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Monday, November 29, 2021

Story and history

Manohar Malgonkar’s fiction revealed an India that now seems like a foreign land...

Written by Jaithirth Rao |
June 18, 2010 3:46:30 am

Manohar Malgonkar was a man of many distinct,impressive and splendid parts. He wrote interesting history,presenting a worms-eye view of episodes,people and events from a perspective that academics often ignore. He wrote several fine novels that captured the spirit of the times that they were set in. Historical accuracy,rather than history as a metaphor,is his forte. In this,he comes more in the tradition of a Meadows Taylor rather than that of a Kipling or a Rushdie.

He wrote essays that were characterised by a stately prose style. He dabbled in politics of the correct kind — he stood for elections on a Swatantra party ticket — and lost. Defeat does not make a good cause less worthwhile,after all. He was a shikari who transformed himself into a conservationist. Like the princely order to which he distantly belonged,he faded away with a quiet grace and aplomb in a manner completely different from the noisy vulgarity of our socialist lounge lizards.

I first read A Bend in the Ganges when I was in college. I remember it as a book of implausible and oddly enough,therefore very real characters set in a time in history — the last days of the Raj,Independence and Partition which were described with uncanny plausibility. The unusual focus on the sexual desires of an older couple,the confused protagonist who betrays himself and his self-professed ideals at every turn,the wisp of a girl who makes sure that she avenges herself by treating a pathetic husband and an even more pathetic would-be lover in a detached manner which is simultaneously sour and dulcet,the layer on layer of cruelty (to use a Naipaulian expression) that Indians inflict on each other while loudly,hysterically complaining about the British — all of these have stayed in my memory at an astonishing level of detail. I cannot think of many so-called classics where I can remember the plot,the situations and the characters at such a granular level.

After that,I made sure that I read pretty much all his novels. And he almost never let me down. The Devil’s Wind,a fictional autobiography of Nana Sahib has to be one of the best books about the Indo-British encounter. It is also a fine study of the problems one faces in remaining a balanced,sensitive and clear-headed individual when you live in times of turmoil where events can overwhelm you with their confusion. British correspondents thought of Nana as a wicked monster who loved to massacre women and children. Revisionist Indian historians now consider him a glorious freedom-fighter. Malgonkar’s Nana is a likeable,pleasure-loving,sensible person and one who tries to remain that way vis-à-vis his memoirs despite the extremes that he could have pandered to. Nana’s virgin wife who seeks forbidden pleasures in fractious Nepal may be just a minor character,but like Charmian in Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’,she is quite unforgettable.

Malgonkar’s different books involved painting pictures of the place and times they were set in with an apparent ease until one notices the meticulous way in which he went about his task. Distant Drum is about the British Indian Army in the days when it started admitting Indian officers (reluctantly,slowly and clumsily); Princes is about the maharajas of India,puppets in the hands of their British masters who encouraged them to play at being kings in a toy kingdom of sorts and the fate of these rulers as the rules of the parlour games change abruptly; Combat of Shadows is set in the world where tea-planters were white and their assistants fractionally white Anglo-Indians (or Eurasians as they were called),categories which have become meaningless today; Bandicoot Run is about the old Indian army which was more cruel to eccentric Englishmen than to Indians. The reasons all of them are delightful are that while describing the settings so well,as you read them you get a sense of the sameness of the human condition — the inanity,the mock-heroism,passions — exaggerated,understated and unstated often all at the same time. It is a bit like reading Somerset Maugham to learn that people behave pretty much the same in Lambeth,the French Riviera or the Malay States.

Malgonkar wrote some fine well-researched history. Sea-Hawk is about the life and times of Kanhoji Angrey,the intrepid Maratha admiral. It is a balanced book written in a direct and utterly non-pedantic style that reminds you of George Orwell or Antony Beevor writing about Spain. The current ruling class in Maharashtra despite indulging in parochial hysteria has little genuine interest in its history. If we really wanted students to enjoy reading the history of this region,I would prescribe Sea-Hawk along with Denis Kincaid’s Grand Rebel and Gangadhar Gadgils’s Prarambh. But then,who is listening? The Men Who Killed Gandhi is a riveting book which describes a dark chapter in our recent history making a case for the everyday “banality of evil”. Given the ubiquity of terrorism today,we all understand that a person you meet at a party could very well turn out to be a bomb-throwing maniac. In the same way,in 1948,your neighbour could have been an assassin,and not a very competent one at that.

Malgonkar’s best writing though was reserved for his first love — shikar — and later,the bonding with the jungle and its inhabitants. You find this interspersed in virtually all his books and some of his fine essays. One can argue that if you do not have a love for ruined temples and semi-tropical jungles then you cannot and do not love India. In the “shining” future that we are heading towards,the forests will almost certainly not be there. So India-lovers of Malgonkar’s ilk will have no place. It is therefore just as well that our prince and gentleman officer of the Maratha Light Infantry has passed on. His India will live in his words and his readers will always be grateful for the palimpsest he has left behind.

The writer divides his time between Mumbai and Bangalore

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