The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

A good read that doesn’t quite sweep away
Darshan Singh Maini

Swept Away
by Deepak Munjal. Minerva Press,
New Delhi, Pages 568, Rs 390.

THE Indian novel in English has since the 30s of the last century achieved so much reputation, force, diversity and lexical-idiomatic excellence as to have become a genre to count in the world of letters. In fact, right now, its international standing, widely acclaimed, has made it a contender for so many prizes including the Booker and the Nobel. Therefore, there is now little need for going into details regarding its characteristic cultural, linguistic and philosophical qualities. And it’s in this context, that I propose to examine Munjal’s maiden venture, Swept Away.

It, as we shall see, doesn’t quite "sweep away" the reader, but it’s a big book deserving a careful critical analysis. It’s one of those novels that in trying to become significant end up as ‘over-reachers’. The vision, overarching and comprehending almost all vital aspects of colonial Indian and the British Raj, in the end, falters, having promised a fabulous spread. But more of this later.

Let me make one aspect clear at the start. Munjal doesn’t belong in the company of the moderns or the post-moderns; and essentially his novel is shy of experimentation. Its spirit is conservative, and it’s a huge tale of continuities that make India ‘a state of mind’ and has fascinated Western writers like Hermann Hesse, E.M. Forster, or in America, the transcendalists, Emerson and Walt Whitman.


The effort to reach down to that Indian essence, Munjal has employed the known techniques, but since the dialectic of the story is not fully dramatised, it remains an epical novel with intensity of idiom as its chief weapon.

Swept Away is not a historical novel as such, and the events enacted in the small obscure hill state of Chamba take place far from the general eye. Of course, Munjal has done a fair amount of research to be able to create the ambience of the Raj nearly a century ago. And he does succeed in making it a ‘period’ novel. So, again the vast colonial problem, with all its political implications and consequences, a story of the small-time ‘royals’ is hoisted.

The Chamba Charm—of nature’s bounties and beauties—has been rendered with artistic restraint as well as opulence in relation to the scenes in question. And, of course, the palace aura, manners and mannerisms, the royal appetite for wines and viands, the fawning courtiers happy to bend their knees for small change, the royal ceremonies, rituals and icons etc. are woven into the fabric of the story, becoming constitutive in the process.

The Maharaja who’s called Hukam (an Indian way of saying ‘Your Highness’) has a quite, sobering presence, and keeps the palace brood humoured as well as his tenants and tillers, the source of his revenue. And in all this story of turns and twists, the British guest, Janet Spencer and her maid companion begin now to run away with the story, so to speak.

The memsahib ‘fixation’ of the Indian psyche is now at work, particularly among the servitors. Meanwhile, the Hari Janet romance of thought, word, repartee and love-play, dodges and screens blossoms out into a protracted affair. The epistolary exchange in long, passionate outbursts laced with limericks, and with English verse reduces the dramatic interest, though its lighter side has an amusing variety.

Hari signs his missives (also sometimes love-missiles) as ‘Your Brogue’. And the word ‘brogue’ which means a country-shoe as also "ornamental countrified" speech, seems to define their ding-dong relationship.

But wait, Munjal has yet a plateful of surprises to offer. One of these is the old strick of producing ‘a skeleton in the family cupboard’. For now, suddenly we learn that when Hari’s father, a faithful courtier died and Hari’s mother was forced to commit sati by the Rajput Maharani, Hukam had to pay conscience price — the adoption of the boy Hari as a prince of the family.

India qua India with all its complexities and miseries too is structured into the story through the interminable homilies and dialogues of Panditji and Teacher, and the lesson of the Gita — Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjun on the battle-ground of Kurukshetra — is drummed up to give the novel its ‘Indianness’. But there are too many hares, and Munjal cannot run them to ground. Still, the fare is adequate.

How should we, then, weigh and evaluate this big book, so well-produced and so presentable? That it’s a very good ‘read’ should be clear by now. I’m tempted to call it an epic manque, a novel that misses epical proportions because of the inherent difficulties.