fiction

The Chemist of Nainital

By Gordon Stewart | 1 January 2015

ABOUT THE STORY Gordon Stewart’s ingeniously constructed story is about the nature of civilisation, and about the lasting imprint left by one culture—in this case the British in India—on the imagination of another.

The protagonist, an elderly, courtly chemist in Nainital, has never been to England, but lives as an Englishman in India, one somehow both pathetic and dignified, as if elevated above his milieu by his anachronistic adherence to the ideals of a distant civilisation. His alienation from Indian society allows him to perceive the banality of the lives of the nouveau riche, while his Anglophilia, almost like a faith, gives him a peculiar stability. He has raised enough money to send his son to university in—where else?—England, and loves nothing so much as the young man’s highly detailed monthly letters, describing the landscape and manners of that country he so admires.

But is young Amit really living in an England as poised, as graceful, as self-assured as his father imagines? Or does he match fiction with fiction, supplying a vision that he knows will interlock with that so deeply rooted in his father’s mind? Stewart’s story is both a tender elucidation of a father–son relationship (one in which a generational gap is replaced by a civilisational divide) and an ingenious send-up of many other kinds of masquerade and affectation, including those in art and academia, that operate around the memory of colonialism in the twenty-first century.

 

IT WAS THOSE BLASTED BINGO SESSIONS that were the final straw. The lobby of the Hanuman Grand Hotel, once a gracious establishment, was now chock-a-block with rowdy weekenders from Delhi. Clumps of raucous holidaymakers were sprawled over the lobby’s sofas and chairs, and squatting amidst their luggage on the threadbare imitation-Persian carpets, shouting out numbers, guzzling their sodas, grinning maniacally. They were amusing themselves while waiting for a hired bus to take them back to the railway station at Kathgodam. Nainital was getting to be as bad as the crowded beach resort of Puri—a pilgrimage town now desecrated by trainloads of visitors seeking cheap hotels and holiday thrills. Bingo in Nainital—he never dreamed it could come to this.

Mr Banerjee pushed his coffee cup away from the edge of the low, tiger-clawed table and strode disdainfully out of the lobby of the Hanuman Grand. He headed downhill to his shop on Mall Road. Even after all these years he enjoyed looking up at the old-fashioned sign with red letters on a light-brown background: “Banerjee & Sons. Dispensing Chemists.” He was still going strong, and so was the shop. It had been started by his grandfather, and here it was still in business.

How could they do this to his beloved Nainital? Were these wretched bingo players as ignorant of Hindu mythology as the dribbles of harassed package tourists who straggled into his shop to buy diarrhea remedies or batteries for their cameras? They too seemed unaware of their surroundings. No one, Indian or foreigner, had any reverence anymore for the sacred lake, shaped exactly like the eye of a goddess. When the charred body of Parvati was being carried across the skies by Lord Shiva, parts of the goddess had fallen to earth. Her eye had fallen on this very spot. That was why the lake was shaped like it was. That was the wondrous story of its origins.

There it lay, just down the street from his shop, a watery jewel wedged into the final fold of the Himalayan foothills. The lake was cradled by these heights, poised delicately between them, as if about to be poured over the narrow containing cusp of land at its outlet onto the plains below. But these ignoramuses spilling out of the Railway Colony next to Delhi Cantonment station seemed utterly oblivious as they sank into the joys of bingo.

They had bought cheap, weekend return tickets, crowded themselves into the iron-barred carriages of the Ranikhet Express at Old Delhi station, and debouched, sweaty and tired, onto the platform at Kathgodam, where the Ranikhet Express terminated. Ranikhet itself remained stranded sixty or so miles further up in the hills. He detested those half-educated European tourists, waiting for the onward bus service, who tittered smugly among themselves at this example of Indian mystical illogicality—naming a train after a destination that it never reached.

Did Englishmen not wear waistcoats or ties or proper hats any more? And those women tourists bulging out of their ill-fitting clothes! What had become of the world, Mr Banerjee muttered to himself as he put his Monday-morning key into the shop door. He took a sidelong glance at the pleasing reflection, in a sliver of the display window, of his Fedora-clad head and his twirled mustache. He had a fine bearing still, in spite of his age. He was a presence that made heads turn in the street. He would even go so far as to say he had become, over the years, something of a local institution. Yes, assuredly so.

Nainital had once been a quiet, respectable town. Perhaps a bit staid, he would concede, but that went splendidly with the sublime natural surroundings. That calm atmosphere had been part of the old-world charm of the place. When he had been fitter, he used to walk up to the viewpoint at Dorothy’s Seat, with its pleasing views from the Ayaretta hillside back over the lake to China Peak. He had always taken immense pleasure in that walk. The mountain lane wended its way past latticed bungalows tucked into Ayaretta’s forested slopes. He took pleasure in the names their former owners had given them—Langdale Lodge, Grasmere Point, Cotswold Edge, and so forth. He liked that such names had been retained. The names had reminded the English of home. For him, the names conjured up the timeless landscapes of England. He hoped Amit might be visiting some of those very places right now.

