A way in the world

Books In Neel Mukherjee's first novel, a young Calcuttan hiding out in 1990s London reimagines the life of an English spinster in turn-of-the-century Bengal. Gaiutra Bahadur reads an ambitiously transnational debut.

In Neel Mukherjee's first novel, a young Calcuttan hiding out in 1990s London reimagines the life of an English spinster in turn-of-the-century Bengal. Gaiutra Bahadur reads an ambitiously transnational debut. A Life Apart Neel Mukherjee Constable Dh76 What crosses borders? Books, if there's a will to translate them or teach their language. Birds, as apparitions in unexpected climates. And people, as immigrants and colonisers. All these border-crossers populate Neel Mukherjee's deft first novel, A Life Apart, lending it the audacity of their transnationalism. The author is equally bold, traversing eras, continents and personae as he shifts from the Bengali countryside a century ago to Brixton in the 1990s, from the perspective of a middle-aged English spinster to that of a gay Indian man in his twenties. Mukherjee also leads his readers to the ultimate border crossing, from ego to empathy, as he movingly inhabits the distress and disorientation of his characters.

The novel begins with a cremation. Ritwik, whose name means "priest who officiates at a fire sacrifice", stands at the mouth of a furnace in a Calcutta crematorium, stripped naked to the waist, clutching a bundle of burning twigs. His mother's body lies before him. When Ritwik's father died, just 11 days before his mother, he had refused to perform the last rites Hinduism assigns to eldest sons. ("Endless abracadabra by the phoney priest, pour this on fire, pour that on fire," he objected.) But he won't take chances with his mother's soul. He circles her body seven times, each time singeing her forehead with the twigs. Later, he sets a bowl containing her navel (or, he thinks, "whatever lump of rock or charcoal" the crematorium tout had thought sufficient) afloat on the "stagnant and stench-bound" Ganges.

Ritwik's concession to ritual is especially self-effacing given the revelation, later in the book, that his mother once broke his ribs. She bruised him repeatedly throughout his childhood, misdirecting her rage at their choiceless coexistence in a cramped flat with a dysfunctional extended family. Her death frees him from having to assume his father's role as sole provider for his family; the news of her cerebral stroke "burnt out a clearing in his head", and through that clearing he flees to Oxford on scholarship, to read English literature.

When his student visa expires he becomes an illegal immigrant in London, picking strawberries as a day labourer, turning tricks in the wastelands around King's Cross Station for petty cash and caring for an incontinent, dementia-ridden old woman in exchange for room and board. She can't remember his name but provides the genus and native habitat of exotic birds that regularly visit her garden, like the quetzals from Central America that perch there one morning. "They are never found in these parts of the world. What are they doing here?" she asks. Ritwik, too, is incredulous: "England," he says, "cannot harbour these birds." As dislocated in London as the quetzals, he nonetheless prefers it to home, partly because it's much easier to be gay in England. Lonely and debased, with his motherland as dead to him as his mother, Ritwik begins to write the story of an Englishwoman named Maud Gilby, interweaving her tale with his own to form a novel within Mukherjee's novel.

Maud Gilby was a marginal character in The Home and the World, a Rabindranath Tagore novel set in early 20th-century Bengal, at the time the British divided it to conquer challengers to their rule. The partition birthed Swadeshi, the campaign to boycott British-made products that Gandhi ultimately employed to oust the Brits. Tagore was a Swadeshi activist unhappy that the movement's leaders were resorting to terrorism and dividing Hindus and Muslims. (Most Bengali peasants and traders were Muslim: the peasants were unable to afford costlier homemade products; the traders were destroyed when their foreign stocks were.)

Today Tagore is revered as the patriot who wrote the lyrics that became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. As Ezra Pound famously remarked: "Tagore has sung Bengal into a nation." But during his own life, he had to answer to charges that the West - which had expressed its love for him with a knighthood and the Nobel Prize for Literature - had sullied him with its embrace. The Home and the World, published in 1916, a decade after the events it describes, was his response, an explanation for his public disillusionment with Swadeshi.

The novel's hero is a progressive landowner who nudges his wife out of purdah into the wider world, unwittingly exposing her to the seductions of the charismatic leader of the nationalist movement he has invited onto his estate. Each major player in that plot - modulated to reveal the activist's hypnotic rhetoric and unscrupulous methods - takes a turn as its narrator. Miss Gilby, hired to teach the wife the language and manners of England, flickers briefly in and out. She is simply another foreign presence, like Manchester cloth or Pears soap, which the wife wants to banish as she falls for the dashing agitator.

