The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

Chivalry in the exotic Deccan
Arun Gaur

When the Fight Was Done
by Frank Rogers. Penguin. Pages 281. Rs 250

When the Fight Was DoneTHE title When the Fight was Done almost contemptuously (or self-mockingly or broodingly or nostalgically) does away with the content of the novel raising the pointer to the endnote—the invisible oblique epilogue—in one quick portentous sweep. What rich harvest awaits one (here Captain Robert—Robbie—MacKenzie of the Poona Subsidiary Force), when the much vaunted, much sought fight is done or possibly overdone? Only ashes of the beloved (Lakshmi, the Bhonsle Princess of Nagpur) and a nicely thrust bullet into one’s own bonnet? The journey of the Princess, partly escorted by Robbie from Nagpur to Satara, where she would be united with the Maharaja of Satara as his bride, ends prematurely but quite expectedly in jauhar somewhere en route.

The "Fight" of the title is not a mere ground skirmish, but a signifier that deconstructs the notion into foxy scuffles of political wits, and into a ferocious but hopeless resistance of the Princess against the time-worn orthodoxy of human thoughts and actions that tend to strangle the pristine freedom due to her blooming and pure womanhood. But above all, the deconstruction reaches to the malaise of love that oddly gets mixed up with Captain Robbie’s persistently persecuting qualms of a guilt-complex (that he infamously inherited for ever at the famous field of Waterloo) and with his vague ambitions of personal career advancement—the London despatches—by an exemplary deed of valour that would incidentally nullify the persecuting demon of Waterloo guilt. But such are the vagaries of love, the greatest of emotions known to mankind, that a new guilt displaces the hero’s earthly ambitions and drives him to a new fatality (leading to his ultimate act of cowardice!)


The title of the novel is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and this fact gives us a clue as to the over-all design of the novel and its concomitant atmosphere. We can smell here and there the Elizabethan theatrical paraphernalia—the self-annihilating instinct of thanatos (sati), the fatalistic premonitions (capsizing of the paper-boats, shattered images of the moon, deadly Kali carrying fragile lotus, figure of the Princess dancing in the candle-flame, turban of Pindari chieftain Wazir Khan shaped like a poisonous mushroom), the love that is not consummated (hero-heroine affair), the fatal flaw (self-gnawing guilt and strategic miscalculations), the ignoble role of the malcontent (Madhav Rao Khale, the vakil of Satara), the illegitimate political ambitions (British colonial policies, Peshwa Baji Rao’s lust to dominate the Maratha royalty), the final littering of the stage with gore of mutilated bodies (Pindari slaughter, trampling by elephants, and butchering of every member of the Princess’s escort party, including the father-figure, Rajkumar Sambhaji Bhonsle), and the excitable, unpredictable mob (at Poona).

This Elizabethan framework is lifted from its native English land by Frank Rogers, the American professor, and is dropped spatially into the exotica of the Indian Deccan and temporally into the second decade of the nineteenth century (September 1817). To an extent this global impetus is praiseworthy. Rogers has no doubt worked hard. The single thread of the plot eagerly, and sometimes desperately, searches for the openings. The native landscape is keenly etched. The deep-rooted conspiracy to force the Princess commit sati also sustains curiosity. And certainly the details of the darbar of Peshwa Baji Rao at Poona, banjara camps following the marches of Indian forces, the battle strategies, the dresses, the caravans, are sources of much satisfaction. But here, most grievously, it is the art of characterisation that suffers. One may recall later Robbie as the only memorable character, but he too remains memorable only when he is all alone, lost in his reverie fervidly fumbling for the true definition of love and courage to rationalise his own conduct. The greatest disappointment is the Princess—barely goes beyond the formal stiffness. The short description of Baji Rao’s fury, who "tried to speak but in his vehemence stuttered inarticulately until red spittle flew from his lips," does provide a kind of melodramatic titillation but the only true humour in the novel springs from a vignette of Dr MacPherson who ostentatiously displays his needle and thread ready to embroider "the hide" of Robbie.

This is Frank Rogers’ debut novel and despite many good features it lacks the sustained intensity of Elizabethan tragedy from where it seems to draw much of its inspiration. But let us hope Rogers’ second forthcoming novel would be a better artistic creation.