by Andrew Ward ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1985
Fictional Balbeer Rao's autobiography is a picaresque novel, an old man's narrative of his boyhood search for his father. Putatively a translation from Hindustani into English by H.W. Cuthbertson, retired, of a manuscript given him by his table-servant Moonshi, it's very much a tale of the road, celebrating middle-class values and cleaned up for home consumption. Bom in 1858, the year after the Sepoy Rebellion, Balbeer Rao suffers the indignities heaped on his ex-princess, now prostitute mother, is beaten by other boys but protected (mysteriously) by Genda. His mother dies of TB; Balbeer and manservant Moonshi cremate her. Nanak Chand, the mother's lover, betrays the boy to Reverend Weems, who salts him away in his missionary orphanage but a cholera outbreak gives Balbeer sufficient reason to escape; he locates Moonshi, sets out for Harigarh, his mother's homeland. But one-eyed Baroo Singh intervenes, becomes the boy's patron, and Moonshi vanishes. Cholera catches our hero, who nearly dies, then settles in to a fanning life among the tenant farmers in Baroo's Bhondaripur. Baroo goes away; later, reports say he was hanged as a criminal. Balbeer learns the estates were willed to him, that he's the new landlord. He marries Ahalya and has a son, Mahabir. He's 15; Ahalya, 14. Then, having bribed his executioners, Baroo returns, takes Balbeer on the road again, this time initiates him into the sex-and-violence methods of the Thugs, ritualistic Hindustan highwaymen. Baroo overdoes it, murders a maharaja's little niece, gets his skull bashed in. Balbeer is left a wandering holy man, by disguise. Finally, Balbeer ends in Cawnpore, where he started--discovering his son in the very orphanage where he stayed so long, spiriting his wife away from an English soldiers' brothel. ""I'll tell you that in my fashion I abided by my wife and son, but what became of them thereafter is better left untold. . ."" Despite all the pretensions to authenticity, the book is written flat-out in American and comes in on the middle level every time: ""Brahmins aren't men of action or famous for aiding the fallen. Emergencies present them with a lot of knotty problems to straighten out."" Or: ""You really shouldn't smoke, maharaja. You just can't handle it."" No way to believe that all this took place 100 years ago, or indeed ever, and not one character has character in this carefully built hair-dryer epic. From Ruiner Godden to Ruth Jhabvala, from E.M. Forster to Paul Scott, there have been distinguished English novelists who have made Indian subjects important to us. Compared to their work, this book is a lazy-minded read for a rainy day in camp.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1985
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985
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