And now look at the place. Plastic bags littered the ground round the cable-car station, where tourists gathered to be taken up to the ridge at China Peak, where they stuffed themselves with over-spiced chanachur, eaten out of paper cones, and gawked towards Tibet. The lake itself was so polluted that few fish could survive its oxygen-less waters. They were steadily dying. The local authorities were trying, he had to admit that. There was nowadays an annual clean-up day, held on the anniversary of the great landslide disaster of 1881. But the litter just accumulated again over the rest of the year. He pulled his stout frame erect, put on his white work coat—crisp-starched and fresh, back from the dhobi’s weekend work—with his name elegantly embroidered in thick red thread over the left breast pocket. He touched, as he did every day just before opening to the public, the little pyramid of Yardley soaps on the polished wooden countertop. This habitual gesture was accompanied by a mournful shake of his head. What had happened to Parvati’s perfect eye?

He would have to give up the Hanuman Grand coffee shop and find somewhere better. When he had first gone there twenty years ago or so, the staff and the premises had been first-rate. Now the doorkeepers were surly and their turbaned uniforms dirty—washed, his well-informed dhobitold him, only once every six months. To his eyes they did not look as if they had ever been washed. He was sympathetic to be sure—why on earth should they scrape and bow to those bingo louts from Delhi? But still…

The coffee shop had once been solidly furnished, like the richly comfortable room he had been enchanted by on his visit to the Bengal Club in Calcutta. He had been down in the city attending an all-India conference on the retail pricing of generic pharmaceuticals. One of the titans of the industry, a Parsee gentleman from Bombay, had singled him out to have a scotch with in the club library. Yes, that had indeed been a gracious gesture. But now the coffee shop was all red plastic chairs and wobbly matching tables. That was one reason he had retired with his coffee to the lobby, only to find himself this morning in that sea of noisy trippers.

When friends asked him for advice on where to stay in Nainital he steered them away from the shabby glitz of the Hanuman Grand. His recommendation was now the Naini Repose. That was more like it. The old days were still redolent there. Perched halfway up the Arayetta hillside, with fine views to the north, it had been the summer residence of the Maharaja of Bharatpur. The entrance hallway and the dining room were decorated with neatly hung eighteenth-century French prints. There were delightful scenes of Pondicherry and Chandernagore. And, above the corner table he liked so much, several Watteau-esque views of the gardens of Versailles (or was it Fontainebleau?). A delightful, civilised place. But too steep and distant a ramble for him these days.

He had found a handsome illustrated history of the French and English companies in eighteenth-century India at the Oxford Bookshop on Park Street in Calcutta—The Honourable Company and its Gallic Rival, edited by Dipesh Chatterjee and Graeme Rivard. Perhaps that tome would contain the answer to the puzzle of Versailles or Fontainebleau. He could certainly check to see if those prints were mentioned. Now, that was a proper bookshop for readers like him. None of the trashy paperbacks jumbled along the shelves of the bookstalls at Kathgodam station. Or even—he could still recall his dismay—the lurid, almost pornographic offerings in the alleyways off Connaught Circle, in the very heart of Delhi. No, a good, old-fashioned bookshop with wooden shelves neatly lined with PG Wodehouse and RK Narayan. He was not one to argue that Wodehouse wrote the most perfect English—he was sure Narayan won that honour. Besides, Narayan’s plots were undoubtedly more interesting for Indian readers, and especially intriguing for a northerner like himself. But still, both Wodehouse and Narayan were a cut above all these modern writers who used deliberately impenetrable plots, deployed bad language at the drop of a hat, and paid no attention to the rules of grammar and syntax.

Yes, he must get down to Calcutta and make a pilgrimage to the Oxford Bookshop. Amit had written about a book just published in London, The Duleep Singhs: The Photographic Album of Queen Victoria’s Maharajah by Bhupinder Singh Bance. It told the story of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who, at the age of eleven, had been deposed by the Company after the Sikh defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars, and sent to exile in Britain. He became a court favourite, and was given a splendid country house in Norfolk where he could live the life of an English country gentleman. It sounded most promising. Amit, in one of his recent letters, had copied a passage from the book, in which Queen Victoria described Duleep Singh as “extremely handsome, with a graceful and dignified manner.” Just so.

