Poetic Justice

Devapriya Roy is the author, along with Saurav Jha, of The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat
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A political thriller that bears the quiet elegance of its erudition with remarkable lightness
Ancestral Affairs | Keki N Daruwalla | Fourth Estate | Pages 242 | Rs 499
‘Ancestors are a ghost wall; between their genes and their shadow, there could be a world in itself… Ancestors are a cave where boys shouldn’t enter. Set against our forefathers we’ll always be kids’

—Keki N Daruwalla in Ancestral Affairs

In the late 1990S, distinguished poet Keki N Daruwalla, now retired from his unlikely day job as the Additional Director, Research & Analysis Wing, was invited to deliver a keynote at a conference in Rajkot, where he encountered a curious literary category for the first time: Parsi fiction. Buoyed by the great writing and global successes of Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidhwa, Parsi fiction, it seemed, had become the subject of many theses and plenary sessions.

Cut to 2015. With Ancestral Affairs, 78-year-old Daruwalla has made a luminous contribution to this small but highly distinguished tradition. The Parsi novel is now richer, and his contribution to the subset enriches the whole.

It is 1947 and the Nawab of Junagadh is ‘in dreamland, the begums floating on a magic rug, unaware when the carpet will be pulled from under their delicately hennaed feet.’ On the advice of his sophisticated dewan, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the Nawab has decided to sign a treaty of accession in favour of Pakistan, even though Junagadh is surrounded on all sides by Indian territory and its population is mostly Hindu. Saam Bharucha, the protagonist, is the Law Member of the State Council, and sent from Bombay ‘to get… the Nawab Mahabat Khanji, out of dreamland and into the maw of reality’. But it is hardly as easy as it sounds. As the politics thickens, he finds himself falling in love with a British woman, Claire Barnes. (‘The parjats, the non-Parsees, figure in our imagination only when it comes to matters matrimonial,’ thinks Rohinton, Saam’s son, later on in the book. The obsession with the ‘parjat’ woman is a gentle thread running through much of Parsi fiction.)

Although the first act would suggest the novel, in spite of the title, is a taut political thriller, Ancestral Affairs takes readers by surprise and touches a different chord when a second irreverent voice intercedes—the mock-heroic but endearing voice of Rohinton Bharucha, the son. A lapsed medical student, Rohinton’s narrative begins in 1955, when Saam and his wife Zarine are divorced, and the shadows of Saam’s affair and Rohinton’s failure have cast a cloud upon their relationship. The indecorous voice of the son talks back at the father as the years go on and vicissitudes of fortune recast the family. From political thriller, the story achieves domestic realism and, ultimately, becomes a story of love affair(s) and marriage(s).

Like an old-fashioned trunk recovered from an attic, Daruwalla’s novel is full of trinkets that are unrelated to each other but together invent a logical narrative, by virtue of past associations. There are different stories that roll around: street sketches from Bombay, vignettes from a Georgian England alive in old aunts who serve cucumber sandwiches for tea. If the palace intrigues of Junagadh offer anecdotes from India’s past, Saam’s legal cases provide political metaphors for the future. The accounts of Saam’s grand uncle, Kavarana Kaka, server of nankhatai and tea with mint and lemongrass, and keeper of family anecdotes (and skeletons), are not only valuable for the stories alone but also because Daruwalla recreates the exact grammar of his hand- me-down Anglo-Parsi lingo:

‘Less than year, war start, Englis cannon make Chinese ports, boats, defences into kheema, mince. Chinese soldiers scatter like overturned dish of chicken fried, sala. Their navy turn to sweet and sour pork…’

‘Language, Kavarana Kaka, language,’ I said.

My only quibble is that sometimes the bracketed authorial interventions seem to be from a time much later than that indicated at the beginning of the chapter—most chapters offer something of this sort, ‘Father, 1950’ or ‘Son, 1961’. But that is a minor matter— and detracts only marginally from a novel that bears the quiet elegance of its erudition with remarkable lightness. Sometimes, the prose quickens into poetry: ‘the mild, amber wintry sunlight of a late afternoon. The light seemed to have a sound to it, the tinkle of stained glass.’ In the final analysis, Daruwalla the poet has perhaps provided these lines to describe the provenance of this novel as well.

(Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based writer)