Monday, 16 March 2009
The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
DATE PUBLISHED: 2002 DATE READ: February 2009 NOTES: This is the rollicking tale of Pran Nath, the spoilt and cruel son of Pandit amar Nas Razdan who is besotted by him – and is especially proud of his son’s pale skin. But Pran is in fact the son of a British officer and this is revealed by an angry servant. Pran is thrown out and is soon destitute but is taken on by a brothel where he is drugged and unaware of what is going on. He is then given into the care of some hirjas who disguise him as a woman and take him to Fatepur to try and put a British officer in a compromising position. This plot fails and following a farcical tiger shoot Pran/Rukhsana walks away and comes to Bombay. Here he lives with a weird missionary couple. But his good looks and sharpness of mind attract him to many and he finds he can often convince colonials that he is English. He eventually arrives in England and assumes life as an aspiring Oxford scholar. In all the roles he plays he lacks any sense of commitment (eg to Indian nationalism, politics, support of friends). His aspiration to assume an identity seems to prevent him from developing as a full human being. His attempts at Englishness appear to succeed – too well in fact when his beloved Star accuses him of being “so English” when he is appalled by her relationship with a Negro in Paris. Pran ends up on an ill-fated anthropological expedition in Africa where he throws off his white identity and just travels (a bit reminiscent of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust). The Impressionist has lots of observations on race, empire and identity. It is very satirical on Anglo-Indians and other castes and classes – no-one escapes! I loved the reference to Major Privett-Clampe’s gin sundowners and how this drink had gradually inched forward in time to nine o’clock in the morning! An excellent read – though I was not really happy about the ending which I thought was a bit vague.