Book: No Country
Author: Kalyan Ray
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Price: Rs 599
Kalyan Ray’s second novel No Country starts off like an intriguing whodunit. An Indian couple is found murdered in their apartment in Clairmont in upstate New York in 1989 and the only probable suspect is their daughter Devika. The clue to their murders, however, lies two centuries ago in Mullaghmore in County Sligo in western Ireland, where tyranny and the Great Irish Famine would change the destiny of its residents, among them two friends Brendan McCarthaigh and Padraig Aherne.
Displacement and the abiding appeal of home have been at the heart of diasporic literature. No Country dwells, instead, on the universal response to change and adversity — despair, incomprehension, fortitude and the stubborn hope of turning back the tide. Like a miniaturist, Ray plots out life in agrarian Ireland in the 19th century, four decades after colonial superpower Great Britain had swept away the Irish legislature by the Acts of Union (1801). The roiling discontent of the tenants, the ruthless avarice of the landowners and the clash between Anglicans and Roman Catholics all lead up to the moment when the outspoken and impulsive Padraig decides to trudge up to Dublin to join a rally by rebel leader Daniel O’Connell. He leaves behind all that he holds dear — his feisty mother, his best friend Brendan, and his sweetheart Brigid. In a perverse (and rather far-fetched) twist, he finds himself aboard an East India Company trading ship that takes him to Calcutta. It’s the first of the book’s many journeys that takes characters out of what they know as home, into the great unknown, destined never to return, but always to look back in longing — the “shadow land” they would forever walk in “restless slumber”.
The title of Ray’s novel comes from the opening line of WB Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as do subsequent chapter heads. It is an indicator, perhaps, of his focus on the macroscopic than on the personal, which writers like Jhumpa Lahiri have already explored. Ray’s canvas is immense, spanning generations and continents and heaving with historical catastrophes that pull apart nations and families.
While Padraig finds himself in India, Brendan flees the famine-stricken Mullaghmore with Maeve, Padraig and Brigid’s daughter, and lands up in Vermont after a perilous sea voyage. Across the seas, the fortunes of the Mitra family, Padraig’s mentor and friend in undivided India, change with the 1905 Partition of Bengal. Ray’s depiction of the lives of Calcutta’s Anglo-Indians is beautifully wrought, set as it is against the city’s growing cosmopolitanism. Padraig’s Irish-Indian grandson, Robert Aherne, grows up in his Elliot Road neighbourhood, playing with the Jewish Zachariah boys, the Syrian twins Majid and Wajid Baghdadi, the Tsang brothers from China and the Parsi brothers Bahram, Feroze and Jamshed. Yet, he is unceremoniously evicted from a club because it was “for Europeans only.” Towards the end of the novel, Aherne writes to his grandson Neel, “What does it mean to belong to a nation? Is it an accident of birth? Is it a memory, a yearning for some obscure stamp on the soul, some tune in the blood? Or is it what others insist you are — painting your corner of the room around you?”
It’s an ambitious book, and one that Ray nearly pulls off, because his writing is riveting and sensitive to the crisis of identity. It saves the book from becoming reductive, as it could easily have been, because of the rather preposterous number of coincidences that the narrative hinges on. But apart from Brendan and Padraig, none of the other characters are allowed to evolve. The women suffer in particular, condemned merely to bear children or die in pursuit of their lovers. No Country is a compelling read, but it also demands a determined reader, one who can square up to yet another tragedy with the turn of the page.