short takes
Of love and colonial tales

The Prisoner of Paradise 
by Romesh Gunesekera. Bloomsbury. Pages 389. Rs 550 

Reviewed by Randeep Wadehra

What is it about a nation’s colonial past that draws writers to it frequently? One can understand Europeans indulging in nostalgia, but the locals, or "natives"? Although one comes across heaps of literary verbiage on the Raj days in India this novel, by a writer of Sri Lankan origin, is set in Mauritius circa 1825. Gunesekera conveys the island’s natural beauty through the reactions of Lucy Gladwell – a teenager who has just arrived from England. Its rich and colourful flora, the bright sunshine etc. are in direct contrast to London suburbia’s gray bleakness. Lucy Gladwell is orphaned and her aunt, Betty Huyton, takes her away to Mauritius where her uncle, George Huyton, is a Superintendant. The palatial house, luxurious furnishings, material comforts and being top-of-the-heap in the local society is something that Lucy takes time getting used to. Europeans, comprising French, Dutch and British settlers, rule the roost while African slaves, Indian convicts and locals form the bottom of the heap.

Let me tell you about Quinta 
by Savia Viegas. Penguin. Pages 254. Rs 299 

There is the usual display of white supremacist and racial prejudices against the island’s coloured people, which is balanced with the exiled Sri Lankan Prince’s contempt for Africans. Injustice and exploitation cause great resentment against the Europeans. Things come to a boil when the indentured labourers from India are not allowed to have a temple of their own as the "Hindoo heathen" have no such rights even if they are free men. Although characters like Narayene and Kishore feature in the novel, it is basically an elitist narrative. The bittersweet affair between Lucy and the coloured interpreter, Don Lambodar, provides the element of romantic love. However, the narrative neither intrigues the reader nor holds his attention for long. Predictable stuff.

This book too harks back to the colonial era although the narrative continues into post-liberation India. Set in sylvan Goa, the quasi-autobiographical novel is basically the tale of a Goan landlord family – known as bhatkars – of Portuguese descent, owning estates and other properties in Carmona. It swings back and forth in time, and is narrated through the perspectives of several characters – the easy going Tito, who could be roused into action when provoked, as happened when his grand daughter-in-law California tried to pull a fast one on him with the help of a co-conspirator named Tim. Both Tim and California are of Russian descent and are lovers.

This is a story of not just the Viegas family’s inexorable disintegration but also the changing socio-economic profile of the Goan society. The "callow" and "swarthy" locals, who used to depend upon the bhatkars for sustenance, become economically better-off, thanks to employment abroad and by working on various merchant navy ships. The old order’s going to seed also tells on the family’s discipline, leading to its gradual decline. And then there are some revelations of dark secrets.

The Last Letter 
by Aditya Neogi. Benten Books. Pages 111. Rs 95

Sagar is a Punjabi businessman – well connected and immensely prosperous. He is married to Shalini – a rich, intellectually negligible, Punjabi beauty – and has a "beautiful" son Tipu. Sagar should be a happy man. But, he is dissatisfied with his marital life for lack of cerebral and emotional compatibility. On a trip to Kolkata, he meets Madulika – a young Bengali beauty who is also an accomplished singer. Sagar falls madly in love with her for her intellectual ability. His passionate epistles receive cold response initially but soon she gives in and becomes his Shagorika. Sagar helps her become a film star. Just when they begin to contemplate marriage things take a turn for tragic denouement. This epistolary novella should attract young, lovelorn readers.