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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.