A gritty journey

THE CITY OF PALACES 
Sujata Massey
Penguin 2014,
pp 47
Rs1
499

Sometimes I wonder at the persistent publication of leviathanian novels these days. Where does one find time to read these yards of printed words? I guess, monetary returns apart, a writer simply cannot stop writing. Sujata Massey must set down the events that she had come across in history. To avoid being clippingly editor-ish, she has put together a set of building blocks of fiction, a luridly attractive one at that, like the dark beauty on the cover. Is she the heroine, showing off her ornamented plait to advantage on a naked back? I like the novel because I dare not question.  

One moment Pom is eating snails to survive, and very soon she is reciting from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I suspended all attempts at disbelief by the time I crossed page fifty one, shivering in the letter-writing romance of Bidushi, Pom (now Sara) and Pankaj. Why should anyone bother about the veracity or logic of a tale when it gets dropped on our platter with a laugh that is “brittle as a papadam wafer”? 

As we whirl deeper into the novel, we feel more like the Red Queen of Lewis Carrol, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. As we sprint forward, so many scenes flash by: Pom washing the baseboards in the school, a missing ruby pendant, and then a breather: our heroine disguised as a Muslim girl takes a train to Calcutta but gets down at Kharagpur. Despite the bizarre beginning, Sara has smooth sailing as she goes on and on and up and up.

 Mark Sujata’s excellence in the art of padding  : “All these exciting, glamorous ideas whirled through me as Bonnie showed off her very own bathroom, which had a tub set into a tiled floor and water that flowed right into it from a silver spout. The bath and sink water was heated by turning on a geyser mounted high on the wall. Bonnie showed me how to work them and also explained the correct seating for the white porcelain privy similar to ones I’d seen in the students’ lavatory at Lockwood School.”

Though a servant maid in that school, Sara (now Pam) had learnt to read poems and stories in a “posher than posher accent” and that leads her to success. However, a novel with an Indian locale cannot ignore caste. So further stuffing about the Dom caste, the Shudra who came “from Lord Brahma’s lower half”, the thatching caste: brothels cannot afford the luxury of caste! We get to know the sleazy details and how the police and medical practitioners connive in making prostitution a perfectly valid commercial venture. Thus Pam is a “working lady” at 15 and sheer erotica takes over.

This is where India’s independence movement gives us a respite. The Mummy of the brothel is worried. If India becomes independent, all her Railway-employed Anglo-Indian and zamindari clients will go away. Her business would be ruined!  “It will be a blacks-only railway, and all the trains will crash or be late!” Gandhi, Tagore, hunger strikes and Andamans hold the fort for a while till we get back to Pam, who has now become a mother.

Calcutta! Pam (now Camilla Smith) uses her wits, and authorial compulsion does the rest to make her a librarian in an Englishman’s home. From there one is just a step away into the politically bristling Calcutta of 1938. What a jerky drive! The  elongated journey of Camilla (now Kamala) makes another sharp turn when she gets to be an excellent spy. England declares war on Germany (all information is grist to Sujata’s fictional mill), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose rises in person  through the pages, and we slip into 1943 and the terrible Bengal famine. 

The dreadful experience is drawn into Sujata’s trajectory, but only for a moment as with other historical occurrences,  including India’s independence. Some pious words about Hindu-Muslim unity are sprinkled and Kamala’s daughter by an Anglo-Indian has a secular name. Not surprising for the heroine is a lover of Tagore’s poetry. Anyway, the cover portrait gets fully justified by Sujata’s tale. 

Sujata’s style reminds one of the tumbrils that move towards the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. Such yanking in the fiction’s trajectory. Consciously or unconsciously, Sujata has written the perfect review for her own novel when she describes Agatha Christie as “an authoress who concocts very clever detective stories — pleasure reading for trains and sickbeds”. The City of Palaces may not be a clever tale of survival, but certainly it is recommended reading for trains and convalescents.

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