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LOST IDENTITIES

The Gap-toothed Banister By Juliette Banerjee, Niyogi, Rs 395

The Anglo-Indian ethnicity is unique in the subcontinent and its contiguous areas in the sense that none of our neighbours are able to present a parallel ethos, neither in its prevalence nor in comparison to the rich subtext it has pinned to India’s way of life. It is also unique because, given that the community had its beginnings in the conjoining of the British rulers and a section of the people they ruled, it is equally irrefutable that such a phenomenon could not have been exclusive to just the India region. Yet there has been a collective disregard of the marked contribution of the members of this minority to the police and the military, the railways, to education and literature and sport and many other spheres. We who schooled and played and grew up with them and knew them well cannot be so blind to these associations.

All this creates, or should create, the prospect of focusing on how the dismissive attitude of the majority collides with the disenchantment of the minority; a task which should not be left just to the social scientist or the demographer; there is enough opportunity for a literary mind to apply the creative temper to shake the tree, as it were. Juliette Banerjee’s book, which is subtitled A Tale of Anglo-India, and any other book which, by placing itself in a specific milieu, commits itself to being more than just a story with characters and events, has to be judged in that light. Therefore, I wonder why the author had to use that subtitle, rather than just sticking to the quite inventive main one; this would have perhaps freed her from the need to examine the causes and effects of an often problematic interface, a not so easy task under the extant circumstances, if one is to be breathtakingly candid because we are dealing here not only with identity but also with ambivalence.

In a manner of speaking, The Gap-toothed Banister, however scrupulously and fondly told, grips the banister of the title firmly enough yet fails to negotiate the staircase. The narrative centres around a cluster of Anglo-Indian families living in close proximity, though not in very snug or friendly company. As a matter of fact there is a lot of negativity swirling around the group as it goes about its business of living, the men crabby and irritable at the way the city is behaving, the women looking forlornly Perth-wards, the youngsters looking for relationships and the main chance which is as elusive as ever.

Banerjee has just too many things to say and her own expansive way of saying it. She luxuriates in her own space. Apart from the help at home and hospital, the story has just three characters from outside the community, of whom only one has any sort of noticeable role to play in the narrative; the other two are props. Consequently, there is little chance of any exchanges that delineate the cultural divide, except in a few paragraphs towards the end where a Marwari socialite and her Anglo-Indian lover spar briefly on the subject of alienation with their mind really on other things.

But The Gap-toothed Banister is not a sleepy little tale. There is a rape and a murder, an instance of senseless and unexplained police brutality, an elopement, a jilting, the fiasco of a May Queen crowning gone wrong, assault and battery. There are strands of loneliness and longing and loss running through the book. After all this, the banality of the ending is anti-climactic and it appears that Banerjee is so exhausted by the events she has crafted that she decides to quietly quit her story. She is yet to become another I. Allan Sealy or a John Masters, but like them she has decided to get on with her story and let the interface take care of itself.