He must look for that book on the shelves of the Park Street shop. Although the last time he’d been in Calcutta there had been even more than the usual number of disturbing sights there too. Across from the New Kenilworth Hotel in Little Russell Street, where he always stayed, there was an old Morris Oxford car with flat tires, covered in bird excrement. It had been parked there for five years or more. No one had bothered to move it. The hotel, in whose small circular driveway the ruined car lived, was now a crumbling wreck of a building, with vines creeping round its doorways and into its windows. While walking in the streets he had had to step round barbers doing haircuts for clients crouching on cinder blocks—a sight one would never see in Nainital. And then, when he had come out of his hotel on his last visit to stroll round the corner to his restaurant on Shakespeare Sarani, he had been accosted by a stinking rickshaw driver who had asked in an inveigling tone, “Sahib want girl, boy—clean boy, clean girl?” Even amidst the government office sector near the Writers Building he had seen drivers sucking petrol through rubber tubes out of official cars, filling up battered jerrycans, for sale on the black market in the alleys off Chowringee. Walking back to the hotel late one afternoon, he had been struck by how mangled the tramlines looked near the Ochterlonie Monument. Did no one pay attention in Calcutta? But this kind of degeneration had to be expected in a place run by generations of barely educated Communists, he supposed.

Still, all that had to be set alongside the bookshops of Calcutta. Yes, he did enjoy those trips. Yet he always breathed a sigh of relief when the train from Howrah station pulled in at Kathgodam. He looked up every time at his hills cupping the unseen eye of the goddess. As he walked back, on returning from his last trip, to his flat above the shop on Mall Road, he paused beneath the “Banerjee & Sons” sign. He would have to face up, he realised, to the fact that Amit was not going to take over. His son had made that very clear in his last letter from London. Amit was now a post-graduate student in England. He had been accepted as a scholar over there after his studies at Chandigarh University—at Cambridge, he had informed his proud father in his last letter.

He showed no interest in the business, alas. But he was in England. Perhaps he was going to be a writer. He might become a famous novelist one day, like all those young Indian men and women who went to Britain and America, wrote about their families, and ended up in big houses in Jor Bagh and Ballygunge and other such wealthy neighborhoods in Delhi and Calcutta. Clearly, Mr Banerjee would be the major figure in anything Amit wrote about his family. He would undoubtedly be portrayed as a local institution in Nainital. He would not mind taking the sign down if that turned out to be the future.

THE LETTERS INFORMING HIS FATHER about Cambridge, Duleep Singh’s country house in Norfolk, and sundry other aspects of life in England, had all been written on the pockmarked plastic countertop of the tiny reception cubbyhole of the Braemar Hotel in Wessex Gardens. The job paid hardly anything, but Amit got free board in a windowless attic room shared with two Polish colleagues. Their eight-hour shifts staffed the cramped reception desk for 24 hours each day, seven days a week.

For Amit, Wessex Gardens summed up all that was fraudulent about London. From the outside, the handsome white buildings, with their generous Georgian-style windows, fluted pilasters and decorative balconies, looked like the London of his father’s imagination. They were graceful white wedding cakes masquerading delightfully as buildings. Their handsome facades suggested high-ceilinged, well-proportioned rooms, hung with fine paintings. They would have leather-chaired, book-lined studies, and carpeted libraries with shelves of Shakespeare, Dryden, Johnson, Dickens, Trollope—and yes, he smiled to himself, perhaps even a stray PG Wodehouse slipped in somewhere.

But the facade gave an utterly false impression. Inside, the once elegant rooms had been subdivided into a warren of dingy hotel rooms. Everything about the place was tawdry. The multiple staircases had flimsy banisters and threadbare carpets. The beds had sagging mattresses and quick-drying, bri-nylon sheets from the 1960s. To justify the description on the outside porch—“All Rooms En-Suite”—small washbasins had been randomly bracketed onto the bedroom walls, and ill-fitting folding plastic doors allowed access to rust-stained toilets and trickling showers in bathrooms the size of cupboards. Amit was puzzled why anyone would pay to stay here, and astonished that the hotel did thriving business. The explanation? It was near Paddington station and the Heathrow Express. Tourists and migrant workers on low budgets found it to be as cheap as it could get in central London. This was Amit’s place of work, and now his home.

He had not the heart to disclose any of this to his father. He wrote about places like Elveden Hall in Norfolk, where the last king of Punjab had lived. His father would like the Indian connection with England, and, of course, the country-house setting.

He had thought it would be easy to write home when he first came to London. He had read some of those prize-winning stories by young expatriate Indians who smoothly put pen to paper as soon as they got off the plane. They were usually headed for Oxford or Cambridge. They stayed in decent little boutique hotels when they came up to London to do research at the British Library. It seemed very easy for them to write. They described the gently gurgling commodes in their Bloomsbury digs, as they and their readers implicitly contrasted those marvels of English plumbing with the primitive arrangements in Indian villages—or the absence of any plumbing at all in Indian slums. And of course the notorious Indian defecation en plein air, that could be witnessed even from train windows. Yes, he could see how a simple description of an English water closet could work as a narrative device in the great Anglo-Indian scheme of things.

