BUNNY SURAIYA on her novel which is set in Calcutta at the turn of the decade, one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities of Asia
Hemingway, when asked the best way to get started on a writing project, famously said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence..”
That may be good advice for an autobiography, but not for fiction, which is not a whole lot of truth anyway. When I first sat down on day one to write my novel, Calcutta Exile, which was released recently, I found the starting very difficult. I had much of the plot in my head, but each time I tried to start, I found the first words far too tame, not engaging enough for a novel.
In advertising, if the headline doesn’t grab you, chances are you won’t go on to read the rest of the copy. Similarly with a novel; if the opening words have no oomph, your story is at a disadvantage, particularly with in-store book buyers, who often read the beginning before deciding whether or not to buy a book. Think of great opening lines: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were. And: Mother died yesterday, or maybe today, I can’t be sure. And: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Each of these openings arouses the reader’s interest, hooks them into the next sentence, and the next, and the next…
Striving for a similar effect, this is the way I opened my first chapter: Ayah’s name was Sohag Khatun, but she was never addressed as anything but Ayah by the Ryan family with whom she had worked for nineteen years, first as a nanny to the children, then as a highly-valued cook and general factotum.
The sentence establishes rather a lot: It introduces Ayah, one of the key characters in the novel, gives the name of the family who will be introduced in the next sentences, tells the reader about her domestic skills, and offers a time-frame which gives the reader some idea about Ayah’s likely age and the length of her relationship with her employers. It worked. I know this because most of the feedback I’ve received from people who’ve read the novel, included the words, “I just couldn’t put it down; I read it virtually in one go.”
A period piece, Calcutta Exile is set in Calcutta at the turn of the decade – from late 1959 to mid-1961 – when it was one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities of Asia. Indeed, the city itself, which even now evokes great nostalgia among those who lived there in the 60s and 70s – although many have left to live in other parts of India and the world – is one of the key characters in the novel.
Calcutta’s social and cultural mosaic included Indians (both Hindu and Muslim), the British and the Eurasians or Anglo-Indians as they were known, who belonged to neither community but claimed kinship with the English.
Central to the story is a typical middle-class Anglo-Indian family, the Ryans. The head of the family, Robert, is a senior executive at Barton Ferne & Co, a managing agency with connections to Britain and has dreams of going ‘home’ to England as soon as he can. His wife, the beautiful Grace, however, is unsure about leaving her comfortable life in India. Their two newly-adult daughters, Shirley and Paddy, are meanwhile discovering new emotions and relationships which will make them cross invisible but inflexible boundaries.
The Ryan household also includes Ayah and her husband Apurru, a middle-aged Muslim couple who are making their own plans for going home, to an East Pakistan that they have never seen; the country came into existence in 1947 when India became independent and was partitioned.
Karambir Singh, the young scion of an aristocratic Hindu family becomes involved with eighteen-year-old Paddy Ryan in a relationship which will put him at odds with the feudal legacy he has inherited.
At the managing agency where Robert Ryan works, his boss is a young Englishman, Peter Wilson. Both for him and his wife Alice – who lives the life of a lady of leisure while efficient servants run her house and take care of her children – the thought of going back to a bleak, post-war England is a less than welcome prospect. Neither of them can understand Robert Ryan’s obsession with going to live in Britain, a country he’s never visited.
Also working in the same agency house is Ronen Mookerjee, the anglicized misfit son of a barrister who belongs to the Bengali landed gentry. Having been forced into an arranged marriage with the manipulative Reela, Ronen also finds himself caught between two worlds.
Through their intertwining stories, set against the richly textured backdrop of Calcutta, the novel raises questions about individual and collective identities, the foremost among which is: Where’s home?
Readers often ask me if I wrote the book because I too am a Calcutta Exile, in the sense that I left Calcutta, my hometown, in the late 80s to move to Delhi. My response is an unqualified “No.” Simply because Calcutta had left me long before I left the city. It had changed from being my Calcutta to a different kind of Calcutta altogether. I believe this is true of all cities and their inhabitants. People who’ve been born and raised in say, Delhi or Bombay or Bangalore or London, and who’ve seen their surroundings change, must surely feel some sense of alienation from the city they’ve considered their home for three or four decades. Change is inevitable – and not at all a bad thing – but anyone who’s loved a city and seen it alter beyond recognition, will identify with the sense of loss that compelled me to write Calcutta Exile. My tribute to what was once my city.