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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Yesterday's worlds

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

Having grown up and lived in Delhi which is not a former British Presidency town like Calcutta, Madras or Bombay, I have always been puzzled by sentimental books about, around, from and in these three cities.

The truth is that the lamentation, which is what these books often turn out to be, overt or hidden, is no more than for life in perhaps five per cent of the area of these cities.

That small arc is of about 30 degrees from Chowringhee in Calcutta; from Colaba to the Mahim Causeway in Bombay; the swathe of land 5x5 km from Beach Road, with Fort St George at one end and the San Thome Cathedral at the other, in Madras, that's what these books tend to be about.

Expectedly, the most prolific are the Bengalis. You can, as the man said, take the Bengalis out of Bengal but not Bengal out of them. Or, at least, you can't take Calcutta out of them.

Madras, although a latecomer to the genre, is next. The Tamils, I must say, at least those writing in awkward British-American English, are the worst at this culture gig. All that Brahmin nostalgia - jasmine flowers, pattis rasam, amma's tayr sadam, Chami's peanuts (with raw mangos and coconut shavings) on Marina beach, the Triplicane temples, the arduously arranged marriages, the mystical music season - is quite embarrassing. R K Narayan has much to answer for.

Bombay, which is busy with more sensible things like money, comes a poor third. And Delhi, well, the less said about it the better. Being new, it doesn't seem to provoke or invoke any nostalgia at all, not in English anyway.

What surprises me is that publishers choose to publish these books. After all, what would be the size of the market? Two thousand copies over five years?

Serves them right, though. Most such books are predictably dull historical accounts of the Raj era with a few old sepia pictures thrown in for effect. Or worse, they are badly written stories that appeal only or mostly to the NRIs' sense of their chosen "culture".

Rabbit from a hat

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I stumbled upon a novel called Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya. It was published four years ago.

I have known Bunny Suraiya and her husband, Jug Suraiya, for 25 years, living 18 of those in fairly close proximity in the same leafy, grassy compound. I see her practically every day on her evening walk.

We sometimes stop to speak ill of our neighbours, not all, mind, but some definitely. My sister is Bunny Suraiya's immediate neighbour, for example.

I was actually looking for Ashok Mitra's collection of his Economic and Political Weekly essays called Calcutta Diary when up popped old Bunny Suraiya. I bought it and, boy, am I glad.

It is a very finely textured book on a most unusual subject: the Anglo-Indians. She makes Kolkata come alive in the way only Bengali novels do, which I read in translation. But they are about things that I can only sense. Bunny Suraiya has written exquisitely about things I know once existed and are now gone forever. Her regret is obvious but without unnecessary sentimentality.

Her novel captures, with delicateness and sensitivity, a now forgotten aspect of the Raj, namely, the Anglo-Indians and their discontents. They got a raw deal after 1947 because if the British took a dim view of them, the Indians took an even dimmer view.

Even now those of us who had attended the Missionary schools - in my case for just six months in good old Jubblepore, as it was known - have a laugh at them. What a sorry lot they became, the poor fellows.

Who were they? Article 366(2) of the Constitution defines them as:

"An Anglo Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only."

Bunny Suraiya, without any cruelty, has written a book around the fixation of some of the above people with "home" (England) and their notions of equality with the English and superiority over Indians and vice versa. England pretty much told them to stay put in India. So for many of them Australia became "home".

If you haven't read it, you must. For those of you who know only French, an edition in that language will be out soon.

First Published: Mon, June 01 2015. 21:42 IST