Secret affairs

Secret affairs

A tip from a colleague, Charmaine D’Souza, takes him to Canada, to Muskoka, north of Toronto, to the settlement of Port Carling, in pursuit of Charmaine’s Aunt Serena. This same Aunt, although reluctant to speak to him at first, relents and presents him with a story that will not only save his job but also shake the world.

At this point, the story shifts back in time to 1934, to a place called Marsdengunj, in eastern India and it is soon clear that the protagonist of this book is really Serena, not Harry Barnsley at all. He is merely the narrator of the story.

It is the time of the Raj and the quaint Anglo-Indian railway town of Marsdengunj is alive and bustling with the various intrigues typical of a town in those days. There is the resident alcoholic, Charleston Bracebridge-Rhode, a senior driver, who is also Serena’s father. Her mother is significantly absent from the scene, the reasons for which only hinted at bitterly but never explained until the end. Charles is a harsh parent, often cruel to Serena, but she bears his treatment without protest, turning instead to her grandparents for comfort.

Lincoln Phillips, a friend of Charles’ has a son Byron, who is in love with Serena. She responds to his affections but often teases him the way young girls do.

The rest of the town is peopled, believably, by just the varied types to be expected in this town. There is Tessie, with the loud mouth; Dora, a veteran manipulator and chair of the vestry committee; there are the men, railwaymen all, who liked their drink and their shooting outings at their local make-do shooting range.

Unknown to the good people of Marsdengunj there are events taking place in the great city of Calcutta, to their east, that will shake the foundations of their professional and personal lives. Stamford Beaudeville, a highly placed official of the railway, and his beautiful wife Erica and their son Hector now come to live in Marsdengunj. Their coming changes life in Marsdengunj irrevocably.

The story moves forward to England; it is July, 1940. Hector Beaudeville is now a pilot in the RAF, while Serena Beaudeville is a nurse in a hospital. By a series of happy coincidences they meet at the hospital where Serena works and a romance that had its seed in their adolescence now bursts forth. Now, a complex set of events take place and Hector is forced to move to Canada while Serena takes part in something so momentous that its revelation to Harry Barnsley will probably change the course of history.

This a detailed portrait of Anglo-Indian life in the last years of British rule in India. The author obviously knows his subject well but this intimate knowledge sometimes tends to trip up the narrative. For instance, the lengthy description of how Jeera the maidservant roasts corn (bhutta) on a charcoal fire and then serves it with lime and butter or the exhausting description of how dhobis washed clothes at the local dhobi ghat on the ridged washing stone where “the ridges ensured that the streaks of soap adhered leech-like to the fabric.”

These sections would not be out of place in a handbook of Indian colonial life and do not serve to enhance the story in any way. Barring these tedious bits and also the fact that the twist in the end is too contrived to be believable, this novel makes for an easy, intriguing read.  

Muskoka Maharani
David McMahon
Penguin, 2010,
pp 273, Rs 275

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