By Suvanshkriti Singh
If all war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal, never has this symptom been more endlessly and finely dissected than in its manifestation as the Second World War. That catastrophe has attained a near-mythological status, all too evident in the still-buoyant publishing industry it has generated unto itself.
Among the newest offerings of this industry is a comedy of errors whose grand potential to be first-rate literary fiction is belied by its inept execution.
Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen begins with an exciting premise. The exigencies of war make unlikely co-habitants of three mutually mistrusting Indians called to the provincial railway town of Swindon in south-west England. Their individual and collective misadventures are the subject of Neil McCallum’s fourth novel under the nom de plume of Dwood Ali McCallum.
Vincent Rosario, Imtiaz Khan, and Dr Akaash Ray are as varied in their geographic roots and socio-economic classes as they are in their faith and ideological leanings. But, to their Swindonian neighbours and colleagues, as to their landlady at No. 23 Ashton Street, Sally Atkinson—the eponymous Mrs A—their common brownness and exoticism far overshadow these would-be glaring differences. The latter speaks to general wariness, what with ever-present threats of German bombings, of all things foreign, the former, to general ignorance of the affairs of the colony. At first, at least.
McCallum displays an incisive understanding of the psychology of subjugation and pride. Take, for instance, Khan’s guileless enthusiasm to impress the ‘natives’—it is a refreshing inversion to use the term to refer to the English—even as he fails to appreciate his companions’ anxieties about hostility from their Swindonian colleagues. A man of his status, in England on the express request of that pride of the English nation, the Great Western Railway itself, should fit right in, Khan believes.
Or, Rosario, used to a “lifetime of discreet sneers and studied slights”, finding the “blatant hostility” of his new colleagues “strangely reassuring”.
Equally comprehensive is McCallum’s grasp of the inner workings of small, if not always necessarily tight-knit, communities. If Khan’s string of semi-successful and not-so-secret romantic escapades highlights the elusiveness of anonymity in a town where everyone knows about the goings-on of everyone else’s life, Ray’s entanglements with the workers’ union and the larger socialist community explore the varying, and often competing, allegiances that underpin the love-hate relationships among its residents. And, Rosario’s unintentional accumulation of well-wishers whose loyalty transcends the morality of law subtly highlights the constantly shifting boundaries between the self and the other, especially in the backdrop of an impending crisis.
The greatest testament to McCallum’s literary skill, however, is the fullness with which the secondary characters of the novel are developed. From the quietly dangerous and distantly caring Ernie Norris of No. 21, a war veteran whose violence-loving ways are the stuff of unspoken urban legends, to the whip-smart and conscientious Cynthia Abbot, who is only beginning to discover the mismatch between the theory and practice of socialism, and the intimidating, principled Inspector Curtis of the Special Branch, whose scheming lands Ray into all sorts of trouble—Swindon has no dearth of colourful characters.
It is a shame, however, that this fullness of development does not extend to the Indian gentlemen. Even as Khan, Rosario, and Ray accumulate a not-insignificant richness of experience, they move through these with the same expressions and attitudes as they carried when they first arrived at Swindon. While McCallum reveals, in fragments, extensive details of each protagonist’s past, he can’t seem to make them come alive in the present. The lack of interiority in characters jars. At times, the characterisation even feels forced and caricatured, the latter aimed, perhaps, at disproving Occidental ideas of Indians as a uniform brown mass.
It doesn’t help that McCalllum’s prose, which relies rather heavily on descriptions, fails to create any atmosphere. Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen comes advertised as a comedy of political intrigues, but it neither builds the tension requisite for ensuring the pages are turned nor elicits much more than the odd chuckle. The flatness of the writing hardly spares a thought for the all-important task of setting a mood, relegating that job to a few unimaginatively chosen adjectives. And, even as the novel busies itself with describing action, the descriptions remain static, giving the appearance of hazy, underdeveloped snapshots more than a well-defined narrative.
One always wonders, when faced with an underwhelmingly average novel, what its author was hoping to achieve—not in terms of literary achievement, but those of literary contribution. Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen adds little to the wealth of fiction set in the backdrop of the Second World War, whether one is looking for intrigue, comedy, or indeed, emotion. It doesn’t add significantly to the literature on the immigrant experience. The novel does abound in its knowledge of railway systems, the Great Western Railways, and of the bureaucratic politics that governs institutions of its ilk, but those decidedly niche subjects provide only a feeble argument to recommend it. And, for those who turn to fiction for the decadent pleasures of prose, not even that.
Suvanshkriti Singh is a former journalist