Tantalisingly titled Dancing Round the Maypole, the book is Ms
Sircar's tryst with a British India that she grew in and, then,
grew out of. Most of the memories jostle between these two ends.
She begins with her 'sepia photographs'— word pictures,
sights, smells and sounds of a colonial India, of bioscope,
butlers and bakhsheesh, of annas and sola topee, of brown sahibs
and white mems, of cold curry and Christian phiringi-ness, odds
and sods`85 the list goes on.
She sets off with
school and life in the very anglicised Colombo where we meet
with Jane, her Buddhist ayah in colourful sarongs and crisp
white blouses lullaby-ing Bye-bye baby, bye-bye O! And we hear
about the amusing little Black Englishmen, Ms Hunter and Ms
Raphael. It is where she learns to dance around the maypole,
blow soap bubbles with clay pipes and make a hatbox for her
fiercely patriotic "Ma".
the story winds its way as we stop by at her schools in Madras
where shingled hair and sleeveless-ess are synonymous with
shamelessness and halt at Lahore where Rani Devi becomes
phiringi and so, Rani Davy. Dalbir transmogrifies into
Dull-beer, Malik Khan into Millikens and Mohit into Moet, all
because of the devious European schooling!
Here is a young
girl tugged at by her Protestant Bengali mother and
High-Churchman Tamil father, torn between Lava's Lahore and
Kipling's Kim and mince-meated between European folk dances and
Er-doo! You sympathise with her. And then grin at her solemn,
often comical, anecdotes of her 'Ma'. With her ardent
nationalism, topsy-turvy feminism and Hitler-like diktats—Ma
belongs more to memory and the author's imagination, a
caricature perhaps, but one without whom Ms Sircar's best
memories would not be half as fascinating.
delectable accounts of her Baba's conversion to Christianity,
her Brahmin grandpa's abortive attempts at killing his son, her
mother-in-law's yen for cooking prawn vindaloos and about a
medley of uncles, aunts, and cousins thrice-removed. A myriad
stories about a forgotten world that throbbed once with snake
charmers, punkah-coolies, peccadilloes of married memsahibs and
jolly bachelors brown or white, and exotic meals on wheels. And
about saloons on the trains that ran on time, the dak-ghars, the
absurdity of the white mercantile society of the
post-independent India, the travels through magic country and
brilliant creatures of an unknown world ... fables fruity and
nutty like the Indian Christian cake, or tart-y and tangy like
mulligatawny - but all repositories of a fascinating cultural
One needn't be
apologetic about yearning for that glorious past. Ms Sircar
avers she is neither "rose-coloring the past" nor
"sour-graping the present". Yet, the wistfulness, the
little lurking desire to return to those days bobs up now and
then. "The present has interesting strangers and
fascinating places but that is not at all the same
thing`85" the author says.
It can't be. Magic
isn't only in a place or moment but also in the eye that sees
it. Very rarely do adults have that eye. They get trapped in
words, in branding an experience rather than directly meeting
it. And words, we know, can be severely limiting.
however, never fumbles for them. Her digs at all she sees,
including her own Christian middle class, are brilliant. Her
stories about her menagerie - Gaga the Goose, Woolsey the Lamb
and Nebudchadnezzar the Tortoise - explain why she is such a
wonderful writer for children. Her moving account of Lahore is
enough to well up a thousand eyes. "My sari tore and my
sandal strap snapped. I walked barefoot, delirious and in love
with life. That was India, August 15th, 1947," she sings.
And then, the joie
de vivre of the first 250-odd pages vanishes, as suddenly as the
world she writes about. She is crestfallen. Hurt. Angry. At the
'Babu English', at the 'tackily synthetic urban life-styles', at
the 'narrowly defined gung-ho oppressive nationalism' and at
'ominous terms such as Christian Hindus'. At how 'the discreet
old Brown Sahib has been replaced by the new Flash Man, at the
New Money, at the ersatz. The discontent with all this and a lot
more is in the heart and mind - hers and, perhaps, of an entire
generation. Was yesterday as magical as we remember it to be,
she asks. The answer is elsewhere in the book. "A little
girl realised dimly`85 that everything, be it ever so wondrous
and enchanting, is fleeting."
Or it is, perhaps,
in another round of maypole dancing!