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Gayatri D. Acharya

By Kamalini Sengupta
IndiaInk, Delhi, 2006, pp. 293, Rs. 295.00


Don’t judge a book by its cover. Quite right. The bland title and cover picture of The Top of the Raintree signal nothing of its brilliance. It is witty, vivid, evocative and informed. And the writing is sharp and compelling. Finally, it is the quality of the author’s intelligence--of mind and heart--that determines the value of a novel. Amitav Ghosh’s palpable intelligence sets him apart from his peers. And Sengupta’s book is likewise distinct from the recent body of competent Indian fiction in English.   The characters are all residents of Rajmahal, a Calcutta mansion built in 1910 and demolished in the 1990s. The historical span of the building and its occupants reflects the history of Calcutta’s intersecting cultures. The mansion itself is a living entity as are the ghosts of former residents who comment on and participate in the lives of the six families that are the focus of the narrative. The clashing viewpoints of the ghosts and that of the humane Rajmahal is a witty device to complicate the exploration of India’s move to modernity.   All Rajmahalians have hybrid identities and hybridity is a central theme. Jack and Myrna Strachey have ‘stayed on’ after Independence—though they never quite know why. Proshanto Mojumdar (Pro) ‘the scion of a rich zamindari family’ is caught between his anglicized habits and the urge to challenge the perpetrators of his identity. (Pro’s only protest merits a digression. Dressed in an unaccustomed dhoti, tied with the help of his Russian neighbour, he storms an all-white swimming club. As he jumps into the pool worrying about his dhoti, his minister friend cheers on: ‘Are they afraid our colour will roll off our skins and stain the water? What about sharing the pool with people who only use paper! Chichi!’) The Russian neighbour is Petrov who arrives in 1929, becomes thoroughly Bengali, and starts a Bengali theatre. His psyche is shaped not by the Russian Revolution but by the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which affects even his chosen mode of death. Maudie Jessop is an Anglo-Indian who declines her brother’s offer to take her along to Canada. Surjeet Shona is half Sikh and half Bengali. And the landlord, Ali Mallik , who broke with his friend Jinnah over partition, maintains his secular ideals against all odds. Mallik’s second son marries a Kerala beauty thereby crossing the north-south divide.   This perfunctory ...

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