As the title of Neel Mukherjee’s debut novel leads you to expect, this is a story which alternates between past and present. It does so, literally and literarily, by running two narratives side by side. The first, set in the 1990s, follows the life of the protagonist, Ritwik Ghose, as he escapes from the stultifying confines of his life in Calcutta for England; and the second, set in the early 1900s, about a genteel do-gooding English lady, Miss Gilby, and her attempts to liberate and educate the natives.
Young Bengali man goes to Oxford to study literature and reminisce about family life in Calcutta. Hang on, haven’t we done this? Unlike Amit Chaudhuri’s protagonist in Afternoon Raag, Ritwik Ghose’s childhood is not a pleasant thing of tea and Marie biscuits. Calcutta is a grey, damp, disease- and filth-ridden hole; mother is an abusive, violent harridan; and school masters are disciplinarian, cassock-lifting paedophiles.
Ritwik’s attempts to escape from his past are understandable, but partial. The novelist’s attempts to explain his present are also partial: there’s a strange disconnect in both which ultimately leave the reader bewildered and dissatisfied. Clues to Ritwik’s character end up seeming like a series of red herrings. At his mother’s funeral we are led to believe that this was a loving relationship: fairly soon thereafter, in a series of harrowingly graphic passages, he describes her kicking him until his ribs crack, locking him in a dark toilet for some minor misdemeanour, and branding him with a hot iron. He is haunted by her in England – her ghost appears in his room. But after a single, stilted call to a child abuse helpline, she (and this entire storyline) disappears for the rest of the book.
Perhaps his childhood traumas contribute to his twisted sexuality – picking up strangers in public toilets for anonymous sex – but that’s also left unclear. Surely what is described as an obsessive need for cleanliness in his earlier life would impact in some way on these later compulsions – but again this is left unexplored. Towards the latter half of the book, Ritwik is picked up by a suave, rich Saudi Arabian arms dealer and the plot starts to get potentially interesting, but the relationship and the plot fail to go anywhere, suggesting that it is not only the character who finds himself floundering out of his depth.
Up at Oxford, the young Ritwik is appalled at the stereotypical reactions of the British students. “Play ‘The Association Game’ with a white man, say ‘India’, and pat will come the word ‘Poverty’; it’s a coupling branded in the western mind.” Or, as one of his fellow-students puts it: “How do you feel about being a post-colonial subject still studying the imperialists’ literature?” Unfortunately, India in this novel plays exactly into this western mindset, and offered the choice between Past Continuous and E.M. Forster on a Post Colonial Literature 101 course, I know who I’d rather.
Another mystery is how on earth a young man who is so clueless about British culture that he is flummoxed by sherry and radiators could write an entire novel (interleaved, chapter by chapter with his own story) about genteel British Raj society in such smooth and polished period prose. It’s as though Omar from My Beautiful Launderette decides to write The Raj Quartet in his spare time. But Neel Mukherjee is neither Hanif Kurieshi nor Paul Scott, nor even is he Amit Chaudhuri. The insertion of Miss Gilby’s story into the book, and the decision to set the text in large Ladybird First Reader size fonts, ultimately result in a Big Book, but only, ultimately, in the most obvious, physical sense.