Shakuntala is young, idealistic and educated. With her Batchelor of Arts degree completed she’s not too sure what to do next when the world seems so full of opportunities. Hanging around the house with her pretty-but-simple sister-in-law, her ever so correct and dainty mother and a houseful of servants is giving her itchy feet. She adores her father, Har Dayal, because he’s an educated and highly cultured man but what’s a girl to do when there’s no clear route forward for someone like her? These are the 1950s, India has shaken off the shackles of Empire rule and a smart young woman must surely have more to look forward to than a loveless arranged marriage.
Shakuntala really couldn’t be more different than Indira, her sister-in-law, who in turn thinks life just couldn’t be more delightful than sipping tea with Shakuntala’s mother and discussing the selection of wedding presents for other well-to-do people. Across the city Shakuntala’s old school friend Gulab is lazing around her apartment, barely bothering to dress most days and whiling away the hours doting on her beautiful child. If all had gone to plan Gulab would have been Shakuntala’s sister-in-law as she’d been lined up for marriage to the latter’s brother. Instead Gulab fell for the enigmatic and charming Esmond Stillwood, married him and now seems fated to spend the rest of her life being despised by the man who chose her. The native beauty Esmond fell for has turned out to be rather too languid and ‘animal like’ for his tastes.
Esmond in India is not – as the title might suggest – really much about Esmond at all. Esmond’s role is largely symbolic. He represents the ones who stayed on after India achieved Independence, a man who finds himself as a cultured fish out of water. Whilst his status is based on the twin handicaps of education and dashing good looks, Esmond is not the success he imagines he should be. The Indian elite are living life high on the hog, whilst poor old Esmond is earning a poor income offering classes in cultural topics to bored European housewives, forced to take the bus rather than using cabs or keeping a driver and rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed a lot more than he would choose to. To assuage the disappointment of his poverty he seeks comfort in the arms of wealthier white women. Esmond has ‘taste’ in a land where such things still matter but not as much as they used to when you’re part of the no-longer-ruling elite. As Esmond bounces around the bedrooms of bored women across Delhi, Gulab sits at home telling her disapproving mother, Uma, that at least Esmond only goes with white women, as if somehow that lessens the betrayal of his infidelities.
Uma longs to take her daughter back from this dreadful Englishman and reinstall her in her marvellous old mansion, once a grand and now a rather decrepit old place inhabited by a motley array of the great and the good of the Independence movement. Her late husband died in prison, a hero of the movement, leaving Uma with a political status which belies her relative impecunity. Her brother, Ram Nath, and his wife Lakshmi (named for the goddess of a wealth they no longer have) have fallen on hard times, with Lakshmi left to bemoan the new India in which heroes like her husband are pushed aside in favour of the nouveau powerful like Har Dayal.
Har Dayal and Ram Nath were both students in Cambridge and Har Dayal hero worships his older friend. He would give anything to please him – or so he thinks until the day when Ram Nath asks for the one thing he can’t give, his daughter’s hand in marriage for his son. How can he push her to marry whilst totally failing to spot that Shakuntala has already found the man she wants (and who inevitably won’t want her after the initial glow of passion has passed)?
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a Booker Prize winner, an Oscar nominated screenwriter and the writer/screenwriter/script adapter who is probably best known – though admittedly less now than perhaps 20 or 30 years ago – for her collaborations with the terribly genteel Merchant Ivory Productions (Ismail Merchant and James Ivory) with whom she worked on 20 films, six of which won Oscars. She was born in Germany to Polish parents in 1927, married an Indian architect and lived in India between 1951 and 1975. Hers is a life almost as fascinating as the stories she tells. She would have been living in India in the period covered by this book and perhaps Esmond is some ways represents aspects of Prawer Jhabvala’s own life as an outside in the newly independent world’s largest democracy. Esmond in India was published in 1958, a mere eleven years after the British left. Prawer Jhabvala was thus an outsider as part of a mixed-race marriage but also an outsider from the old Empire by being not British.
Life in 1950s Delhi was a time of reinvention and redefinition. The men who plotted to drive the British out of their country were in the main part wealthy and British educated or if not wealthy then certainly educated. The poor man in the street didn’t care too much who was running things. Men like Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Indian president), Mohammed Ali Jinnah(the architect of the creation of Pakistan) and Mohandas K Gandhi British educated and trained in the British legal system. Oxford and Cambridge educated sons of high-born parents drove the Independence movement and the older characters in ‘Esmond and India’ are from this strata of Indian society. These are the men who were educated abroad and returned in their smart suits with their English ‘ways’ only to give them up and adapt the homespun cottons espoused by Gandhi. Some went to prison, lost their possessions, went on hunger strikes and in some cases even died for their countries whilst others kept their heads down and reaped the benefits of the protests of their peers. This is a period that’s not much written about in novels about the sub-continent and is all the more fascinating for that. One of the core themes of the book is the unfairness of life – that those who deserve success rarely get it whilst others less responsible for the changes, happily take on the benefits of high office once the dirty work of fighting for Independence is out of the way.
If Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope had lived in India in the 1950s, ‘Esmond in India’ is the book one of them would have written. If you’re looking for Pride and Prejudice, both are there in abundance. If you want a hero, there’s none to be found. Ram Nath’s wife is desperately offended that Har Dayal’s wife looks at her like dirt, when her husband should be getting treated like a hero instead of getting steadily poorer. In turn Har Dayal’s wife is so genteel she’s barely breathing or showing outward signs of life – you just know she would never sweat, burp or go to the toilet, she’s just that genteel. If you like confusion caused more by what’s unsaid than by what’s actually out in the open, then this is the book for you. It’s hard to say if this is a comedy or a tragedy since it has elements of both but what really shines through is the constricted society of manners and being seen to do the ‘right thing’. The characters are mostly silly or unlikeable and, with the possible exception of the too older men, Ram Nath and Har Dayal, they’re hard to feel any sympathy for. In their own different ways, the characters are not exactly given to much in the way of hidden depths – educated Shakuntala turning out to be every bit as flighty as her silly sister-in-law, or bovine Gulab. The arguments and offences taken between the wives and mothers are amusing, painfully transparent and highly entertainment. But if you’re looking for a book that gets to the point, ends properly and ties up all the loose ends, then this isn’t the one for you – you’ll be left with as much of a mess of emotions and relationships at the end as you’ll find at the beginning and of course, it’s all beautifully written and expressed.
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