Book Review – McCluskieganj: The Story of the Only Anglo-Indian Village in India

Rather than an overarching novelistic narrative, the book has an episodic structure like a collection of short stories.

Written by Zac O'Yeah | Updated: October 3, 2015 12:00:59 am
Interestingly, the village with the unusual name of McCluskieganj is an actual place with an extraordinary history. Interestingly, the village with the unusual name of McCluskieganj is an actual place with an extraordinary history.

Title: McCluskieganj: The Story of the Only Anglo-Indian Village in India
Author: Vikas Kumar Jha
Translated by Mahasweta Ghosh
Publisher: HarperPerennial
Pages: 290
Price: Rs 399

In Hong Kong, Robin McGowan grows up listening to his father, Dennis, speaking wistfully about his remote native village in India: McCluskieganj, a couple of hundred kilometres west of Kolkata on the Chhota Nagpur plateau. It’s both a childhood dream and a genuine utopia, but also “an empty bottle of perfume that just contained a lingering smell”. Robin decides to go back, find his roots and write a book.

Interestingly, the village with the unusual name of McCluskieganj is an actual place with an extraordinary history. It was set up in the 1930s in a wave of optimism, as a haven for Anglo-Indians who built beautiful bungalows on 10,000 acres of land acquired from a maharajah. Although the founder, Mr McCluskie, died within a year, a remarkable little township sprung from his vision — in this settlement in the middle of the surrounding jungle was a Highland Guest House run by Mr Cameron, general stores run by Mr Roger, and a club house built by Mr Stout. When independence came in 1947, the inhabitants of McCluskieganj, being more Indian than British, decided to stay on.

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Rather than an overarching novelistic narrative, the book has an episodic structure like a collection of short stories. We encounter, for example, the jockey Douglas Gibson who leaves the triumphs of the big city race courses behind to set up a stud farm in McCluskieganj. The venture fails badly and Gibson takes to ga03mbling. His wife gets fed up and goes to live with their daughter in Australia. Alone in McCluskieganj, the elderly Gibson enters into a platonic relationship with a tribal girl, Parvati, young enough to be his granddaughter, and adopts a baby elephant. McCluskieganj is overflowing with such odd characters and their curious lives — the gripping story of Kitty Taxeira, the gastric problems of the Gordon family, the village alcoholic Mr Warden who loses his bungalow and ends up sleeping in a coffin.

McCluskieganj perfectly captures the ambience of what was once an idyllic English village in rural India for descendants of the British, but has been, over time, reduced to the crumbling and depopulated jungle outpost it is today, a ghost town from where the younger generations migrate in search for a better future. “It was perhaps imperative that such people ought to have left McCluskieganj, which was fast turning into a bog drawing all into its gargantuan belly, slowly killing them.”

Reading these priceless stories, I suddenly get the strong feeling that I recognise some of these characters — Noel Gordon, for example — from my own tourist visit to McCluskieganj a few years ago. Although the club and the general stores are long gone, I did check out the Highland Guest House — still standing, but in such bad shape that it was impossible to stay in. Other names mentioned in the novel adorned tombstones in the local graveyard. It is then that I fully appreciate that this isn’t actually a novel at all, but a biography of a failed utopia.

While it gladdens me that such a unique book — journalism blended with fiction — has been translated into English from Hindi, I wish the editors had read through the translation before sending it to the press. Surely a sentence such as “Upon receiving his phone, Liza immediately started accosting him” would read better as “On getting his call, Liza immediately started questioning him”? The text is a trifle clunky and feels unpolished, and although there is a charm in rough language, it can, occasionally, disturb the reader’s experience.

Zac O’Yeah is a novelist. His new book Hari, a Hero for Hire is out in October.

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