But it was not as easy as this for Amit. For starters, he had no long and complex genealogy to offer English and American readers. He only had his father—and he was not sure of his father’s veracity when it came to their paltry list of ancestors and relatives. A great-grandfather had set up the chemist’s shop to sell oils and ointments to the English memsahibs when they came up to Nainital to escape the heat of the plains, but that did not seem a noble endeavor. The people his father mentioned as special were professional contacts, like the pharmaceutical Parsee who had entertained him and other retail chemists that one time in Kolkata. That kind of thing. Not much to go on.

And his life in London did not provide promising material either. He was enrolled at Mercer College of London Metropolitan University, in a Master of Arts programme. As far as he could tell, there were about twenty like him starting out—and most of those were from China, Malaysia and Pakistan. The ones from Malaysia appeared to be writing dissertations showing that someone called Burgess, notwithstanding his claimed prowess as a music critic, had a tin ear for native Malaysians (Malay, Indian and Chinese alike—it made no difference) in his magnum opus, The Long Day Wanes. Well, what a surprise, Amit thought to himself. Such an easy target. The whole lot of them back then had racist outlooks of one sort or another—even the sainted Orwell. But then they did have something to write about.

His tutor was no help. He was middle-aged and disgruntled. He made it clear that he should have been at an Oxbridge college, or at least at Warwick or St Andrews, rather than in this third-rate, commercial operation that catered to foreign post-graduates with dubious credentials. When he heard Amit was from one of the Indian hill-stations he thought he had a bright idea. Write something on “The problematic impact of the former British presence on the literary scene in contemporary India,” he had advised, nodding (he thought wisely) with his half-moon glasses swinging intellectually (he thought) from a cord round his pink neck. Ah yes, that’s the ticket.

Amit had not seen him for six months since that meeting. He did go to the British Library three days a week. He had found a very useful set of note cards in the gift shop. They were reproductions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British paintings by artists like Tilly Kettle and Johan Zoffany and so on, portraying the British and Indians at ease with each other. William Palmer and his family with loyal servants, British grandees and Residents dressed up in Indian costumes, Indian princes offering homage to the Viceroy—that kind of thing. His father would like paintings like that. So he bought two boxes. With a dozen note cards in each box, and spacing his letters home out to write about once a month, he could stretch out the correspondence, illustrated with mutual respect between the Indian and English upper crusts, for his allotted two years. Yes, his father would be pleased.

Amit also discovered a surprising source of petty cash at the British Library. All readers had to leave their belongings in a large basement locker room before heading up to the various reading rooms. They left their coats, satchels, briefcases and so on in the lockers, and carried their papers and pencils and laptops in plastic bags so that wherever they were in the library the security guards could see what was inside. Each locker required a one-pound coin to lock, and the coin fell into a return slot when the locker was opened at the end of the day. Well, by that time many careless researchers were in a hurry to catch a bus or the tube before the evening rush hour. They hurriedly collected their belongings and, often enough, forgot their pound coins. Amit found that on most evenings, if he timed it right, he could collect five or six pounds or so.

His other regular port of call had become the Royal Geographical Society library. Describing for his father the walk across Hyde Park, passing right beside the statue of Victoria’s Albert, with the famous Royal Albert Hall hoving into view across Kensington Gore, had been a good passage in an early letter. He enjoyed the pleasant little library, with its book-lined alcoves and paneled walls. He told himself he was on the trail of an odd Englishman who had traveled overland by foot, train, camel and donkey from The Hague to Kolkata back in the 1930s. He had stayed on after 1947, picking up some cataloguing and translation work at the Survey of India branch office in Darjeeling. He had written some stories for Indian magazines, and fired off many indignant letters to the editor of The Statesman in Kolkata correcting bad grammar in its columns. Amit was hoping some Indian author somewhere had mentioned this eccentric English stayer-on. If so, he might be able to use him in his work. No one seemed to have heard of this fellow—but that might be even better. He could write something original in his dissertation. It was certainly a lead to pursue.

And he did enjoy the atmosphere at the Royal Geographic. He liked how most of the readers put down their pencils in the late morning and proceeded downstairs for what they called “elevenses.” If the weather was warm enough, the French doors of the small drawing room now serving as a canteen would be opened to the back garden. Kit Kat bars broken into two seemed de rigueur at this ceremony. He had no complaints about that—he liked his tea and chocolate biscuits. Tiffin, he would call it when he wrote this up in his dissertation—that might impress his clueless tutor. When the journals and books in the library were yielding nothing, he would wander downstairs and poke about in various corridors and basement rooms. There was a tabletop, plaster model of Everest with the route of the 1953 climb dotted out in red. There were faded wall maps tracing Scott’s deadly route back from the South Pole, with a sombre X marking the site of the noble sacrifice camp. Oh yes, that place was full of history. And that was good—he could tell his father about those kinds of things.

