Hari Kunzru makes a fair impression with his debut novel, which begins in the early twentieth century.Young Pran Nath Razdan, suddenly realizes that he is no longer the pampered son of a wealthy household, which upon the discovery of his dubious origins casts him out. The timing coincides with the death of Amar Nath Razdan, the father who was actually not his true father, Pran being conceived in a one off tryst between his opium afflicted licentious mother and a British official during an incredulous mating in the midst of a tropical flash flood which eventually claims the man. Identity, or the lack thereof, is the crisis that hounds Pran throughout his life, as he shifts from one persona to another, driven to some extent by his fortunes or misfortunes and the rest by his ingenuity, good looks and instinct to survive. From a Benaras brothel to Fatehpur palace, from Bombay to England, Pran’s fortunes seem to improve as he incarnates from Pran to Ruksana, Ruksana to Pretty Bobby, and finally from Bobby to Joanathan Bridgeman. Yet he feels like an empty shell, a ghost whose life is merely skin deep. While in Bombay, Bobby is fascinated by the English life and Englishness, the colour of which his skin inherits. But he doesn’t know what it is to be English.
Is there a typical English smell?…Face buried in burra mems’ smalls and burra sahibs’ dirty shirts, he finally put a name to it. Rancid butter. With perhaps a hint of raw beef. The underlying smell of empire.
Bobby does eventually land in England, in a fortuitous turn of events that enables him to become Jonathan Bridgeman, and Englishman. But Jonathan cannot fit into the English life, finding himself isolated and cornered despite fervent efforts and note taking to adopt perfect English ways. He feels like an outsider, in a place he does not belong. From school in Chopham Hall, Jonathan moves on to Oxford, to finish his University studies. Here, he is stifled amidst conventions and acceptable norms. His inherent disinclination to being English, despite his superficial adaptation of English ways and the misleading colour of his skin, comes out when he finds himself out of step, out of tune among his team mates in an anthropological expedition in Africa, which he had joined rather unwillingly, as a pretext to come close to the girl with whom he had fallen in love, Astarte Chapel, who also happened to be the daughter of the professor leading the expedition, but who actually ditches him, ironically, for his boring, predictable English nature.
Besides the theme of mixed identities and racial clashes, the pervasive imposition of colonial forces, like that of the English, on those colonized is also significant throughout the book.
As a first novel, Kunzru has chosen a complex and elaborate theme. He does satisfactorily. The first sections of the book, the origins of Pran Nath, his ousting from familial home to a Benaras brothel and eventual migration to Fatehpur as Ruksana, where he first encounters the English from up close, lacks in depth, harbouring between comic satire and incoherent pathos. But the writing is certainly much better, more consistent and serious in the later parts. My favourite is Bobby in Bombay, arguably the best parts of the book, not only in the excellent sections on the Scottish missionaries and their conflicts, but also in the transformation that Bobby undergoes trying to understand himself, his position in life.
My biggest complaint is that Kunzru doesn’t entirely succeed in eliciting from the reader the emotional response for the protagonist possible in his various situations. One is rarely touched by Pran or his later selves, his suffering as a child prostitute or his misfitting Oxford days. That, in my opinion, is the novel’s major drawback. As a writer, Kunzru certainly shows the talent and promise to produce better.