Clash of Civilizations
Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug 2001
A Far Horizon, by Meira Chand, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, HK$ 194
Meira Chand could hardly have picked a more interesting setting for her seventh novel, which is partly based on real events. It is 1756, and Calcutta is poised on the brink of war between the nawab Siraj Uddaulah and the British, a struggle that would eventually lead to the establishment of the British Empire. Indian and British residents live in vastly differing parts of Calcutta, called Black town and White town, and regard each other with suspicion and prejudice. Chand’s narrative describes the events which led to the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, where a number of British residents-the exact number is disputed-were locked in a tiny prison and suffocated to death. A key figure is John Holwell, the Chief Magistrate of the city, a real character who wrote the only eyewitness account of the Black Hole. But the novel’s actual protagonist is the fictional Sati, a half-caste girl whose mixed blood allows her to enter both White and Black towns. Sati is believed to be possessed by the goddess Kali, and soon begins to attract a crowd of followers. Meanwhile, the nawab raises an army to wage war against the British. The Indian residents flee and the British, including Sati, are forced to take cover in Fort William.
Chand sketches a poignant picture of the horror and hysteria of a city under siege. She is especially fascinating when describing the strained, yet symbiotic relationship between the British residents and their Indian servants. When their Indian servants flee town, the British women are forced to walk about in negligees, having no one to do up their stays, and find themselves unable to make a cup of tea or even clean their own toilets. “They (the natives) have made us weak and vulnerable as newborns. They tend to both ends of us at the same time. The going in and coming out of us are dependent upon them. They keep us afloat in this heinous land!” exclaims one of the British residents bitterly. Holwell’s rapacious character is convincingly portrayed, with Chand inclining to the currently accepted view that his account of the Black Hole was probably exaggerated.
However, like so many other writers of Indian origin, Chand tends to overwrite and repeat herself, making her novel heavy going at times. Sati’s “amber” eyes are mentioned on virtually every page, and there are more than a dozen annoying references to the “ripening odours’ or “rotting stench” of Calcutta. Sati appears to be little more than a conduit for the goddess, and her personality never seems to take shape. Still, the compelling subject makes this a more gripping read than the usual subcontinental musings on arranged marriages and middle class morality.