The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 27, 2003

Holding a mirror to a vanished milieu
Bhavana Pankaj

Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British India
by Rani Sircar. Rupa & Co. Pages 265. Rs 195

Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British IndiaGIVING away with the little gardener's sickle, flitting after rainbow butterflies, dodging the daisies and picking the pansies, stuffing fireflies into a broken torch trusting it will light up the dark night, tucking away tattered stamps, pieces of ribbons, flowers`85memories, priceless as black diamonds, soft as souffl`E9. We hoard them and we mothball them away in the folds of the heart like precious old silk. Very rarely, gingerly do we air them—for fear of being 'laughed at, silenced or ignored'—some times to our children, grandchildren or a friendly willing ear.

We all have them, but it takes courage, then, a desire and the craft to undo the bag of memories. And Rani Sircar has both nerve and verve to do that with her 'set of light-hearted vignettes from the past which holds up a mirror to a vanished milieu'. Even though the occasion is unclear, the time to do so is just right. Says J Krishnamurthi "`85as one grows older, one looks back to the past, to its joys, to its pains, to its pleasures`85" Be it her own need for a catharsis or curiosity value for a new generation, it is fitting that she writes about the days of yore and lead us through a carnival of memories.


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".

Simply, sinuously 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.

There are 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 osmosis.

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.

The author, 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!