The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

An ambitious novel, but fails to impress
Aradhika Sekhon

A Far Horizon
by Meira Chand. Penguin Books. Rs 295. Pages 362.

A Far HorizonTHERE are books by British authors that have dealt with the historical upheavals in India during the times of the East India Company, the First War of Independence and the freedom struggle. These are works of fiction with historical backdrops but though the facts have been thoroughly researched and faithfully recorded in these works, the real strength of these novels has lain in the characters who people their books and who live through momentous events, their triumphs, tribulations, joys and fears. Novels like The Far Pavilions, Shadow of The Moon, Zamindar, have set standards of excellence for novels set in the time of the British Raj. One hopes for similar excellence, perhaps from a different point of view, when one comes across a book like The Far Horizons by an Indian author.

In her novel Meira Chand takes the reader to the Calcutta of 1756 and the siege of Fort William by Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab Of Murshidabad, who plans to rid his land of its invaders. The book deals with the "bloody turn in Indian history which culminates in The Black Hole of Calcutta." The novel explores the events that led to the famous incident, culminating in The Battle Of Plassey (not dealt with in the book).


The author takes the view that the incidents in The Black Hole were not really as dire as history would have us believe. These were greatly exaggerated because of the defeat and humiliation suffered by the East India Company at the hands of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army and the capture of The Chief Magistrate Howell. Chand’s is an ambitious surmise but there are areas where it doesn’t quite live up to its promise.

The great social divide between the British and the Indians is represented by the ‘White Town’ and the ‘Black Town’. The former comprises the area where the British live in and on the outskirts of Fort William with colonial bungalows, gracious living and the ‘moors’ to carry their palanquins, be their ayahs, cooks and wet nurses, pull the strings of their punkhas, empty out their chamber pots. The other side is represented by the Black Town with its teeming population, its odours, lepers and poverty. Yet, just how dependent the British are on the ‘contemptible’ Indians is revealed when, because the march of the army, the Indians have to abandon the service of their masters.

The social divide is also evident in the attitudes of the Blacks and the Whites towards one another. Says the chief magistrate of Siraj-ud-Daulah, "You cannot measure their heathen barbarism by our rules…inbreeding results in unstable minds." The Prince Siraj-ud-Daulah says about The British, "They (the hatmen) embodied everything that was alien and unknown. With their upstart ways and native minds, they were dismissed by most with contempt…slowly, insidiously, like rot that begins at the edge of strong wood, these people had rooted themselves along the shore of the country." Caught between these attitudes were the citizens of Black Town, considered totally dispensable by both the British and Siraj-ud-Daulah. Siraj-ud-Daulah’s march on Calcutta crushes them completely, as both he and the British order Black Town to be burnt down because of tactical reasons. Afraid of being mowed down by Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army, these people find themselves dependent on the "hatmen" for protection within the walls of the fort.

This leaves them with no way out but to seek recourse in Devi Kali, the tempestuous, passionate Goddess who manifests herself through Sati, a Eurasian girl who has had a traumatic experience in childhood that has left a scar in her psyche. That a ‘hatman’ is responsible for this comes as no surprise.

Chand is a mistress of vivid, sensuous and graphic description. "The smell of soil and plantains, of excrement and hot mustard oil frying in the cookhouse rose up to fill Sati’s nose" and "The river (Hoogli) exuded the dark odours of decay, of things that festered, hidden away…it ate its meal of death and rot and opened its mouth for more as did India itself….death waited for its victims in the air, the grass, the sweetest fruit or the waters of the well"

The siege of Fort William has been graphically described. However, though pages have been spent describing the hardships suffered by the ‘hatmen’ as well as the hysteria of the natives of Black Town, refugees within the fort, yet somehow these fail to move or frighten. The author seems to be distant form her characters, as if she is writing about the incidents in their lives without speaking from within their skins. Thus she is not completely able to draw the reader into the drama of the novel.

Conversations, through which the characters reveal their traits, are stilted. Writers tend to overlook the fact that if enough attention isn’t paid to dialogues, it detracts from the wholeness of the characters of the protagonists. Siraj-ud-Daulah, for instance, is glimpsed very briefly — we know him only at a very superficial level. Other protagonists are, the chief magistrate, Howell, the governor, Drake, and the parson — the first, a scheming gold-digger, the second, a fat, incompetent fool, the third, a priest with more concern for his stores of wine than his flock. All these characters with their eyes only on what they can take, with no sympathy either for their wives, or the Indians, are one-dimensional, uninspiring figures. Sati, too, possessed by the Devi, not fitting in any cultural niche, doesn’t arouse the sympathy she could have.

An ambitious novel, A Far Horizon could have made a greater impact if its people were more animated.