The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Raj setting, contemporary observations
R.P. Chaddah

The River is Three-Quarters Full by Ranga Rao. Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 276. Rs 250.

OF late, the Coromandel Coast region in south-east of India, the Bay of Bengal and in particular the course of Krishna river, have offered a new kind of inspiration to Ranga Rao and David Davidar (The House of Blue Mangoes). Rao sets his tale in the early days of the Raj i.e. circa 1830. Davidar sets his story in the last years of the 19th century and feels that the Coromandel coast is the idyllic setting where the history of modern India finds its ebbs and flows.

The is Rao’s third novel in English. Fowl-Filcher, his first, was the first original novel published by Penguin in India way back in 1987, in their inaugural batch of books. Rao is a committed R.K. Narayan aficionado and every once in a while writes critically about the life work of RKN. He has just completed a book on RKN. The next on his list seems to be the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. He has already published an open letter to him in the columns of a newspaper.


Rao’s Fowl-Filcher bristled with rollicking laughter and it offered amusement at all levels — a full throated humour formed the format of the book. In this book his concerns are quite a bit serious. Rao selects the Gentoo (Telegu) region of the coast as the locale in 1830s, the crucial period in the history of advent of the British in India, who invade this country as traders through the East India Company and eventually become masters in the hundred-odd years to come i.e. till 1947. The India of those times is seen through the eyes of Grace Claire, a young English woman who comes here in search of an eligible young man for herself. She finds the man, but decides to go back to her Island, because she can not bring herself to adjust to the very British way of lift in the midst of squalor; famine and drought when the river Krishna is always three quarters full. As Grace tries to come to terms with this strange land and its strange people, she tries to learn and unlearn a great deal in this country which is full strange paradoxes. She is somehow unable to understand the near callous attitude of the British in India towards the pressing problems of the natives.

"The Land of Regrets is a country to visit, but not to live in," says Grace, while planning to go back to England. In this complex saga, the novel tries to tell a tale woven around conflict and conquest, love and disillusionment. Those times are of ‘Suttee’ and also the age-old profession of prostitution. What Grace tells her mother in England through letters about religion of those times it is still to be seen in the India today.

"Religion is misused everywhere, principally for political purposes, as much here as much there. And is something else common to all religions: whatever the religion or the climate one thing is common: impairment of women."

The novel makes ample use of the epistolary form of narrative to unravel this legend-inspired novel banking heavily on chronicles for its infrastructure. The novel brings together a storehouse of umpteen number of sayings, proverbs, aphorisms which have a salutary impact on the narrative at appropriate places. Over a period of time some of these sayings have found countrywide acceptance. A few samplers would suffice:

"Debt is a man’s husband".

"God gives sugar to him who eats sugar."

"When ants are about to die, they get wings."

"For appearances a saint, but deep inside a devil."

This is the book for those who are addicted to the Raj nostalgia and also for those Indians who have South fixations for food habits, celebrations of all events and non-events under the sun and game of games of those times ‘Hog-hunting’. The novel hints at the lackadaisical approach to the politics of those times and the very condescending attitude of those natives in authority, towards even the small-time officers of the East India Company. There are quite a few candid observations about the people of India. One such observation, at random, catches the eye. "But—-there is always a but in India, it seems to me to be the but-country, the Land of Yes-No."