Of affaires d’amour and princely intrigues

Firmly intertwining the personal with political history, this brilliant novel’s strength lies in Keki Nusserwanji Daruwalla’s trademark wit and underscored humour, effortlessly flowing prose, and a trenchant grasp of the historic events that are accorded an unconventional treatment. It’s not a mere family saga, says KALYANEE RAJAN

Ancestral Affairs

Author- Keki N Daruwalla

Publisher- Fourth Estate, Rs499

After several volumes of poetry and collections of short stories, Sahitya Akademi and Padma Shree awardee Keki Nusserwanji Daruwalla returns for his delightful second novel Ancestral Affairs, set against the backdrop of the accession dilemmas of the erstwhile princely States at the time of Independence. Daruwalla’s debut novel For Pepper and Christ too was set in a precise historic period of the 15th century, dealing with the fascinating explorations of Vasco Da Gama, and the exciting twin-quests for spices and furthering Christianity. While the first novel took about a decade to be produced and was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Ancestral Affairs — which draws from several personal experiences of the author — took him just about three to four years.

T330_11196_Untitled-5Narrated alternatively by Saam Bharucha and his son Rohinton, and spread over 11 distinct parts, the author’s vivid memories of his own childhood spent at Junagadh find ample expression in the novel, with Saam’s brief stint at Junagadh as the advisor to the Nawab, Mahabat Khanji, being the springboard for action which transforms the lives of the Father and the Son. Curiously called “The Law Member of the State Council”, Lawyer Saam travels to Junagadh, “the only Muslim State in a sea of Hindu principalities”, leaving behind his thus far thoroughly Parsi life, and wife Zarine in Bombay. Unlike other Parsi writers, especially Rohinton and Cyrus Mistry, whose names strike the reader immediately as one reads the name of Saam’s son Rohinton on the front flap of the crisp and modestly-sized novel by Daruwalla, the Parsi identity/culture is unselfconsciously embedded into the larger fabric of the narrative.

The novel begins with a detailed and humorous description of a Parsi dish made of dry duck called “sukkaboomla”, before moving on to a stark-eyed description of the begums of the Nawab three pages later — “They are in dreamland, the begums, floating on a magic rug, unaware when the carpet will be pulled from under their delicately hennaed feet.” Daruwalla’s flawless diction aptly records the royal resonance of the Nawabs in the voice of the Parsi tutor to the prince — “…I mean the whole jingbang lot with their flamboyant turbans, their gun salutes and their absurd titles — Farzand-i-khas and Daulat-i-Inglishia…their sonorous titles, with liveried mace-carrying heralds, if not halberdiers, announcing their bombastic honorifics?” A shady pamphlet in circulation completes the picture: The Nawab partaking “a diet of the tongues of sparrows” to add to his virility, the many scandalous affairs of the harem, and brief sketches of the who’s who of Junagadh.

Saam meets the British trader couple Syd Barnes and Claire, who becomes Saam’s lover soon after Syd’s death. This leads to a breakdown of his marriage with Zarine consequently whetting his son’s anger towards him, who notes rather acerbically “the male primate decid(ing) to go for white flesh”. One is also reminded of Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, a marvellous novel dealing with breakdown of families in times of political turbulence, in that case the Apartheid, and the son’s lingering scorn for his father’s adultery, gradually transmuting into a better recognition of the circumstances.

Daruwalla infuses the narrative of Rohinton with just the right amount of spicy sharpness, clearly differentiating between the two narrative voices. Rohinton’s utter irreverence and roguish spirit shuttles him from one place and job to another, from clinically messing up a defamation trial: “I couldn’t hold myself. It was the kind of feeling you get when your bladder is full after a booze beat up and you rush to the Men’s. I stood up. ‘Your Honour, I never called Mr Chatterjee a ‘do paise ka admi’. I called him a ‘char paise ka admi’”, penning poems like “an angel have no underwear/because he have no hormone”, to working for a yellow rag and so on. As with Saam, readers can easily side with equally likeable Rohin, his outrageous pranks as a student who is thrown out of medical college due to a tragi-comic episode of taking illicit hooch on a dry day that results in his friend and classmate Dam’s death. The subsequent failed affair with the love of his life Feroza spins into a surprising direction as she is married to him after becoming a widow, in a baffling semblance to his father’s own affaire d’amour.

Daruwalla the poet par excellence flashes briefly, like in Saam’s encounter with a Turkish pasha Suleyman Yelmaz, and “the poetry in the man”, the longish digression ending with “a bird drift of quail, a fall of falcons”. His acute descriptions of various households and locales, both Indian and British are also remarkable. Saam’s cricketing analogies are immaculate, providing another perspective to the political drama: Meeting his estranged wife after the Jamshedi Navroz, he ponders about his rather precarious situation “I was in a no-man’s land, batting on a bad wicket, with fast bowlers aiming for my midriff, and she was talking of flowers!” Daruwalla also manages to sneak in contemporary references like TV News show host Arnab Goswami’s infamous “the nation wants to know”, the controversial dance bars, and sleazy contracts between dubious swamys and exotic women.

Firmly intertwining personal with political history, as reflected by the ingenious wordplay of the title, the novel provides authentic accounts of Parsi history, references to the Tower of Silence, elaborate Parsi family ties and a general intolerance for failure, and family feuds over trivial matters blown out of proportion: Stories mostly dug out through various ageing relatives by Rohinton who feels the “need to say something about my ancestors”, after his misadventures at Lawrence college. Many amusing Parsi phrases pepper the narrative, like “aprithonagafatijaye, my posterior would be ripped apart”.

A quick turn of events with references to Vallabhbhai Patel, his aide VP Menon’s visit to pave the way for Junagadh’s accession to India, a damp squib of a villain in the cousin Neil “Blackthorn”, neatly packed off after his failed attempts to hijack Claire’s lucrative shipping business, the fleeing Nawab with his begums and hounds, Claire’s sudden return to London in the face of a transformed “Nehruvian India”, and Gandhi’s death barely mentioned, the novel races ahead to encapsulate the story of the son, equally exciting, complete with a disappeared bride and an abrupt reconciliation with feuding branches of the extended family. A careful reader will spot a few typographical errors in numbering of the various sections. The novel steers clear from being a mere “family saga” and is unlike the usual pre/independence narratives with a generous sprinkling of patriotism and tragic lives of larger-than-life heroes. Its strength lies in the author’s trademark wit and underscored humour, effortlessly flowing prose, and a trenchant grasp of the historic events that are accorded an unconventional treatment.

The reviewer teaches English Literature at a DU college