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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Excerpt | The Communist Cookbook

Excerpt | The Communist Cookbook

Set in 1940s India, Sharmishtha Roy Chowdhury's debut novel is a riveting story of intrigue and espionage

Roy Chowdhury writes wittily about the adventures of foreigners in colonial India. Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getty ImagesPremium
Roy Chowdhury writes wittily about the adventures of foreigners in colonial India. Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Love in a warm climate

Deborah walked briskly among the trees, their thick branches interlocking over her head and blocking the sunlight. Soon, she had left the cottage quite far behind and the path sloped steeply downward. The walk back would be harder, all uphill. To her right, a rustling sound brought the first hint of danger. Her breath caught in her throat as she remembered all the warnings about revolutionaries and terrorists that her father and numerous other people had given her. In the middle distance, she thought she saw some movement, a flash of colour. Turning sharply, she called out, ‘Who’s there?’

Within the dark shadows of the fruit trees, a darker shadow moved towards her. A few minutes later, a young, slightly built Sikh man emerged, looking at her solemnly. He seemed about twenty-five or twenty-six, maybe even a bit older.

‘You have no reason to fear, miss,’ he said, in perfect English. He seemed completely assured, his confidence at odds with the situation. Didn’t he know that he could be arrested for being here? She had merely to raise an alarm and this man would be put away for many months in a dark, unlit Indian prison, the kind invoked by nannies to scare children into good behaviour. His word would count for nothing against hers. But this man simply nodded at her curtly before he disappeared again into the trees. He came out again, this time carrying some paints and an easel.

‘The Misses Burton allow me to use the grounds so that I can paint Mount Kanchenjunga. The view from here is magnificent.’ He gestured to a clearing.

‘You are an artist!’ In an exhalation of relief, Deborah stressed the last word.

‘We Sikhs can’t all be simple soldiers.’ Sarcasm hung heavily on his words. ‘So, yes, some of us are artists.’

‘Well, Mr . . . er.’ Deborah tried to recover some wit. ‘I really don’t care what you do in life.’ They both laughed, the ice broken for now.

If only Deborah could have guessed that out of such disjointed phrases would grow the love of her life.

The Communist Cookbook: Penguin Books India, 306 pages, 399
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The Communist Cookbook: Penguin Books India, 306 pages, 399

‘We are the Silonias of Silonia!’ Prime Minister Rajinder Singh shouted, shocked at what he thought was a demented announcement. ‘What will our people say? That my son, who we sent to England with so many hopes, is throwing away success for,’ his voice cracked with emotion, ‘for some colours and brushes?’ Satinder listened to his father in silence, but the Prime Minister could see that the boy was lost to reason. The following month, Sardar Rajinder Singh and his wife travelled to Simla along with Satinder and a retinue of servants to set up a home for the family artist. After all, if the boy wanted to paint, then he had to have a lifestyle suitable to the family’s status until he returned to his senses. However, within two months, Satinder was fed up of such an existence. On a grey, dark dawn in July, he packed his paints and some clothes into a bag, took some money from his mother’s box and left. A note informed his tearful parents not to worry about him. A train brought him to Siliguri. From there, he walked up to Kalimpong, and turned up one day at the Misses Burtons’ doorstep, offering his services as night watchman in exchange for the freedom to paint during the day. He had been with the Burton sisters for about four months.

On a dazzling, clear morning, Deborah asked Satinder about his decision to leave his career and his family. ‘Miss Sarah Burton does so like to tell my story,’ he smiled and continued to paint—not brilliantly, but with an eye for colour and detail. His beard and turban were surprisingly neat for an artist, Deborah noticed. Then, he looked at faraway Kanchenjunga, its snowy slopes burning with the bright colours of sunrise. ‘It’s not as romantic as she likes to believe. In fact, it is rather sad.

‘One day I was at the royal durbar, the court, when the Raja refused to pardon a young widowed woman the tax she owed the government. In fact, the Raja could not, because his own position depends on timely tax collection. If the revenues fell short, then the king might have been demoted from an eight-gun salute to a six-gun salute. Or something like that. And I stood there, reading out the telegram from Calcutta to His Majesty. And this woman, who had lost her husband, and who had been pregnant at the time of harvest and so could not collect the crops and pay the tax, she was going to lose her land and her meagre possessions—because Calcutta would not yield even a little bit. So for the sake of an eight-gun salute, this woman and her child were turned out into the streets of Pithampur to beg for a living.’ He stared into the distance. ‘I have not told Miss Burton this story,’ he added softly, adding a detail to his canvas, where Mount Kanchenjunga was slowly taking shape.

The sun came up and away from behind the great mountain. Its slopes were now a blush pink, like Deborah’s face. ‘I think,’ said the bane of the Sunderland family. ‘I think that I am in love with you.’ Satinder was silent for so long that she thought that he had not heard her.

‘I think that you had better go now, Miss Sunderland.’ Satinder picked up his brushes and paints, and began putting them away.

‘You are young,’ he continued. ‘And I have to live here.’

‘You’re young, too!’ she shot back. But Satinder merely smiled and shook his head. He did not escort her back to the edge of the orchard as was his usual habit. That evening, over dinner—a good meal of tender mutton and petit pois—Deborah heard from the elder Miss Burton that Satinder had left on a month’s leave.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India.

The Communist Cookbook is out in book stores.

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Published: 03 Aug 2013, 12:17 AM IST
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