The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A TWISTED CUE By Rohit Handa, Ravi Dayal, Rs 450

In spring of 1965, Lieutenant-Colonel Quintin Reginald “Mulkally” Oxley-Protheroe, an Anglo-Indian commanding officer, is out on a holiday in Kasauli. His purpose is to trace a lost part of his ancestry, an exercise which will also enable him to picture the “time when the course of history took a turn heralding the advent of white-man’s rule and the evolution of a Eurasian species”.

His purpose is only partly fulfilled. An epitaph in a derelict cemetery ascertains the real cause of the death of Captain Michael Protheroe, ancestor of Mulkally from his father’s side, but details about his mother’s side remains shrouded in mystery. In his “preposterously long, preposterously exotic” name, only “Mulkally” — the name of the village from which his mother hailed — preserves the memory of that dark, Tamil woman. She was supposed to have nursed Captain Protheroe when he sustained severe injuries quelling a rioting mob. Mulkally resolves to unravel her identity.

Mulkally’s sojourn then takes him to Delhi, where he meets Erica Green, a dazzling and beautiful young Anglo-Indian woman. Accompanying her to a tavern, Mulkally chances upon Narayani Mehra, with whom he had a romantic liaison when she nursed him in a hospital back in 1962. Narayani, now separated from her husband, stays with a friend. She has been proposed to by Kalman Farkas, a member of the American Embassy in India. But her meeting with Mulkally re-kindles her desire for him, and she agrees to spend a few days with him.

Their renewed romance is soon disrupted by a war between India and Pakistan, and Mulkally leaves for duty. Lack of correspondence leaves Narayani with no other option but to set out for America with Farkas. The end of the war leaves Mulkally a sorely disappointed man. A treaty between India and Pakistan somehow nullifies his strategic brilliance on the front, and he also loses Narayani in the process. He leaves for Australia and starts a tourism agency with an old acquaintance, but a horrible plane crash lands him in hospital. Here, fate brings to him a visit from Erica Green, who is in Australia on a journalistic assignment. Mulkally convalesces slowly. And here, the story takes a not-too-unpredictable turn.

Rohit Handa’s novel is one of endless wandering and full of ambiguities. Mulkally’s pursuit of his origins not only remains incomplete, the plot is also quite common, particularly the repetitions of the theme of nursing and falling in love with the nursed. In the end, both Mulkally and Erica realize that identities emerge out of the whims of history. It has many versions and subversions. While some are recorded in texts, some survive in the continuing pattern of life. Erica wants to share with Mulkally the “the dead weight of the past”, which provides no conclusive answer to “what is happening”. Isn’t this exactly what the author wants to share with his readers'

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