The heartland of unspoken India resonates with its unique storytelling — a spicy shade of the “native” tempered with the forgotten memories of the British Raj and the changing social praxis of a post-Independence India.
Politics is the staple tow of the narratives, underlining lives and everyday grind of the young, elderly and the mobile.
Unforeseen Desires by Anil Chopra follows in the trail of Ruskin Bond —father surrogate and literary mentor of the writer — across the lush valleys and the green hills of Derha Dun at the foothills of the Himalayas of the 1970s when the erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “period of emergency” and “Licence Raj” — two conflicting and controversial strands in Indian politics — were peaking with arbitrary crackdowns, forced sterilisation drives to rein in the wanton population and a despotic decadence in the country’s socio-political fabric.
The protagonist is Arun, a young intern in a non-descript suburban hospital in Dehra, whose hunger to master the art of care-giving and healing a decrepit set of unsung people inhabiting the meandering lanes of Dehra, takes him along strange twists of destiny till he finds his way to England — to live the grand English dream in the National Health Service of the country.
The writer, who deploys an earthy fusion of Eastmeets-West kind of Indian “commonwealth” language to capture the mood of the times and travails of the curious crowd in his young life, emulates his master well. The flow of the narrative is simple and one can feel the tangible taste of the Indian translating his thoughts in Hindustani to a meticulouslycrafted public school English.
Arun’s career stumbles across a roadblock at the outset when his senior, “newly married Dr Nasreen” accuses him of “losing her wedding rings” — which Arun cannot remember “misplacing” after she gave them to him for safekeeping during a botched surgery. The “rings” portend the tides that steer the course of the characters’ destinies.
They lead Arun to Victoria Lambert — a British missionary who works out of the Church premises to teach girls —after a romantic tryst with a nurse, Trishna. Arun finds solace in the Church and on Victoria’s “Anglican” breakfast table laid out by her cook, John.
The relationship between Arun and Victoria is nuanced, hinting at deep emotional attachments on one hand and a tenant-landlord camaraderie, on the other.
Victoria, who is devoted to the cause of Jesus, is an empty soul craving for warmth and permanence in her adopted homeland — a longing that typifies the British “expatriates” of Dehra desperate to integrate with India. Ruskin Bond, the writer’s “guru”, leads the exclusive list of honorary British-born Indians, who is more Indian than many desi heartland-born.
Arun is on the wheel — he is eager to float in the trajectory that life has charted for him. Victoria is a green and clean oasis in the “rustic” idyll of pristine Dehra, a spot of ephemeral solidity. His senior Dr Nasreen, however, lives her ill-fated end. The rings become her “fiery” tombstone — culminating “in an accidental kitchen fire” after which her “charred body is found floating in the canal” outside home.
The tragedy kills Nasreen’s mother in-law, a character of unholy intent. Her husband, Rakesh, is driven by the “discovery of a heinous act of deceit surrounding the rings” and consequent guilt to Victoria’s Church, and into an unlikely friendship with the blue-eyed missionary.
The writer uses the concept of karma — and omens — central to Indian spirituality and the Christian virtues of calm, pragmatism, compassion, righteousness and the choices between good and evil that the Bible teaches to churn the colours of his narrative. Nothing shocks Victoria, but hurts Arun and his native friends. Examples of such mortal “pain” are galore — at the hospital where patients languish for want of “specialised” resources and life supports —and in real life where the vagaries of fate are controlled by the corridors of power far away in New Delhi.
Arun finds himself at the receiving end when a senior health ministry officer’s “recommendation” to the superintendent of a large hospice fails to earn him a house-staff assignment because the government at the Centre has changed.
The Janata Party sweeps to power in an alliance with Jagjivan Ram, a high-profile Congress defector, dethroning Indira Gandhi. In a strange denouement, Arun brings on the political watershed with his righteous zeal to diagnose the true nature of Jagjivan Ram’s “malaise”.
The writer uses the nifty political atmospherics of the era to plot his story. The characters match the fluidity and the capriciousness of the era complimented by an anachronistic idealism that makes “India” desirable to so many “outsiders”, who see in the vast unexplored country potential for new waves and movement of the masses.
The Dehra crew drifts in the political flux like in a maelstrom to meaningful “stops” in life —of new relationships and transforming math. Arun flies to England — from cool green hills and dappled sun of Dehra — to the damp rain of Manchester, where his mother works in a factory.
The “social security” brick barrack home, grinding poverty, apartheid and the industrial soot are a contrast to the somnolence of the Indian summer.
But Arun is a rock amid the squalor of British suburbia. A diaspora tale with an Indian flavour that drives an important message home —stories are better nurtured in the backyard than in the exotic climes of literary imagination.
The reviewer is editorial consultant, The Statesman, kolkata