|Saturday, February 15, 2003||
IN Kasauli there is an old British cemetery dating back to the 1840s when the English built a line of cantonments on the Shivalik ranges to billet troops in the event of a war which seemed imminent against the Sikh kingdom. This cemetery is a good way down the hill from the military hospital, few people bother to visit it. In my younger days, I went there thrice to see which was the oldest grave. I could not find it as many marble tombstones had been stolen and the inscriptions on others became illegible. Even in broad daylight pine and yew trees cast eerie shadows; the place looked haunted. However, I found one epitaph on a grave which I found to be a good example of the sort of macabre honour only the British have. I memorised the lines:
Halt stranger, do not go by,
As you are now, so once was I;
Prepare therefore to follow me,
As I am, so will you be.
Handa has done well to use Kasauli as the spring-board to launch his story. His descriptions of the cantonment town, its inhabitants from the vegetable-seller, the newspaper vendor, a hotelier couple up to the Brigade Commander ensconced in the Flagstaff House, his parties where military brass discuss the war to come while bottoming up Patiala pegs of Black Dog Scotch Whisky are accurate and evocative. Kasauli has been my summer home for well over half a century; I know its denizens, including a succession of Brigade Commanders, as the cliche goes, like the back of my hand.
There cannot be a novel without a love story. Handa weaves it round three characters, two attractive women and a handsome dark-skinned Anglo-Indian officer who served the British during World War II and stayed on to serve the Indian Army during its conflict with China in 1962 and the short war with Pakistan in 1965. He bears a yard-long name, Lieutenant Colonel Quentin Reginald Mulkalli Oxley-Protheroe, M.C. MVC, Commanding Officer, 38th Battalion, Brigade of the Guards. The two ladies in his life, not counting the one night stands with others before he enters the novel are a comely Erica, daughter of an Anglo-Indian, the station master of Ambala railway station, and the even more svelte Narayani Mehra, daughter of a Manglorean-mother married to a Punjabi Air Force officer. She has a four-year-old daughter Lakshmi and her marriage is on the rocks. As a volunteer nurse, she had tended to Mulkalli in the Tezpur military hospital. They come together again in Delhi and their mutual infatuation gets a second lease of life. Just as the war is about to break out, Mulkalli avails himself of leave due to him to do some trout and mahasoor fishing, kill a snow leopard and an ibex or two before joining his battalion on the Kashmir front. Narayani agrees to go along with him and consummate their relationship. The war erupts; Mulkalli repels the Pakistani advance, gets yet another decoration and is elevated to the rank of Brigadier. But his adulterous affair with a brother officerís wife gets known and he knows he will be cashiered. Narayani knows she will lose the custody of her daughter to her cuckolded husband. She flees to the USA; Mulkalli flees to Australia where he meets up with Erica Green, now an air hostess with Quantas Airways.
Handa had more on his mind than making up a love story. At first sight, it seems he meant to write about the dilemma of dark-skinned Anglo-Indians and the raw deal they got from both British Whites and the Indian Browns. He does this with great perception and sympathy. But the many asides into history, invasions of Aryans and Central Asian tribes; Buddhism, Hinduism, the Hindu-Muslim divide, Partition and much else indicate that he meant to write the definitive Indian novel using a love story as sugarcoating. He has not succeeded in doing so. Although he provides much food for thought, his penchant to lampoon people who cannot speak English as spoken in Buckingham Palace is off-putting; he mimics regional accents Bengali, Bihari, Uttar Pradeshi and Tamil (not Punjabi, he being one) and reduces real people to caricatures. Nevertheless, though somewhat short of achieving his target, Handa has written a very readable novel which holds the readers interest from the beginning to the end.
Bunchi Mangat Rai
His close friends knew him as Bunchi; he preferred to be called Nirmal; anyone who wanted to annoy him called him Edward. His full name was Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai. His father belonged to a prominent Khatri family of Multan. On his own he converted to Christianity and married a Bengali Christian lady doctor. Mangat Rai Senior retired as Commissioner of Income Tax. They had four children, all of whom attained some measure of distinction. The eldest, Priobala, ended up as the first Indian-Pakistani Principal of Kinnaird College, Lahore. The second Charles Rajinder rose to the rank of Brigadier in the Indian Army. He took premature retirement from service convinced that he had been superceded because he was a Christian. He migrated to Canada, became a yoga teacher, married an American girl and raised a family of one. The youngest Sheila married Arthur Lall of the ICS. She divorced her husband and settled in her orchard in Kulu. She was murdered by her servants.
Bunchi Mangat Rai came into my life in 1930 when we found ourselves in the same class in St Stephenís College, Delhi. We became close friends. From my side, it was hero worship because he was the brightest student in College. At the end of every term, he carried away just about every academic prize in his class. Three years later, we resumed our friendship in England where he joined Keble College, Oxford. He literally walked into the ICS with the incredible achievement of being the only candidate, English or Indian, who scored full marks in English essay:200 out of 200. One summer, four of us, including P.C. Lall (who later became our Air Chief Marshal) and an English friend Richard Reis and went cycling round England and Wales.
Mangat Rai opted for the Punjab. He rose to be Chief Secretary under Pratap Singh Kairon and was later Chief Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir. Then he came to the Centre and was made Special Secretary in the Petroleum Ministry. During Morarji Desaiís short premiership, Nayantara Sehgal (Mrs Vijay Lakshmi Panditís daughter) was offered Ambassadorship to Rome, including the Vatican, provided she married Mangat Rai with whom she was living after both had divorced their spouses. She married Mangat Rai and was ready to leave for Italy when Morarji Desaiís government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power. The first thing Mrs Gandhi did was to cancel Nayantaraís appointment as Ambassador and then she sidelined her husband by refusing to make him full Secretary and forced him to retire. Mrs Gandhi was a very vindictive woman; she loathed her aunt and all her family.
Mangat Rai was by all reckoning a very able and honest administrator. His forays into the literary world did not meet expectations of his friends who thought that his academic brilliance would easily translate into literary excellence. He wrote on administration, a detective novel and published a compilation of his correspondence with Nayantara Sehgal before they were married. All made very second-rate reading. His wifeís achievements put him in the shade. His emotional life was messy. He was always a hard drinker, and could put down half-a-bottle of whisky every day without showing any sign of drunkenness. But drink took toll of his health. He gradually sank into senile dementia and was bed-ridden for over a year before he died. It is strange that though Ihad been close to him most of the 70-odd years of our lives, I got the news of his death from Sarjit Kaur, who rang me up from Washington to tell me about it. She got it on the Internet. Mangat Rai and I were the same age.
Not for children
A landlord put up a notice "Flat for rent. Those with small children need not apply."
One day his bell rang. Opening the door, he found a 10-year-old boy standing there.
"What do you want?" asked the landlord.
"I want to rent your flat, uncle," replied the boy. "I assure you, I have no small children. However, I do have a younger sister and a mother and father.
(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, N. Delhi)