India Dark is the story of a troupe of Australian juvenile entertainers who go on tour in the Far East back in 1909-1910. Percival’s Liliputian Opera Company – known as the ‘Liliputians – is the creation of Mr Arthur Percival, a man who has recognised that an audience loves cute, charming children, the smaller the better. He has recruited a couple of dozen young performers who can sing, dance, do ventriloquism or magic tricks and his intention is to put on performances all over the Far East. It’s not a new idea and he’s done it before. At the beginning of India Dark, the troupe is back from the USA, looking to hire new children. Some of the children from the previous tour have got too old, too big or too jaded to continue. The life the children are offered (and contracted for) is one of singing and dancing and floating around the world, performing for delighted audiences who will be charmed by their talent and childish charms. Of course what you sign up for and what you actually get are not always the same things.
The book has two narrators – Poesy Swift and Tilly Sweetrick – who respectively play the parts of the nice girl and the nasty one in telling the tale of the tour that went horribly wrong.
Poesy is thirteen, innocent, naive and completely unaware of the games being played around her. Her father has died and there’s little money at home. Her future looks bleak – the match factory or the jam factory. When Tilly persuades her to audition for the troupe she thinks her mother and grandmother won’t let her go but the money would come in handy and they’re reassured that she’ll be tutored whilst she’s on tour. What could go wrong?
Tilly is a veteran of the entertainment circuit and has been with the ‘Liliputians’ for some time. She loves the attention of the ‘stage door Johnnies’ and the adoring audiences. She’s a flirty little coquette with an eye for the boys and an ambition to make it big when she graduates from underage theatre to the real thing. Tilly’s family live near Poesy and after she invites Poesy to audition, she thinks it will be fun to have a best friend from home (by which she has in mind someone she can manipulate and push around) when they are so many thousands of miles from home.
Back to my question of what could go wrong and of course, the answer is just about everything. First of all the tour isn’t going to America, it’s off around Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and India which wasn’t quite what anyone signed up for. Mr Arthur, the manager of the Liliputians, doesn’t have things easy. Bookings get cancelled, people get ill, the ship gets quarantined and his young charges are soon revolting. The kids form factions against each other, ganging up, spreading gossip and making life very unpleasant for all concerned. Some of the older girls are keen to challenge him and demand their freedom, sometimes taking considerable risk. Mr Arthur’s idea of being ‘in loco parentis’ means he thinks it’s OK to slap the kids around because he’s got them under contract. They have to do what he says. Added to this he’s cheating on Mrs Arthur with one of the older girls, something that Poesy just can’t see or imagine until she’s confronted with the very obvious evidence.
Mr Arthur’s group of helpers are a hapless bunch – a so-called ‘tutor’ who can barely sign her name, a chaperone whose infant ‘nephew’ might not be all he seems and a few ineffectual folk to train the children and set up the shows. When the young performers get angry at the way things are going, they go on strike and demand to be sent home. The older girls coach the younger ones to tell lies about how Mr Arthur has treated them, whipping up the support of local child protection agencies to help them break free. Can the children get what they want and escape from Mr Arthur and get back home to their families or will Mr Arthur hold continue his reign of terror and chaos as the troupe implodes around him?
The idea of someone being able to recruit children and exploit them on the stage with few in the way of controls or rules to protect them seems bizarre to our 21st century sensibilities. That a parent would dream of ‘letting’ their child go off around the world for up to two years without seeing them seems unthinkable, but these were very different times. Absurd as it seems, there’s a believability about the breakdown of the discipline in the troupe – a sort of ‘Lord of the Flies in a boat and a train’ kind of social development that’s shocking but utterly feasible. Children can be horrible little beasts and Tilly and her ilk show just how manipulative and competitive they can be. Poesy is our innocent observer who finds herself grudgingly pulled into the circle of lies and forced to decide whether it’s better to tell the truth or to support her young colleagues. Tilly is the manipulator and the girl who needs to be in charge, who needs the adoration of the crowd.
Despite the two narrators, I did find I was often getting confused by their ‘voices’ which were not significantly different. I soon learned that if the narrator was being nasty, it was probably Tilly, and if she was being a bit soppy it was probably Poesy. However aside from that, there were long passages describing what was happening which could have been either girl. Poesy gets most of the chapters and at times I wondered why we really even needed Tilly as she pops up much less frequently. I found the behaviour of the children and their manager and his support staff, disturbingly believable. At the beginning I struggled to imagine why any audience would want to see such a show but with time we come to realise that the audiences are drying up and the troupe and what they offer seem to be losing their appeal. I could imagine when they get to India that many of the local ex-pats, most of them British, might have wanted to see the children because their own children would have been sent home to the UK for school.
One aspect of the book which quite surprised me was the inclusion of the historical figure of Annie Besant. Mrs Besant was a fascinating woman – a campaigner, reformist, president of the Theosophical Society and perhaps most astonishingly, the president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. It’s hard to think of a campaigner who could bounce around the world campaigning on topics from Irish home rule, to contraception to Indian independence. She pops up several times in the book without much in the way of explanation or background and even though the dates seem to match up, it’s a bit of a long stretch of the imagination for us to believe that a character in the book could have seen and been inspired by her in both Sydney and Madras (now Chennai). If Gandhi had been used as a figure for inspiration, it would have been cheesy in the extreme but also very believable. Mrs Besant by contrast is an unusual historical figure for the author to have chosed. I’d have liked a bit more of Mrs Besant and for her to be integrated into the story a bit more, rather than just floating around like some kind of distant guardian angel.
On balance, I rather enjoyed India Dark despite it being filled with unlikeable and unpleasant characters. As a tale of just how badly things can go wrong if you underestimate the power and deviousness of children, it’s a fine example. Knowing that it’s been very well researched and that – unbelievable as it sometimes seems – every character in the book is based on a child who did actually go on the tour, adds an additional dimension to the book. It’s not a great book about India, it’s not even a great book in which India pays a small part, but it’s quite an enjoyable and insightful book.
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