Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guest Review: Calcutta Exile

Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya

Reviewed by Meryam E

The most haunting, magical and ephemeral character in Bunny Suraiya’s debut novel is the city of Calcutta. Set a decade after India’s independence, the novel brings to light a Calcutta not yet shorn of its British finery, still teeming with various different layers of British, Anglo-Indian and Indian customs and identities. M J Akbar called the novel “a haunting, exquisite serenade,” which I readily agree with.

Suraiya has done a wonderful job of ‘show, don’t tell’. Calcutta is brought alive by her characters, their favourite restaurants, coffee shops and clubs, their routes to work. Most of the description in the novel comes through the eyes of her characters; there is little purely descriptive text. This only serves to draw the reader further into the world inhabited by the Ryans and their friends. For someone who has never been to Calcutta, Magnolia’s, Flury’s, New Market and so forth are places that have been added to my go to list. The reader is further drawn into the narrative by each chapter being dedicated to a particular character. This style also helps in moving the story along quicker than a chronologically written plot.

Central to the novel, the Anglo-Indian Ryan family consists of the father, Robert, his wife Grace, and their two daughters Shirley and Paddy. Their long time Ayah and her husband also feature, with their own marital story as well as their response to the newly created Bangladesh, as do several other well developed and (largely) attractive characters. In fact, one of the best aspects of the novel is that there is something to be gleaned from each character, each encounter, no matter how small, due to the concise and well developed plot and prose. The characters’ relationships with each other symbolize the relationships between Anglo-Indians, Indians and the British, as well as the political realities emerging at the time. The contempt with which Indians view Anglo-Indians is seen in Robert’s interactions with his Indian colleague Ronen Mookherjee, as well as in teasing remarks made to Karambir regarding his ‘dalliance’ with ‘fresh A-I meat’, Paddy Ryan. Robert’s British boss Peter Wilson is genuinely confused by Robert’s yearning to go ‘home’ to an England he has never set foot in, while Robert wonders why he is not called ‘Indo-English’ if his home is in fact India.

It is only at the very end that Robert questions his decision to leave everything, to leave a “life he had so carefully constructed for himself during the last twenty-odd years”. 

This is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever left home and built a new life somewhere else, anyone who has hankered for the many layers of ‘home’ in another place.

(Meryam E is passionate about all things pertaining to books, literature and human rights.)

No comments:

Post a Comment