Yes, Amit did take pleasure in these aspects of his life in London, but he knew it was not the London that Indian writers should be describing. He was aware of failure. Disguising it was the challenge. The problem was that he had no useful contacts in literary circles. He went on occasion to public readings or book launches. He liked the free punch and canapés, but no one of importance approached him. He had gone to Cambridge (because it had to be incorporated into his letters), but all he managed to find were occasional academic presentations at the small South Asia library on Laundress Lane. Still, he thought, he might find Indian authors there, preferably some famous one who would notice him.

He usually sat at the back of the audience while young, well-connected writers perched nonchalantly on the edge of a desk at the front of the room, with one leg swinging back and forth confidently, as they talked about their narrative devices. They fulsomely acknowledged the great figures who were shaping their characters and plots when they happened to be in the audience. Every speaker was at ease. Everyone in the room would be able to talk about literature and history and culture as easily as if they were talking about cricket matches. Everyone, too, seemed to have a bottomless well of family members and relatives and acquaintances who spoke a dozen languages and had played prominent roles in English or Indian life. Ah yes, they had genealogies to spare. There has been many a sad train journey back to King’s Cross and his attic room at Wessex Gardens.

He had no genealogy—actual or literary—that he could make use of. He did not even remember his father speaking about his father except when mentioning the flourishing of the shop. His father had worked hard to keep the shop going, to be sure, but there was no romance in it, no story as far as he could see. How lucky all those other young Indians were to have interesting, far-flung, complex families. He did not even have a tragedy in his that might be useful. On one occasion, at a Laundress Lane event, he had witnessed an elderly British gent joking in Bengali and English with a student whose father had been the treasurer of the famous club in the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla. Oh how they enjoyed swapping yarns about that institution, about Rudyard Kipling on the stage, and so on. And their jolly train rides up there on the Himalayan Queen.

Amit and his father had gotten no further than the lobby of the Gaiety (it was now an exclusive officers’ club) when they had made the circuitous trip to Shimla from Nainital to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. His father was going to show him the glories of the town. That place still retained some of its traditional atmosphere, his father assured him. It was not swamped by cheap tourist traffic like Nainital. Amit had only dimly understood his father’s point on that birthday trip. Light eventually dawned on him in London, when he read in one of the glossy Sunday travel supplements that Nainital had become “the Blackpool of India.” Now he had some notion of his father’s sadness. It was hard to protect him though. For his part, he had not seen much difference between Nainital and Shimla. He and his father could not even get into the old Viceregal Lodge because some company catering to high-end tourists had booked it to entertain relevant, bribable officials of the Himachal Pradesh government. He and his father had had to content themselves with the Shimla Town Hall, which he now thought looked like one of those fake-Tudor cafes on the northern end of Edgeware Road.

It was a big effort to keep up the English facade for his father. It required unremitting attention to detail. The visits to Cambridge helped him describe appropriate settings, and then he could sketch in some characters from the people he saw at lectures and book launches to represent his Cambridge tutor and professors. The British Library note cards had been a stroke of genius—they had become the bedrock upon which his loving hoax was built. Over time the corroborating details began to come more easily. When he took the train down to Cambridge, he would leave enough time to go to the Old Curiosity Tea Shop just off Market Square. There he would order a pot of tea (Darjeeling) and a scone, and sometimes a Victoria Sponge Cake, if he had two weeks of British Library earnings to hand. He was then able to describe for his father—with a considerable degree of authenticity, he thought—a traditional English tearoom: its crisp white linen table cloths, neat floral centrepieces, three-tiered cake stands, cubed sugar with tongs in silver dishes, pats of butter, heavy silver knives, Royal Worcester side plates. And its typical characters: fine-boned women in calf-length skirts, tailored jackets and laced shoes, and men with their Harris Tweed jackets, old boys’ ties, and a military air about them. And the so-polite, hushed murmur of conversation. He was sure these scenes went down very well in the letters.

In one letter, he was able to contrast such scenes (to the delight of his father, he hoped) with the dingy public rooms of the Indian embassy in Mayfair. He had gone there for the launch of a book of poetry by a woman called Vanessa Sengupta. She was of mixed Indian and English heritage, and had written a long narrative poem intertwining the stories of the holy Ganges and the history-steeped Thames. Two rivers with rich impacts on their respective cultures, you see. The lecture hall had been ill-lit, with red plush curtains rusted by dirt, and the chairs sticky at the edges, with fake gold paint peeling off their backs. The sad state of the embassy rooms could be blamed on all those time-serving, corrupt government-wallahs who overstaffed the lower reaches of the Indian public services. His father could associate this dereliction with the unpleasing crowds that turned up in Nainital from Delhi. And of course he could slip in lines of praise for that writer Narayan, one of his father’s favorites, whose meticulous prose and well-crafted plots could be contrasted with the clumsy and far-fetched comparison of the Ganges and the Thames. That would show what he was learning at Cambridge, too.

