Then there are those India-philes who also like to experience India as seen through the eyes of foreign authors.
Some men cut their teeth as cub scouts on Rudyard Kipling’s tales of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves in an Indian Jungle (which have since been dumbed down by the Disney corporation in the Jungle Book animated movies). Some lived in an age when teachers still read stories to their charges and were enthralled with the exploits of Kipling’s Rikki Tickie Tavi, the snake killing mongoose, or Toomai of the Elephants. These kids probably became the juvenile India-philes wishing that they were just a little bit like Kim and desperate to traverse the plains, boat the Ganges, ride into the hill stations and adventure in the Himalayan peaks. A lot of them did this in their young adulthoods: trekking Nepal, house boating in Kashmir, ashram-ing with gurus, bathing in holy rivers and becoming temporary Hindus while romance and idealism still ran rampant in their veins.
Some India-philes obsess on the stories that have their roots embedded in the British Imperial Raj, imagining themselves as sahibs and memsahibs, who were attended by obsequious servants called something like Gunga Din. For them the sprawling adventure-cum-romance novels of M M Kaye were addictive, particularly the first, The Far Pavilions, which is hailed as a masterpiece of storytelling and follows the 19th century exploits of an officer of the Raj who, a bit like Kim is brought up as a Hindu and who is ‘rescued’ and made British again. As an officer he falls in love with a Mogul princess and the intrigues begin.
But it wasn’t all pro British Empire, and paternalistic attitudes towards India and its people. The follies of Empire are powerfully dealt with in J G Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, which were set in different parts of the Empire on which the sun never set. The novel about the British in India during the Great Mutiny of 1857, The Siege of Krishnapur, was another Booker Prize winner. It’s about the brutal and blundering attitudes of the British towards the indigenous population
The arrogant superiorities of the Raj in the lead up to Indian Independence were elegantly portrayed in E M Forster’s, A Passage to India, which is always included in the top 100 of the all time best English language novel compilations. The book, through the tale of an alleged rape of an English woman by an Indian in the 1920s, emphasizes the racial tensions and prejudices between Indians and British colonialists in the early 20th century. It’s also a brilliant movie.
Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels are in the same vein. The first in the series, The Jewel in the Crown, almost rewrites Forster’s novel and the others follow on until India is partitioned and the British leave with their tails between their legs. My particular favorite is the third, Towers of Silence, which deals with the decline of British influence up to the end of World War II.
A follow up is Scott’s Booker prize winning novel, Staying On, which deals with those Brits who, after a lifetime in India, couldn’t face the prospect of returning to a dreary post-war England, or who just couldn’t afford to, and who settled for tenuous old age in a hill station, based on colonial Mussoorie or Darjeeling.
All of Scott’s Indian works have been adapted into outstanding TV series.
For more information on Bookworm go to bookwormhanoi.com. Besides their original store on Chau Long, Bookworm have a second, smaller shop in Nghi Tam Village in the West Lake area. Located behind the Sheraton and in the same alley as VilaTom Coffee, it can be found at Lane 1/28 Au Co, Lang Nghi Tam, Tay Ho