At the age of 22, Ritwik Ghosh gets a chance that’s hard to come by: the chance to break with the past and start life anew. A scholarship to study literature in the UK is Ritwik’s ticket to escape the “possibility of never escaping” from the poverty of his life in Kolkata and the never-ending exploitation by relatives.
The chance to begin a fresh life is bolstered by the death of his parents, within a fortnight of each other. Their death brings for Ritwik a sense of freedom; a release from that “enormous burden of responsibility”. In any case, his own relationship with his mother has been tortured, even abusive (though it’s only in England that he becomes aware of the extent of the abuse).
But when the past is more than just a sequence of physical events and when the past is a series of experiences, it’s never quite that easy to escape it. And so, Ritwik’s sense of isolation and alienation as he hurtles ahead can only have disastrous consequences. To escape from his loneliness, Ritwik begins to write a book. Set at the turn of the 20th century in India, during Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal, his book is about Maud Gilby, an Englishwoman who lives in India with the aim of “enlightening native women”. By this time, Ritwik has taken up lodgings with an incontinent, decrepit and seemingly senile Englishwoman named Anne Cameron.
Like a master weaver, Neel Mukherjee spins a tale of interweaving warp and weft, moving backward and forward in time and place, between the Kolkata of Ritwik’s childhood, the Bengal of the 1900s and contemporary England in Past Continuous. The book easily shifts narrative as it ties up the threads of different tales, tossing in history, myth and collective memory (not to mention shades of the familiar with “Bimala’s autobiography” from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World) and drawing parallels within each narrative: between the isolation of Ritwik’s condition with the alienation of Maud Gilby. In Ritwik’s caring for Anne Cameron, where we see how he could have cared for his mother with a gentleness that was denied to him.
Past Continuous: Picador India, 543 pages, Rs495.
A structure can be a wonderful edifice, if it is built carefully. When it unfolds with complexity in a novel, it is that much more delightful. Past Continuous certainly doesn’t lack in ambition. But in the end, the structure seems to overwhelm the novel as the plot meanders about and many characters are left as half-drawn sketches (Ritwik’s father, for instance, has real potential; but we never really meet a fleshed-out character). Worse, convenient shorthand reinforces the most banal stereotypes: The son of a domineering mother has to be homosexual and we even have a gay priest in the fancy Don Bosco School run by Catholic brothers.
Many of the problems with the plot emerge in the later half. Mukherjee’s description of Ritwik’s life in Kolkata, in the first half, is real and gritty. The funeral of his mother, which sets off the “tyranny of memory”, Ritwik’s own fantasy world (where he makes up his father’s private ski resort in Austria) are real and poignant—as is his relationship with his mother, who believes that a sound education grounded in discipline (i.e. beatings) is the only way her elder son will succeed.
In the second half, events unfold with rapid momentum, as if Mukherjee suddenly realizes that his book has to willy-nilly reach a conclusion. So, in a series of rapid-fire developments we see Ritwik spiralling downward, first working illegally in a strawberry farm and then making ends meet as a male prostitute. Just as abruptly, he ends up as the paid lover of a shady West Asia arms dealer with a suite at The Dorchester (at this point, Mukherjee doesn’t even try to pretend to dress up the teeth-grating clichés). Is there redemption in this moral world through his own writing and through his own relationship with Anne Cameron?
Despite the flaws in this debut novel, I would put my money on Mukherjee. With a sterner editor, this writer, with his skill, imagination and ambition, can blossom. I’ll be waiting for his next book.
(Namita Bhandare writes the column Looking Glassin Mint every other Tuesday.)
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