Still, he had to get ahead somehow or he might even be kicked out of Mercer College. His father’s funds would run out by the end of his second year, but he had seen on the departmental notice board an announcement of a new scholarship competition for three years of study at Gonville & Caius College. That was at Cambridge. That would solve many problems for him—yes indeed! The money had been put up by a great Manchester chutney magnate whose Parsee father had come to England in the 1920s. Sir Ardeshir Geejeeshah now sat as a Labour peer in the House of Lords, and was keen, among other acts of philanthropy, to improve relations between India and England. It all sounded most promising. This was a real opportunity for him to extend his stay. He could keep up the correspondence with his father. He would be able to enrol in a Cambridge college. If he became a famous author his father would get over the disappointment about him not carrying on the chemist’s shop. He had been playing a loving but false game. But now, if he won the Chutney scholarship, things would turn out right.

But what could he say about himself? What could he write about in the scholarship application? One day, a solution presented itself out of the blue. For Amit, as for many other penurious foreigners, the parks of central London were a wonderful free treat. On long Sundays, when the Royal Geographic Society and the British Library were closed, Amit would, if the weather was fine, walk in the parks. There was always the chance, too, of seeing things that could be worked into his letters home. The haughty, occasionally scarlet-clad riders trotting their expensive-looking horses along Rotten Row in Hyde Park were a sure winner when it came to describing typical English scenes. If one left out the pale, bulging-bellied Englishmen lolling in deck chairs with handkerchiefs knotted at four corners protecting their bald heads from the sun, and the empty beer cans scattered about them on the grass, the scene could be nicely embroidered to evoke a picture of the traditional ways set in the very centre of contemporary London.

It was in Regent’s Park that the idea came. Enjoying a longer-than-usual walk on a warm spring day, with the snow gone and the first daffodils opening, he was returning from the zoo-end of the park when he stopped at a large drinking fountain. He had passed it before but had never stopped to examine it. To be honest, he thought it was rather ugly—an ill-proportioned Victorian mishmash of different types of stone. He thought it had been abandoned, and had not appreciated at all that this monstrous fountain was a memorial of some sort. But there it was—an inscription with these grateful words:

 

this fountain erected by the metropolitan drinking fountain and cattle trough association was the gift of

sir cowasjee jehangir

a wealthy parsee gentleman of bombay

as a token of gratitude to the people of england

for the protection enjoyed by him and his parsee

fellow countrymen under british rule in india

inaugurated by

hrh. princess mary, duchess of teck, 1869

 

Well, that was a discovery for the books. His first thought was that this Regent’s Park drinking fountain would be a wonderful subject for one of his letters home. The Parsis had done pretty well under the British—pretty well under anyone who ruled India for that matter. His father admired the Parsis, and he had met that wealthy one at the conference in Kolkata. Yes, it would be a good topic for a letter.

But then a wonderful idea popped into his head. He could use this extraordinary paean to British rule in India in his application for the Chutney scholarship. The application required a five-hundred-word description of a project which would “reference the historical connections between India and England, and engage with the current connections in the new age of globalisation.” Well, there it was, staring him in the face! He bet himself that no one on the panel of scholarship judges knew about this absurd drinking fountain erected more than 150 years ago, even though it was smack in the middle of the world-renowned Regent’s Park. No one bothered to stop and study the inscription as he had done. None of the families heading for the zoo, or the pram-pushing mums, or the teenage skateboarders, took a moment to examine the peculiar period piece. If any of them did stop to read the inscription, they would only laugh at the outmoded sentiments of the obsequious Sir Cowasjee. But he knew at least one person out of a billion Indians who would not have scoffed. His father would have paused, and nodded his head appreciatively.

When he got back to the Braemar cubbyhole, he used the hotel computer to get more information on Sir Cowasjee. And eureka! There it was, better than he could ever have hoped for. Sir Cowasjee had been called, and had then taken as his name, “Readymoney.” It was hard to believe, but it was true. From a humble tally-clerk in a godown he had become one of the richest merchants in the opium trade with China. When the East India Company needed cash they turned to him for help—and so he became Readymoney. Well, that fitted beautifully with the contemporary age of globalisation, did it not? The English had turned to Indians back then, now they turned to Americans, Chinese and Russians—so “ready money” in global culture could be a theme in his application for the scholarship. It was perfect.

