They live in a town not unlike R K Narayan's Malgudi. For me he is still the greatest Indian storyteller of our times.

This is the story of a schoolteacher who brings disaster on himself by his dogmatic dedication to his subject, science, and his old-fashioned, unbending atheism. He comes up against the might of India's religious tradition, which still shows no sign of declining as the Christian tradition has in the West. In Whitaker's town of Nandrapur religion harbours charlatans, and inspires faith in miracles which don't materialise, but it emerges, if not victorious, at least undefeated.

At one stage I feared the novel might deteriorate into a crude attack on Indian religion, equating it with superstition, but Whitaker is far too subtle a storyteller to fall into that trap. In the end the schoolmaster hears the one colleague he believes shares his absolute faith in science say, "Atheism is such an arrogant position. I am rather drawn to admitting there are limitations to any knowledge." That is the heart of India's ancient wisdom.

But I have a concern about this novel. Whitaker only visited lndia once, just for two weeks in 1988, and I know from experience that he can't possibly have got under the skin of Small Town India in such a short time. He has relied on talking to Indians through the Internet to research this novel, which in my book ought to have been a disastrous way of going about it. But it wasn't. Although experience has taught me there is no substitute for going to a place and meeting people, what attracted me in this novel, researched from home, was the way Whitaker captured the feel of Small Town India. I could quarrel with him on some details, and I would suggest that there is one character missing: the local politician who would inevitably have demanded his share of the schoolmaster's money- making scheme - but that would be nit-picking. I can't deny Whitaker's achievement, so does that mean nation should now speak to nation via the Internet? I hope not because I don't want to believe, and indeed I can not believe, that virtual research is a substitute for real research. I suppose I can believe that Whitaker would have written an even better novel if he had researched it on the ground.