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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Caught between continents

Han Suyin's life bristled, inevitably, with contradictions

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The prolific writer, Han Suyin, who died earlier this month, once said the true is not someone of mixed parentage but mixed cultures. By that token, Andre Beteille, the distinguished academic whose memoirs, Sunlight on the Garden, this paper reviewed recently, is either not Eurasian at all, or else is as much a Eurasian as millions of other Indians educated according to Macaulay’s prescription.

China wasn’t sufficiently colonised to boast a Macaulay, whose Minute on Education determined India’s future and the personality of Indians more effectively than generally admitted. But Han’s life was such a many-splendored thing because it tried to bridge the two worlds of Asia and Europe both ethnically and culturally.

I remember a lunch at the time of that last fling of imperial might, Anthony Eden’s Suez adventure, when the distinguished British journalist, James Cameron, observed that mankind’s future lay in miscegenation. “Look at Anglo-Indians!” I exclaimed with the thoughtlessness of youth, only to be told chided gently, “That’s because of the English and Indians.”

Jimmy was right, although there wouldn’t have been any Anglo-Indians if it hadn’t been for the English and Indians. But subsequent English and Indian conduct was largely responsible for many of the quirks of the Anglo-Indian personality. If Beteille doesn’t suffer from them, it’s probably because his upbringing taught him to identify wholly with one side. Despite the heights Han attained, her life seems to have been a series of painful encounters.

The way the Chinese servant at the European consulate, where her sister worked, looked down on Han in her Chinese attire was revealing. So was her sister’s determinedly dyed blonde hair. These can’t have surprised Han. The “chasm of aversion” that yawned between her and her Belgian mother may have owed much to race, which Disraeli called the ultimate reality.

Han SuyinReading Han Suyin’s delightful and incisive novels and moving autobiographical volumes, I have often been struck by the emotional and attitudinal similarity with Indian situations. Her mother’s insistence that Han marry an American because “all Americans are wealthy” may also have covered admiration for the character of people who saved Europe from devastation. Han was born a year before the First World War, and Belgium suffered grievously in both.

Inevitably, Han bristled with contradictions. An essay in Time magazine commented on the fact that “a militant anti-imperialist, she married a British special branch officer at the height of the Malaya Emergency.” Eric Hobsbawm, the Communist historian who died a few weeks before Han, saw similar paradoxes in the Kumaramangalam brothers, Indrajit Gupta, P N Haksar and Renu Chakravarty. Logically, Han should have been manning an ack-ack gun under the command of the guerrilla leader, Chin Pen, in the steamy Malayan jungles. But life is seldom logical and the lives of those who find themselves on the margins of definable worlds least so.

Leon F Comber, her British second husband, paid for his wife’s political ambivalence by having to quit the special branch after her 1957 novel, And The Rain My Drink, appeared. It was seen as criticising the British. Han had already had some experience of British race rigidity over the love affair that inspired her most famous book, A Many-Splendored Thing, which became a Hollywood hit (winning three Oscars) in 1955 as Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. As the film shows, a leader of Hong Kong’s British community warned her that her job at the Queen Mary Hospital might be at risk if she continued her affair with Ian Morrison, the Times (London) correspondent who was killed in Korea in 1950.

Europeans treated her slightingly because she was half-Chinese, the Chinese looked down on her because of her European blood. Some might suggest that the three husbands of three different races – Tang Pao-huang who was Chinese, the British Comber and Vincent Ruthnaswamy, who was Indian – betokened her restless quest for an identity. China’s spectacular rise was her psychological salvation. She became an ardent apologist for Mao Zedong, contributed essays to the pro-Beijing journal, Eastern Horizon, and wrote a moving but hagiographic biography of Zhou Enlai. Despite her “inescapable passion” for China, even that phase didn’t last. She warned that worshippers might “see their words twisted, their devotion warped, and their best intentions serve ends which they had not conceived.”

She spent much of her life in Singapore and India and then Switzerland where she died. A neutral country with four official languages best suited someone who belonged to neither Europe nor Asia but to both.  

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