Satyajit Ray adapted The Home and the World into a film of the same name, which clearly also influenced Mukherjee. Flames lick at the film's opening frames, suggesting the Swadeshi bonfires that consumed foreign products and suffusing the movie with an atmosphere of almost beautiful threat. Ray gave Gilby a bigger role than Tagore had, adding a scene in which she recounts being attacked by nationalists. Ritwik takes that elaboration further, making the Englishwoman his heroine, a freethinker who breaks the rules of Raj society and makes it her mission to educate Indian women.

In a passage that embodies Mukherjee's preoccupation with stories within stories - in addition to his poetic prose - Gilby and the landowner's wife translate a centuries-old epic into English, and their translation becomes part of Ritwik's text. The legend goes thus: A sultan from Delhi, motivated by the famed beauty of a Rajput queen, lays siege to her husband's kingdom for a year without success. He finally says he will be satisfied simply to see her. Her husband grants the sultan a gaze, but only at her reflection. In their palace lit by thousands of candles, the curious sultan finally sees her image in a mirror and, bewitched, reaches out to touch it. The queen, enraged, hurls a goblet at the mirror. As Mukherjee has Ritwik have Gilby write: "The glass shatters into hundreds of little bits and her reflection instantly disappears, like the mirage that it was ... There are only empty shards of glass everywhere, jagged points of cold light."

Ritwik no doubt rewrites The Home and the World from Gilby's perspective because he identifies with her; both reject the society they inherit, only to be rejected by the one they choose, then struggle in the misfit's space in between. Outlook India excoriated the Indian edition of Mukherjee's book (titled Past Continuous), saying his interlaid narratives read "as though Omar from My Beautiful Laundrette decides to write The Raj Quartet." Indeed, the novel's tone does morph from streetwise and sexy (the swagger of Stephen Frears's film about multicultural London) to dainty and corseted (the milieu of Paul Scott's epic about Empire). But this is less a flaw and more a fascinating by-product of Ritwik's charged relationship with England, which began long before he experiences anti-immigrant backlash on its streets. It started, as it has for so many Indians of a certain class, with books.

In line for lunch at Oxford, Ritwik encounters a boy who reminds him of "some overgrown animate toy from Enid Blyton, the innocence in his face enhanced by the jerky, toylike movements." He carries a book of English limericks to his mother's deathbed. And when Oxford mates wonder if England is "a big shock", he replies: "Not all that much, you know, we grew up reading Enid Blyton and, later, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse." He also informs them that "English Literature" as an academic discipline was first taught in India, not England - as a tool to create subjects "Indian in blood and in colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect," as the colonial administrator Thomas Macauley strategised in 1835.

Tagore's critics believed he was exactly that kind of Indian. Mukherjee has also been received uneasily in India, despite edging out Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri for an important prize there last year. Reviewers have praised him for writing an unsentimental diaspora novel, but faulted his harshness toward Calcutta. And it is true that Ritwik is so alienated that he notes things about the city that many residents might not, like a cow in the middle of traffic's "lawless flow" of pedestrians, rickshaws, cars, trams and stray dogs. The cover of the Indian edition - a photo of Allen Ginsberg in Calcutta, the body of a boy splayed on the pavement before him - only reinforced the idea of an outsider's gaze. The Indian Express condemned passages that linger on filth and backwardness as "Orientalism revisited". "Since the average Indian reader could do without such over-explaining," the reviewer wondered, "might one ask if he is merely a supplement to Mukherjee's real target readership?"

Such criticisms are understandable but misplaced. Macauley envisioned English books migrating to India as a subtle form of political control. A Life Apart is now tracing the opposite trajectory. As Mukherjee knows, it's not easy to cross borders, and Indians writing in English, especially those based in the West, are inevitably asked who their audience really is. Surely it isn't sinful if the answer includes ex-colonisers, especially if the book illuminates the underbellies of their capital as experienced by immigrants from former colonies.

It looks like Mukherjee - who reviews fiction for several publications in London - will be well received there, much like Tagore was. The Independent, for one, featured him as the "novelist to watch" in its Talent 2010 issue. He deserves the accolade for his complex, allusive prose - and most of all for how deeply he makes us feel for Ritwik when the England he encountered in books becomes tragically real. Like Miss Gilby, he is beaten by nationalist thugs. It happens in a "dark corner of a backstreet that will be forever England". And it shatters not just a man, but also the image of a country first glimpsed only through the looking glass of literature. As in the ancient story of the sultan, the illusion of pure loveliness is obliterated, breaking into jagged points of cold light.

Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist based in the New York area.