He even had a title for the project he would enter in the competition that was sure to catch the attention of the judges. He would trace the views of Sir Cowasjee and similarly minded Indians. He would show how they surfaced, in fledgling form, in modern Indian writing—even in sub-genres like letters to the editor of The Statesman. He would cite the works of William Dalrymple to confirm the intimate congress between Indian and British cultures. He must get to work at the British Library to bring all this together. He would write a letter to his father this very evening and tell him all about it. And, of course, about his delayed enrolment at Cambridge.

He would call it: “Dorothy’s Seat, or the Hidden Stream of Anglophilia in Modern Indian Writing.” Yes, his father would like that.

ABOUT THE STORY Gordon Stewart’s ingeniously constructed story is about the nature of civilisation, and about the lasting imprint left by one culture—in this case the British in India—on the imagination of another.

The protagonist, an elderly, courtly chemist in Nainital, has never been to England, but lives as an Englishman in India, one somehow both pathetic and dignified, as if elevated above his milieu by his anachronistic adherence to the ideals of a distant civilisation. His alienation from Indian society allows him to perceive the banality of the lives of the nouveau riche, while his Anglophilia, almost like a faith, gives him a peculiar stability. He has raised enough money to send his son to university in—where else?—England, and loves nothing so much as the young man’s highly detailed monthly letters, describing the landscape and manners of that country he so admires.

But is young Amit really living in an England as poised, as graceful, as self-assured as his father imagines? Or does he match fiction with fiction, supplying a vision that he knows will interlock with that so deeply rooted in his father’s mind? Stewart’s story is both a tender elucidation of a father–son relationship (one in which a generational gap is replaced by a civilisational divide) and an ingenious send-up of many other kinds of masquerade and affectation, including those in art and academia, that operate around the memory of colonialism in the twenty-first century.

 

IT WAS THOSE BLASTED BINGO SESSIONS that were the final straw. The lobby of the Hanuman Grand Hotel, once a gracious establishment, was now chock-a-block with rowdy weekenders from Delhi. Clumps of raucous holidaymakers were sprawled over the lobby’s sofas and chairs, and squatting amidst their luggage on the threadbare imitation-Persian carpets, shouting out numbers, guzzling their sodas, grinning maniacally. They were amusing themselves while waiting for a hired bus to take them back to the railway station at Kathgodam. Nainital was getting to be as bad as the crowded beach resort of Puri—a pilgrimage town now desecrated by trainloads of visitors seeking cheap hotels and holiday thrills. Bingo in Nainital—he never dreamed it could come to this.

Mr Banerjee pushed his coffee cup away from the edge of the low, tiger-clawed table and strode disdainfully out of the lobby of the Hanuman Grand. He headed downhill to his shop on Mall Road. Even after all these years he enjoyed looking up at the old-fashioned sign with red letters on a light-brown background: “Banerjee & Sons. Dispensing Chemists.” He was still going strong, and so was the shop. It had been started by his grandfather, and here it was still in business.

How could they do this to his beloved Nainital? Were these wretched bingo players as ignorant of Hindu mythology as the dribbles of harassed package tourists who straggled into his shop to buy diarrhea remedies or batteries for their cameras? They too seemed unaware of their surroundings. No one, Indian or foreigner, had any reverence anymore for the sacred lake, shaped exactly like the eye of a goddess. When the charred body of Parvati was being carried across the skies by Lord Shiva, parts of the goddess had fallen to earth. Her eye had fallen on this very spot. That was why the lake was shaped like it was. That was the wondrous story of its origins.

There it lay, just down the street from his shop, a watery jewel wedged into the final fold of the Himalayan foothills. The lake was cradled by these heights, poised delicately between them, as if about to be poured over the narrow containing cusp of land at its outlet onto the plains below. But these ignoramuses spilling out of the Railway Colony next to Delhi Cantonment station seemed utterly oblivious as they sank into the joys of bingo.

They had bought cheap, weekend return tickets, crowded themselves into the iron-barred carriages of the Ranikhet Express at Old Delhi station, and debouched, sweaty and tired, onto the platform at Kathgodam, where the Ranikhet Express terminated. Ranikhet itself remained stranded sixty or so miles further up in the hills. He detested those half-educated European tourists, waiting for the onward bus service, who tittered smugly among themselves at this example of Indian mystical illogicality—naming a train after a destination that it never reached.

Did Englishmen not wear waistcoats or ties or proper hats any more? And those women tourists bulging out of their ill-fitting clothes! What had become of the world, Mr Banerjee muttered to himself as he put his Monday-morning key into the shop door. He took a sidelong glance at the pleasing reflection, in a sliver of the display window, of his Fedora-clad head and his twirled mustache. He had a fine bearing still, in spite of his age. He was a presence that made heads turn in the street. He would even go so far as to say he had become, over the years, something of a local institution. Yes, assuredly so.

