Historical Fiction Books

Moths in the twilight

It’s a quiet beginning for a novel that detonates its cargo of history in two parallel explosions. In his first work of fiction, Sandeep Ray, who is also a filmmaker and a historian, opts for a double narrative. One of them is set in the Calcutta of the early 40s in the palatial home of Nirmal Sengupta that inevitably recalls Satyajit Ray’s evocation of feudal Bengal.

The other is less familiar. We are now in what might be called the terrain of Ritwik Ghatak. It is set a good 10 years later at the edges of a rubber estate in the Malay peninsula. The mysterious tropical jungle is lurking just outside with its unseen eyes. Moths fly in at twilight and hover in the verandah, as if waiting to be invited in.

The younger Sengupta son, always referred to in the novel as the “young man”, is not another Billy Biswas fleeing from the material world of a newly independent India. He has been cut loose, however, by the events that have taken place just prior to and during its birth.

Total recall

The young man has a strangely misbegotten family. Maloti, his partner, is a refugee from the famine-struck village that formed

Moths in the twilight

part of the Sengupta family estates. She becomes his wife by default because of the series of tragedies that assail the young man when he returns half-way through a medical course at a prestigious university in Glasgow to take care of his young son, Jonaki, orphaned by the death of his first love. She happens to be Maloti’s older sister. Part-servant in the grand household of the Senguptas, part-family and full-time mother to Jonaki, Maloti is resilient Bengali womanhood in all her infinite variety.

Subhas Chandra Bose is yet another heroic figure who is invoked in Ray’s novel by Amma, one of the Tamil ladies who takes care of Jonaki. She slipped off her gold bangle and gave it to Bose. It’s hard today for anyone to recall how many people of Indian origin living in distant villages and towns of Southeast Asia heeded the call of Bose and the INA to fight for independence.

Part of Ray’s strength is his ability to recall, without labelling, some of the most tragic moments in the fight for liberation and the people who fuelled the killings, the three million dead during the great Bengal famine, the more than 10,000 stabbed, raped or rendered homeless during the “Week of the Long Knives”.

Ruins of empire

Many historians have laid the blame for these killings on Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1892-1963), who answered Jinnah’s call for Direct Action on August 16, 1947, with fiery speeches made with others of the Muslim League. If I may add a personal note here, while studying in Karachi in the early 1960s, I met Suhrawardy, who seemed to be a genial gentleman with a soft Bengali face. It was my father who whispered, “You’ve just had your hand shaken by the Butcher of Bengal.” It felt no different from any other hand. As Ray also mentions, the Hindus retaliated with as much ferocity; and regardless of the killings, Bengal was partitioned.

The community the Senguptas find at the rubber estate is smaller than Calcutta. It is also ethnically diverse. There are the local Malays, Chinese, Indians in all their communal variety, living under the colonial embrace of their superiors.

The British are trapped in a Somerset Maugham world of booze and senseless bravado. They are still clinging on to their privileges of class and ownership, milking the white latex oozing from the rubber trees that stand in serried ranks on their numerous estates. The British know their time is up.

As Dr. Murray tells the young man walking out of his clinic, who has saved a member of the British Club with his dexterity as a medical man, even if a half-baked one: “It just occurred to me that this is a historic moment... it is the dawn of modern Malaya. We have an Indian, a Malay, and a Chinese working together, and an Englishman going out of the door.”

There’s a sense of torpor that binds the different groups in both narratives. In the first case by the stirrings of the struggle for Independence, with different religious and communal groups staking a claim for power. In the second instance, by the ferocity of the Japanese advance into the Malay peninsula during the Second World War, with each ethnic group turned into informers and killers of the other.

As we are led into the minutiae of their lives, we also sense that it’s a civilisation in the throes of becoming. The novel is a meditation on the ruins of empire. It charts the process whereby the land and its people, denuded of their rights by the civilisational convulsions that for centuries have engulfed them, keep circling each other — a multitude of moths blinded by the light.

There is also a tenderness and playfulness that Ray brings to his narrative. It’s like the sweetness of the tea that Maloti brings to the comrades as they launch their broadsheets of revolt.

Except for the title which trivialises the account, it would not be wrong to say that Ray’s novel is destined to be a classic.

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

A Flutter in the Colony; Sandeep Ray, HarperCollins, ₹499

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