The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The deluge of historical fiction in the past decade has given L P Hartley's epigram new and perhaps unintended significance. An exploration of one's own past, individual or collective, can become a journey to a strange land; and the portrayal of that difference allows imaginative licence to the writer.
It may appear that, over the past four years, South Asia's writers – such as Kamila Shamsie and Amitav Ghosh – have responded tardily to a foreign trend by turning to their region's turbulent recent history for inspiration. But history has always been a staple of Subcontinental fiction. Kamila Markandaya's The Honeycomb, Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters, Alan Sealey's Trotternama and, earlier still, the novels of Ahmed Ali are all fine examples, not to mention the masterly sagas in vernacular languages by, among others, Qurrutalain Hyder, Abdullah Hussein, Koovempu and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.
Two ambitious first novelists, David Davidar and Hari Kunzru, join that illustrious list. The House of Blue Mangoes and The Impressionist are both set in colonial times, Davidar's novel covering half a century and Kunzru's, which begins in 1918, a dense decade or so. Both investigate Anglo-Indian conflicts and the politics of racial and cultural identities, albeit with different emphasis. Both daringly tread ground already covered by those English littérateurs who made a career of the benighted Raj's foibles.
Their approaches differ radically. Kunzru, more Kipling than Forster, goes for the colonial picaresque, quoting Kim before his narrative begins. Like the protagonists of many Raj novels, his central character is a man of mixed race.
Born to a Kashmiri family, Pran Nath discovers that he is in fact the by-blow of a lustful Englishman. As a harem catamite renamed Rukhsana, he is used as a sexual pawn in a power game played by wily Indians and obnoxious Englishmen, and finds, when sodomised, that Brits are – well, lustful. He assumes an English identity, resurfacing in Bombay as Bobby.
In the first half, Kunzru revives stock figures from the colonial romance: rigid Brahmins, dissolute Muslim feudalists, crude English functionaries. Polymorphous perversity reign supreme. The reader is tempted to look for signs of post-colonial subversion, which emerge when Indian prejudices against the body odours and foul habits of the colonisers are delightfully catalogued, underlined by British reservations about Anglo-Saxons bred in India. The corruption of the ruler is matched by the vices of the ruled.
Mimicry is the abiding theme of the novel's central section. Bobby discards his Indian identity completely. But when love beckons in the shape of romantic Lily, he finds that all that glitters isn't English gold. His Eurasian darling dismisses him as the half-caste he is.
Bobby leaves for England, where he re-invents himself as the very proper Jonathan. But when he sees the very English object of his affections in the arms of a black man in a Parisian boite, her parting words reveal that unlike "the negro'" Sweets, who has "soul'" because he has known suffering, poor Jonathan – in common with most Englishmen – simply doesn't. Lily's denunciation comes full circle.
Kunzru's is a self-conscious performance. He has an often seductive lightness of touch; he deftly avoids the earnest summaries of historical events and stagey dialogues which are so often the staples of period fiction. His prose is practised and glossy, but his unremitting present tense, beguilingly cinematic in set pieces, soon becomes tiresome.
His novel begins to lose momentum when it leaves the terrain of Anglo-India. Although English scenes are convincingly painted, we have a stunned sense of déjà vu towards the end of Jonathan's English sojourn. When the rejected impressionist takes off for the heart of African darkness, it's difficult to decide whether Kunzru is venturing further into colonial allegory or whether, like his name-changing hero, he has lost a sense of purpose.
In a very different vein, David Davidar, too, is writing about the past as a foreign country. Of South Indian birth, he lives and works in Delhi (as a publisher), but has located The House of Blue Mangoes in a lovingly detailed but imaginary region on the border of Tamilnadu and Kerala. His Kilanad is, in its way, as vividly evoked as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and Narayan's Malgudi.
In this region Solomon Dorai, the patriarch, builds the eponymous house. The section about him, which leaves little room for reflective writing, is a chronicle of caste warfare. The novel really takes off with the story of his sons, Aaron and Daniel, the first a freedom fighter, the second a cautious, conventional doctor. Aaron is martyred; Daniel, the herbalist, compromises with British rule, grudgingly seeing advantages.
Through the portrait of a clan (the catalogue of births, marriages and deaths is endless), Davidar does also develop his characters. But his real talent is for the struggle of the individual in a reassuringly collective way of life, and the desire for change in conflict with the need for roots.
The Dorais, though Christian, have no aspiration to Westernisation. Their manners and aspirations, even their rituals of worship, are indigenous. But when Daniel's renegade son, Kannan, marries a Eurasian, he begins to aspire to English norms and a place in the tea-planting colonial hierarchy. Fleetingly, we wonder whether Davidar's scrupulously impartial technique, which allows both coloniser and colonised a voice, endorses Kannan's view; but a near-magical adventure with a man-eating tiger turns the narrative around again. Kannan's desire for assimilation goes the way of his Eurasian wife.
Davidar's prose is clear and sinewy, with an occasional over-kill of nature poetry. His narrative span is ambitious, but his technique – in spite of mandatory intercalations about Indian in-fighting, colonial in-fighting, and mangoes – is unpretentiously traditionalist. He does not entirely avoid stagey comments about public events, but that's a minor flaw in so good-natured and affirmative a novel.
There are obvious resemblances to mid-century American sagas, like the unfairly forgotten work of Edna Ferber. Davidar seems also to have learnt from the techniques of the regional sagas from Kerala, Karnataka and elsewhere that he has enterprisingly published in translation over the years.
His book enlists a massive bibliography of works in English, but its tone is pervasively Indian. The generosity and digressiveness, the focus on the family and community over the interests of the individual, the struggle for selfhood, the pressing but painful concern with modernity; and the ultimate reconciliation with roots, symbolised by the mango orchards with their fragrant, delicious yield: all have much more in common with the passionate, multivocal novels of Pillai or Koovempu than with the cosmopolitan sophistication of Rushdie or Desai.
Unexpectedly, Davidar's novel ends in an epiphanic paean to rootedness. The past may be a foreign country, but it is a place that, like Daniel and Kannan, you can return to reclaim: land to build your homestead and plant your trees.Reuse content