Set in 1857 in a remote British outpost of the empire in Hindustan, The Siege of Krishnapur is the story of the defence of the residency when the sepoys rise in revolt. Written from the vantage point of the besieged British, yet sympathetic to the justice of rebellion against their rule, it shows the British at both their best and worst.
Mr Hopkins, the Collector, is at first a comic figure, but he grows in stature. He reminds me of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, who unexpectedly finds himself at the behest of great forces and must become equal to the task before him despite his inadequacies At the outset, however, Hopkins is convinced of the rightness of the Empire, and his place in it. He is pompous, bossy and preoccupied with C19th progress as exemplified by the Great Exhibition. He loves his possessions as talismans of a civilised life, and there is poignancy in the moment when he must cast these precious possessions into shoring up ramparts about to collapse under the monsoonal rains. He mourns his Louis XVI table when it is ruined too - but in the end, he cares not about possessions at all.
From the light-hearted beginning, with Farrell poking fun at British colonial pomposity and arrogance, events trace the gradual contraction of the 'civilised' world over four months, June to December. By the time of the relief, those within the walls are starving, dressed in rags, and they smell. The women have grey, pasty complexions, and boils. These 'fragile' creatures, formerly limp in the heat without servants to operate the fans, end up washing their own clothes, labouring in the 'hospital' and nursing the sick. But there's no romanticising this as heroism. The Collector notes that the women still ostracise the 'fallen woman', Lucy, and 'British standards' remain discriminatory for the Indians who remain loyal.
Farrell uses irony and metaphor to show that the degradation imposed on those within the ramparts by the siege, is little different to the conditions imposed on the locals by colonialism. The conflicts and prejudices of the community under stress are there to show the reader that British high-mindedness is as vulnerable as any other culture's. Human dignity is in short supply when one is subject to a long inglorious attack, which is what colonialism inflicted on its subject peoples.
Farrell also wrote The Singapore Grip and The Troubles, which similarly deal with the collapse of British colonial power. He died in 1979.
I finished reading this book and journalled it on 22.2.2003.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers