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Updated: April 6, 2013 16:24 IST

Landscape of hues

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Amid childhood apprehensions, an evocation of a lost time and its lingering effects.

An 81-year-old writer picks a nine-year-old boy as narrator for his debut novel, the title sounds weird and the brief on book jacket reads a bit better than ordinary. What to expect? That The Skinning Tree won the inaugural Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012) — given to the best unpublished novel by a South Asian writer unrepresented by a literary agent — puts much doubt to rest, though there is still a trace of that question mark left.

Well, expect the unexpected!

Foremost, it is “my-style-of-writing” that Srikumar Sen makes it clear at the very beginning: you have a sort of synopsis as the first chapter, the language and its flow is well-gripped, without any compromise on expression.

Set in the 1940s, with World War II in the background, Srikumar Sen brings alive the days of the British Raj and the growing nationalist consciousness in Calcutta, as it was called once. But more notably, it is the complete dismissal of the outside world by the school-going boy, who would rather live in his own, that underscores the eminence of the novel: “in his world there were no countries or cities, not even India or Calcutta…” For Surojit ‘Sabby’ (Sabjee) Sarkar the world began and ended at his grandmother’s mansion on 10, Park Road, as he says, “I lived in a world of my own, of my imagination to escape the sense of menace that city stirred in my mind…”

But in the wake of the threat of a Japanese attack on his home city, he is displaced from his comfort zone and pushed into the real world of bullies and rogues. At a boarding school in Gaddipahar, in north India, Sabby not just feels isolated but completely lost. From being almost left in the lurch when it comes to making his bed or opening his attaché to learning tricks of survival where “murder was the plaything” for his fellow students, Sabby struggles hard to keep his “self” intact.

In the very beginning, the narrator gives us a hint of might-just-follow as he puts it: “But when it came to facing reality in an Anglo-Indian boarding school in the wilderness of Gaddipahar, in northern India, I was unable to deploy my imagination and seek shelter in it.”

In fact, it is the recollection of Sabby’s boarding school days that are literally absorbing, for you just enter into this psyche of a nine-year-old trying to make sense of severe discipline and code of conduct on the one side and, on the other extreme, killing birds only to kill boredom and dumping the carcasses on this “skinning tree”, a tree-entwined cactus on a nearby slope.

The brutish treatment that the boys receive in the name of regulation is passed on to the lesser beings. Having been born in an upper-class, respectable Bengali family and grown up in a passive high society, the realm he fell into at boarding school was a stark contrast. The meaning of morality, of idea of innocence and evil, the understanding of guilt, all were ambiguous, leaving the boy with more questions than giving any answers.

Appreciatively, Sen neither tries to be patronising nor does he succumb to an adult’s sensibilities. Rather, he stays away from the point where he might have to choose between the Scylla and the Charybdis. And, that is quite an art of storytelling, while the novelist paints a moral landscape in different shades and the complexity that the mind of a growing child tries to comprehend.

As “skinning” of much takes place in the storytelling, Sabby shifts role from an active narrator to a distant observer, as he moves away from home. But for the reader, perhaps, the jump from the colonial Calcutta — bridge parties, Anglo-Indian ladies, antique furniture and Proustian mothers — to the raucous Gaddipahar is abrupt.

But this has to do more with the elaborate description of the ambience, the mood, in the first section in comparison to the well-paced metamorphosis that takes pace later: “Sabby didn’t feel English but he didn’t feel particularly Indian, either. He had been a home person but home no longer existed. He had become another person, an Anglo-Indian.” But the memory of the boarding school days is a burden, of guilt or desperation or merely being a child. As Sabby tries to negotiate with the past, life must carry on. And, experiencing the saccharine and cruel simultaneously along with the protagonist, the reader must continue with the introspection into Sabby’s thoughts, for it may provoke a few of his own.

But as you put down the book, with your expectations been well challenged, you only wish the ending wouldn’t have been explanative.

The Skinning Tree, Srikumar Sen, Picador India, Rs.499.

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