A competent tale of growing up in a military camp.
The Sergeant’s Son is exactly what the title suggests; the story of Kalu, Sergeant Samar Biswas’s son. Narrated by Kalu, the third of four brothers, the book details his life from his birth in Barrackpore till his departure to Kanpur to join the Air Force as a Radio Telephone Operator. The book, set between mid-1960s and 1977, is about an ordinary life in the Air Force. The children study in the nearest school; their mother, Basanti imposes a strict routine supervising their grooming, meal times, and homework every single day and insisting on prayers every Thursday evening. Their dour father is the disciplinarian whom they dread since he is not averse to beating the sons mercilessly, especially the renegade eldest Taposh or Borda, with a “shoe that was handy or a leather belt that been specially ordered for the purpose.”
The story documents the narrow little lives that the Biswases share with the other “migratory birds” of the Air Force station. A bunch of characters waft in and out of the book, never to appear again — many of the playmates at the station, other personnel like Corporal Dhar and his wife, Kakima, Mathew Uncle, the Vermas, the Anglo-Indian family called Sampios or the teachers like “Blanch teacher” and “Karachi teacher”, and the women who clean the bathrooms. Kalu even describes the few early sexual encounters with Bimla Devi, the maid who seduced him when he was alone at home and with his classmate Amit. Later the Std. IX geometry teacher, Mr. Shankar, assaults Kalu in a drunken stupor.
For someone who speaks and writes English well, a fact acknowledged even by his teachers, Kalu’s obsession with the language is trying. His discomfort presumably stems from the fact that his competence at the language masks his social class but his origins still make him insecure. In Bombay, Kalu and his siblings feel inferior to the five Sampio children even though they never went to school. Since they “spoke the Queen’s Language no one could think poorly of them.” In Allahabad, Kalu “was never truly part of the English-speaking gang. He hovered on its periphery — a low-caste pretending to be a Brahmin; or more appropriately, a soldier’s son trying to mix with officers’ children. The gang mostly consisted of defence officers’ children.” But he realises that his ability to speak fluent English “gave him a passport”, probably to improve his status in life.
A first novel tends to have autobiographical elements in it but the preoccupation with that seems to be the trademark of much Indian fiction in English, with the writer inevitably getting absorbed in minute details. The Sergeant’s Son is no different but it is a story told competently.