Nainital had once been a quiet, respectable town. Perhaps a bit staid, he would concede, but that went splendidly with the sublime natural surroundings. That calm atmosphere had been part of the old-world charm of the place. When he had been fitter, he used to walk up to the viewpoint at Dorothy’s Seat, with its pleasing views from the Ayaretta hillside back over the lake to China Peak. He had always taken immense pleasure in that walk. The mountain lane wended its way past latticed bungalows tucked into Ayaretta’s forested slopes. He took pleasure in the names their former owners had given them—Langdale Lodge, Grasmere Point, Cotswold Edge, and so forth. He liked that such names had been retained. The names had reminded the English of home. For him, the names conjured up the timeless landscapes of England. He hoped Amit might be visiting some of those very places right now.

And now look at the place. Plastic bags littered the ground round the cable-car station, where tourists gathered to be taken up to the ridge at China Peak, where they stuffed themselves with over-spiced chanachur, eaten out of paper cones, and gawked towards Tibet. The lake itself was so polluted that few fish could survive its oxygen-less waters. They were steadily dying. The local authorities were trying, he had to admit that. There was nowadays an annual clean-up day, held on the anniversary of the great landslide disaster of 1881. But the litter just accumulated again over the rest of the year. He pulled his stout frame erect, put on his white work coat—crisp-starched and fresh, back from the dhobi’s weekend work—with his name elegantly embroidered in thick red thread over the left breast pocket. He touched, as he did every day just before opening to the public, the little pyramid of Yardley soaps on the polished wooden countertop. This habitual gesture was accompanied by a mournful shake of his head. What had happened to Parvati’s perfect eye?

He would have to give up the Hanuman Grand coffee shop and find somewhere better. When he had first gone there twenty years ago or so, the staff and the premises had been first-rate. Now the doorkeepers were surly and their turbaned uniforms dirty—washed, his well-informed dhobitold him, only once every six months. To his eyes they did not look as if they had ever been washed. He was sympathetic to be sure—why on earth should they scrape and bow to those bingo louts from Delhi? But still…

The coffee shop had once been solidly furnished, like the richly comfortable room he had been enchanted by on his visit to the Bengal Club in Calcutta. He had been down in the city attending an all-India conference on the retail pricing of generic pharmaceuticals. One of the titans of the industry, a Parsee gentleman from Bombay, had singled him out to have a scotch with in the club library. Yes, that had indeed been a gracious gesture. But now the coffee shop was all red plastic chairs and wobbly matching tables. That was one reason he had retired with his coffee to the lobby, only to find himself this morning in that sea of noisy trippers.

When friends asked him for advice on where to stay in Nainital he steered them away from the shabby glitz of the Hanuman Grand. His recommendation was now the Naini Repose. That was more like it. The old days were still redolent there. Perched halfway up the Arayetta hillside, with fine views to the north, it had been the summer residence of the Maharaja of Bharatpur. The entrance hallway and the dining room were decorated with neatly hung eighteenth-century French prints. There were delightful scenes of Pondicherry and Chandernagore. And, above the corner table he liked so much, several Watteau-esque views of the gardens of Versailles (or was it Fontainebleau?). A delightful, civilised place. But too steep and distant a ramble for him these days.

He had found a handsome illustrated history of the French and English companies in eighteenth-century India at the Oxford Bookshop on Park Street in Calcutta—The Honourable Company and its Gallic Rival, edited by Dipesh Chatterjee and Graeme Rivard. Perhaps that tome would contain the answer to the puzzle of Versailles or Fontainebleau. He could certainly check to see if those prints were mentioned. Now, that was a proper bookshop for readers like him. None of the trashy paperbacks jumbled along the shelves of the bookstalls at Kathgodam station. Or even—he could still recall his dismay—the lurid, almost pornographic offerings in the alleyways off Connaught Circle, in the very heart of Delhi. No, a good, old-fashioned bookshop with wooden shelves neatly lined with PG Wodehouse and RK Narayan. He was not one to argue that Wodehouse wrote the most perfect English—he was sure Narayan won that honour. Besides, Narayan’s plots were undoubtedly more interesting for Indian readers, and especially intriguing for a northerner like himself. But still, both Wodehouse and Narayan were a cut above all these modern writers who used deliberately impenetrable plots, deployed bad language at the drop of a hat, and paid no attention to the rules of grammar and syntax.

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Gordon Stewart is a Scottish writer and historian living in Michigan. He is the author of several books, including two sets on the subcontinent—Jute & Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire,and Journeys to Empire: Enlightenment, Imperialism and the British Encounter with Tibet 1774-1904.

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