This is the second volume in Farrell’s series of companion works about the decline of the British Empire. The first is Troubles (1970) which is about the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and recently was awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize. The third is The Singapore Grip (1979) about the invasion of Singapore by the Japanese before World War II.
The novel details the siege of a fictional Indian town during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The perspective is that of the British residents and it was inspired by events like the siege of Lucknow. The rebellion began as a mutiny of the Sepoys of the British East India Company’s army in Meerut and soon erupted into other mutinies and rebellions. The term Sepoy was used for an infantry private in the company and they had been crucial in securing the subcontinent for the British East India Company.
In this historical fiction work the impending rebellion is foreshadowed by the surreptitious appearance of chapatis in bizarre locations around Krishnapur. The ominous chapati incidents undermine the usually placid and ordered world of the Collector, the man in charge:
“The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis, made of coarse flour and about the size and thickness of a biscuit; towards the end of February, 1857, the swept the countryside like an epidemic.
One evening , in the room he used as a study the Collector, Mr. Hopkins, opened a despatch box and, instead of the documents he had expected, found four chapatis.”
We can feel that the impending siege is soon going to invade every aspect of the lives of the British residents and they will be assaulted on every front. All is not what it seems and their most prized assumptions make for fatal errors as when they are under assault:
“Sometimes, when you peer too intensely into the gloom, your eyes make you see things which do not exist; Harry and Fleury, presently began to have just this experience. If they had not known that it was impossible they could have sworn that the distant melon beds were seething with moving shadows. Yet there was no question of an attack from that quarter across so much open ground.”
Farrell takes the omniscient outsider’s point of view looking back and into the world of the British East India Company. The Collector’s world view only encompasses the achievements and progress made by the British as exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Part of the great irony is that George Fleury has been sent from Britain to write about how the British have advanced civilization and helped the natives achieve better things. But this project is of course soon stymied.
Farrell takes a long time to set the stage elucidating the characters and their attitudes and pastimes. We really get to know the characters and their maladroit handling of the impending assault as shown in this episode:
“But it is probable that the majority of people in the cantonment could not make up their minds as to the best course of follow. While the “confident” party recommended calm and indifference, and the “nervous” party were all for bolting to the Residency, the majority voted now for one course, now for the other, and sometimes even for both at once…a calm and confident bolting to the Residency.”
The black humour in the novel is always amusing and made me laugh out loud as Farrell constantly eviscerates the British and their beliefs. As well as their assumptions about the natives and that their poverty is beyond redemption they maintain their British class snobbism as demonstrated in their views of the servants:
“Although some of the collector’s guests might have been hard put to it to think of what a man of Vokins’s class had to lose, to Vokins it was very clear what he had to lose: namely his life. He was not at all anxious to leave his skin on the Indian plains: he wanted to take it back to the slums of Soho or wherever it came from.”
The novel is relentless in its dark comedic aspects and it is sometimes an uncomfortable melancholic read. It firmly etches the chaos of warfare, starvation, disease and shattering madness. The fierce public debate by the two doctors about the causes and proper treatment of cholera which is sweeping the compound is profoundly ironic and sad. I felt that Farrell chose wisely in writing about what he knew about and could research - the British and decline of Empire. The Indians are the unnamed which adds to the drama and realism of the novel as in every colony they were the unknown and unrecorded.
Farrell really made me think about how our attitudes can shape our beliefs and inevitable destinies. The British perspectives were not tested until the disaster of the siege illuminates their idiocy. It made me think about how so many of our currently held beliefs are never challenged in the real world and I wondered which ones will be skewered a hundred years from now. On a small scale one of my own privately held beliefs has always been what I thought I liked to read. The Complete Booker has helped me seek out new authors and titles and try books I always overlooked before – like this one.