Vignettes is the English translation of Dristhipaat, a Bengali novel published first in 1946, penned by Binay Kumar Mukhopadhyay whose nom de plume, Jajabor, apparently means, as this reviewer found out, ‘a person whose status in society is lower than of a homeless’. The choice of pseudonym is intriguing because of what it means and an explanation of the term in English and the choice of this pen name would have been most welcome.
Vignettes is that rare account of recent history that brings into play an England-returned Bengali journalist protagonist with a fine sense of the momentous times he is living in laced with a biting sense of humour. Set in 1940s Delhi, this purported travelogue, according to the blurb, is supposedly a collation of letters written by the said journalist to a female friend with due editorial changes to maintain confidentiality. Spread over fourteen loosely-knit chapters the book opens with the arrival of the journalist Minisahib in New Delhi to cover Sir Stafford Cripps on his (in)famous mission to garner support for the British war efforts from the Indian political leaders of the day. His landing in the blistering heat of March at Willingdon airport, now Safdarjang Airport, sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Comparing his twin engine Douglas aircraft to the legendary Pushpak of the Puranas which ferried men to the heavens, the narrator remarks, ‘The final destination of modern aeroplanes are located on earth, but a lack of skill on the part of the charioteer (the pilot) may land its passengers at heaven’s door any moment’ (p. 9). His sense of wonder at the speed of air travel—only seven hours to reach Delhi from Calcutta—is offset by contrasting it to the unrivalled pleasure of travel by train with its commotion and companionship and compares it to ‘popping Vitamin C pills instead of savouring juicy oranges’ (p. 11).
His arrival and settling into Delhi life and the various trips around the capital and its environs are only loosely chronological. The narrative is more of a travel across not realy geographical spaces as much as historical, as the narrator intersperses his comments and description of contemporary Delhi with large asides on the various histories and myths that have left their mark on this cpital city, which had always been the capital in olden times except for the early British days. His excursion to Okhla and his return via Nizamuddin starts him off ruminating about the early Mughals and the Nizamuddin dargah. He effortlessly moves between the current sufi shrine and the tale of Muhammad bin Tughluq and the fakir Nizamuddin. References to Prithviraj Chauhan and Ashoka abound as well as of Aurangzeb. They are like short notes on historical figures and events of significance presented in a clear and succinct manner that is not dry and boring but bring to life the drama and melodrama of our past history!
If some chapters are devoted to history some others are sheer delight in their study of what is considered the rules of social drinking, as propagated by the great Adharkar who plays a major role in the book later on, ‘Who are coming? How many? If you want to kill in three rounds, then first serve rum-orange, then gin and lime. Finally, serve whiskey. For the ladies, you might serve brandy with ginger ale in between’(p. 57). Or that great drink—the cocktail! You only have to turn the pages of chapter five to get some fantastic ideas for mixing a Top Hat, a Rum Bruit or a Brooklyn! ‘Fill half a tumbler with pieces of ice, mix in one-quarter French vermouth and one-quarter dry gin. Stir it hard and then add two drops of bitters. It’s delicious’ (p. 59).
The narrator bemoans the shift from Calcutta to this New Delhi, the seat of Imperial British rule and hence the loosening of the Bengali hold over the colonial bureaucracy! Others have swelled their ranks in the upper echelons of the secretariat. ‘The Madrassis are foremost in the race for chair’ (p. 82). He has an opinion about everyone and is not afraid to speak his mind. He continues, ‘They (the Madrassis) work hard, speak little and shirk their duty very rarely’ (p. 82). But this is not unalloyed praise as he finds their frugality in clothing and food shocking! Their looks do not pass muster either though he condescends to like their grace! ‘Though most of the young girls seem to lack a great deal of charm in their looks, they possess elegance’(p. 82). But he is captivated by the veena! He doesn’t spare other regions either! ‘Punjabis are more than modern, they are ultra-modern’ (p. 83). While he opines that this is okay for the men, he is shocked by the women at the races, clubs and carnivals. ‘Before their weddings, they are willowy but later on, bloated’(p. 83). He castigates them for being European on the outside only and for not having internalized European culture, like the Bengalis had done…! He is also critical of the Bengalis themselves for not appreciating flowers enough and that they were to be found only at weddings and funerals. He contrasts this to the English whose middle class households even boast of vases of flowers. But his acidic comments do not spare them either. He terms the English indecent in their social behaviour in India because, ‘they don’t count the bystanders around them as human beings at all’ (p. 32) or ‘The word thankfulness is found in the language of the English, not really in their character’ (p. 45). He debates about the importance of English in India and while he admits its role in our access to the concept of nationalism he questions whether the ability to use it should be the yardstick to judge people’s intelligence! His take on various kinds of people, places, and particular issues such as women’s education and joint family systems are wonderfully incisive and acerbic.
While he takes these excursions into character analyses and historical footnotes, he follows the progress or lack of it of the Cripps mission. The initial enthusiasm followed by complete deception at the end is built up slowly through his moving around in elite political and social circles of Delhi presenting real historical figures of the national movement. It is of obvious interest to note that he attributes the failure of the mission to Churchill’s manoeuvrings to remove a potential rival for the post of the PM of Great Britain by ensuring that Cripps did not make any headway with his task. What later historians have said about this mission was clearly articulated in the 40s itself! ‘There are several ways to remove rivals in politics. Stalin finished them with bullets. Churchill checkmated them by diplomatic manoeuvres. Socialist Cripps, hand in hand with imperialist Tories, signed unawares his own death warrant in British politics’(p. 152).
Interweaving of history, politics, and travel writing is smooth and seamless. What does jar a little is the ending of the book dedicated to explaining the mystery of Mr. Adharkar’s soulful looks, the same one of the cocktail fame! The last two chapters deal with his dewy-eyed romance with a married woman and his eventual deception at the hands of the deceitful woman! This devdas narrative while gripping in its own way seems to have no rational connection to the rest of the text. The book could very well have ended with the departure of Cripps from India as it had started at his arrival. It is in contrast to what precedes and defies literary logic.
Vignettes is a delightful translation and credit must be given to the translator. We may question the use of Ms or the use of ‘homemaker’ in the 40s, or the use of ‘helluva’, to name but some, but the overall reading is humorous, thought-provoking, and brilliant. Good editorial intervention would have prevented awkward sentences and mainly bad page setting with incorrect spacing after punctuation marks. All in all, a book that draws us into a bygone world where some of our great moments of history happened, written in a style that fills us with laughter and makes us take a walk down history in the city where we live which seems to have changed a lot and at the same time seems completely familiar even in the 40s!
- Kamala is Professor at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.