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Literary Review

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NOVEL

Unsettling echoes

SHEBA THAYIL

Though an old-fashioned story of exotic India, Nights in Bombay does have its redeeming features. SHEBA THAYIL



Night in Bombay; Louis Bromfield, Penguin, Rs 399.

Some books, like a Gainsborough, are dated, but retain their mesmerising quality. First published in 1940, Night in Bombay is old-fashioned in other ways: It is written from the standpoint of an author who wants to tell a story rather than make us admire his writing style. Bromfield's use of the exotic East even has some veracity, (his descriptions of train stations and gambling at a Royal residence are extremely evocative), and an atmosphere steeped in dissolute Englishmen, (and women), saviours from both twains who do meet, and Maharajahs and their bijoux.

The only thing missing is the appearance of a bejewelled elephant or two but you can't have everything; Bromfield does throw in the sop of a dancing girl if you weren't feeling entirely satisfied with your clichés. Although these weren't clichés at the time of writing, of course, and the tale, while set in a milieu that seems quaint today, manages to find an unsettling echo in India 2011.

Stuff to be learned

We arrive vicariously with Bill Wainwright by ship to the city of dreams (then and now) and stay at the Taj Mahal hotel, the preferred watering-hole for unsavoury characters this side of the Indian Ocean. They are escapees from the First World who have discovered Third World tendencies in themselves; somehow they are at home with intrigue, economic struggle and in-your-face humanity.

While Bill meets ex-wife Carol and old friend Buck and all three lives are fundamentally changed, the reader too will find himself sucked into the life of the novel and emerge rather bright-eyed and bushy-tailed because there is stuff to be learned.

Bromfield dips a toe in one-dimensionality with his types, like the Baroness who is more of a madam than a lady; the lush Marchesa who goes where her lusts call her, and the unforgettable Mrs Trollope, a gambler and a mean drunk, whose sister has married a Maharajah and lives desultorily in the palace (their sibling rivalry peaks when the sister turns a gun on Mrs T; her death, however, is less clean when it comes).

Bill is the sort who “wanted to be up and about searching for something”, while Colonel Moti with his “discipline and responsibility” symbolises the Nehru-type hero and Carol thinks salvation lies in sacrifice, Mother Teresa-style. The most painful has to be the sister of a duke who slept with coolies on station platforms because it was “good for the soul”.

There are saints amongst the sinners, simply because this is India and for every check there is a balance. Colonel Moti, who runs a research institute for diseases, will at one point look out at the teeming hordes and think “These were his people”'; it's that sense of kinship most Indians feel for which there is no earthly reason. For Mrs. T, on the other hand, it's a sense of “the awful exhaustion which is born of perpetually putting up a front”.

Developing characters

What's interesting is, among the types, Bromfield also allows his characters to develop. Mrs. T changes from a seemingly innocuous white woman to a whining desperado who falls in love most inappropriately and faces her destiny with no heroism whatsoever. Buck Merrill, introduced as a sick man on a train, we discover later is famous for his practical skills as well as his compassion and his ability to also see in the hordes “his people”; to decipher “the slow heartbreaking sigh of a child” burdened with the foreknowledge of misery as a burden shared by all of India.

It would be facile to see the white man's burden on Buck's back, he doesn't seem that self-serving. This is as fascinating a nuance to enjoy in Night in Bombay as when Bromfield seems to think that Gandhi's secret was that he had all the answers; that you could never faze an Indian. But it's not quite that, it's endurance that is the secret to our success.

There are a few strains of Somerset Maugham in Bromfield's work: much of the story reminds you of “Rain”, Carol here as the harlot with salvation in sight, and the character sketches are painstakingly given with no need for the reader to put in some work. But whereas with Maugham the tone is often cruel, always telling; with Bromfield there is a tendency to repeat observations and his denouement reeks of sentiment, something Somerset would have scorned.

Everybody's on the make, even Buck who wants to live Bill's hedonistic life, but it's India which, like a drug, satisfies their needs while bringing them to their knees. We are none of us what we think we are. India continues to tell us so.

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