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