Set in the early part of the 20th century, The Tailor’s Needle has a mix of many elements including drama, adherence to old-world values and rebellion. The protagonist is Sir Saraswati Chandra Ranbakshi, who, it is emphasised many times through the book, is a gentleman of great integrity. A qualified barrister, he returns to India in the early 1900s, and soon becomes private secretary and state governor of Kashinagar. He is highly revered by the British Viceroy of the time, Lord Mortimer Edmund Griffin-Tiffin.
The king of Kashinagar dies and his elder son, Prince Ranbir, is not responsible enough to take over the reins of the kingdom. The British are plotting to make the most of this situation.
Dismayed by Ranbir’s lack of faith in him, Ranbakshi leaves Kashinagar with his family — his wife Savithri, son Yogendra and daughters Maneka and Sita — to settle down at Mirzapur. This move alters the destinies of all the characters. The book follows the events in their lives and the socio-political situation in the country in those times.
While we are constantly reminded of the greatness of Ranbakshi, it is actually the character of Maneka that holds interest. Not a conformist by any means, Maneka falls in love with the new British District Collector of Mirzapur, Larry Stephens, who, it turns out, is a womaniser and is not really interested in her. He has already cheated another Indian woman.
Maneka takes on Larry by ensuring that the woman is married off to him in the presence of a press reporter and a couple of local politicians. It is Maneka’s character that holds interest for a major part of the book. She meets Mohan, who belongs to the royalty, and marries him. She discovers she is pregnant with Larry’s child and secretly aborts the child. At Mohan’s so-called palace, all is not hunky-dory, and Maneka realises he has already been married and his first wife is dead. She is constantly reminded of the first wife, and one can’t help but think of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Eventually, Maneka returns to her maternal house with a child in her arms. She thinks she has murdered her husband. After much drama, that mystery is solved.
While Maneka is quite the rebel, Sita, Ranbakshi’s younger daughter, is the meek one. Yogendra strikes a balance, constantly reminding himself of Ranbakshi’s mantra, “be the tailor’s needle, which passes through every cloth without making distinction”. He falls in love with a neighbour’s daughter who belongs to another caste, and in the end, both their families are convinced of their love. It is the many dilemmas that the family faces in the meanwhile that makes for interesting reading.
Apart from the focus on Ranbakshi’s family, the book has a chapter where the Viceroy’s preference (not just official) for his representative Canister McClout comes into focus. Some of these passages reduce the duo to caricatures.
All through the book, there is the constant promise of Ranbakshi one day jumping headlong into the freedom movement. In a lengthy speech he makes to his family and friends announcing the intercaste marriage of his son Yogendra with Gauri, he talks about the importance of creating a casteless society and the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi.
Does he join the freedom movement eventually? We don’t know. The book starts with that promise, and ends with that promise.
The tailor’s needle
Lakshmi Raj Sharma
2012, pp 330