Book review

Can a formula romance in the Raj era have anything to do with colonialism or Bollywood (or both)?

Read Alice Perrin’s melodramatic love triangle with Britain’s colonisation of India as its backdrop. It will make you wonder about some things.

“India was to blame for everything.”

Here’s a Bollywood romance, set in the British Raj. You may go ahead and picture Amrish Puri as a pompous, antagonising old husband, married to perhaps a young, naïve, and unwitting Dimple Kapadia. And then to complete the eternal and absolutely necessary triangle, you may add an equally young Feroze Khan as the lustful and good-natured lover.

The only problem: these are white people, and they are in India only as a part of Britain’s colonising mission. Regardless of this minor setback, however, the characters in Alice Perrin’s Star of India are as flamboyant and as flat, at times, as those in any mainstream Hindi film.

The quote above is the realisation reached by the young (rather too young) protagonist, Stella Crayfield. Stella, in all her eagerness to experience the exoticism, sensuality, and goodness that is India (to her), agrees to marry a man thrice her age so that she may travel to India as his wife. Soon, however, Stella comes to learn of all the meanings of all the things: husband, marriage, servants, sahibs, ladies, India.

Amidst little tables full of tea and cupcakes, around a piano imported from Germany, across the pages of a romance starring the Raja George Thomas, and with loud dusty winds blowing outside, Stella Crayfield comes to confront the smallness that seems unquestionably to be her part in life and her part of life. Unlike the word she reminds us of, there is nothing stellar about this life. Nothing stellar except the windy, filmi passion ushered in by Philip Flint, Stella’s Feroze Khan.

Following the formula

Alice Perrin’s novel is arguably a good novel, which also goes to mean that arguably it is not. It presents an attractively uncomplicated, black and white foreground against a far more complex background. And that seems appreciable for an airport lounge read like this one. But the mounting simplicity of the plot, and its overall stance as a historical predecessor of the Mills & Boon romance, make a very good case also for abandoning it in said lounge. But this is only predictable: predictability is to blame for everything.

If you are the kind to be bored by formula, then you should know the formula of what happens to those bored by formula: they keep returning to the formula. Perrin’s novel very much follows a formula, a Victorian one, a gendered one. You know what is going to happen next, and you also know not to blame the blurb on the back that perhaps spoiled it for you, telling you in advance that Philip Flint appears to raise a storm in Stella’s teacup marriage. One realises how serious I was when I described this novel as the M&B love story’s relative.

The background must be discussed: India, and India as the background to Britain’s industry, Britain’s selfhood. Colonisation is given to us as a given, a rightly assumed truth, much like patriarchy is today. Far from being the ladder men use to climb to their zeniths, it is the ground on which those ladders stand. Perrin rightly describes colonialism, at one point, as a biological component, a current in the Briton’s bloodstream. What happens as a result of this normalised background of colonial violence is that we learn to see how it could be normal.

Alice Perrin
Alice Perrin

Ghosts of our past

The very norm, in fact, the very thing to aspire to: becoming a sahib, a colonel, a pucca gora. Learning that the lesser the natives understand you, the more they respect you. Perrin utilises an episode of dark violence to paint better her rosier foreground: Stella, roaming the ramparts of her plush house one night, confronts noises apparently being made by ghosts. Whose ghosts? The ghosts of the people murdered during the Mutiny, again apparently.

This rumour is confidently asserted by Stella’ neighbours and colleagues. Her sudden and sweeping horror at this truth, that countless (but also carefully counted) men, women, and children were killed as a part of her husband’s job, makes one wonder at Stella for a minute, and then for a much longer time at the truth of colonialisation.

Granted, what was happening in India was physically far, far away from what was happening in Britain, and that privileged people in both countries did not cease to use their privilege because one of these countries was torturing the other. But were people so complacent about colonisation that they preferred simply to look the other way as if it were a mere funeral procession they had encountered in a traffic jam? The answer is yes, and it would be sad if it wasn’t so understandable.

But interesting things happen to Stella herself, and to her husband and to her lover Philip Flint, things acutely representative of the Victorian-Indian way of thought, foreshadowing the moral, the lesson always, and the novel is worth reading for these interesting things and this morality which, if you think enough, can also become an interesting anachronism to study. And in any case, who said Mills & Boon romances are all that bad? So many people, you say? Well, this is not a Mills & Boon romance. It is a Mills & Boon roman. Give it a try, you might end up appreciating Bollywood more.

Star of India, Alice Perrin, Speaking Tiger Books.

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