January 22, 2020
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Heat And Mush

A French sob story dehydrated by incredible, stilted dialogue

Heat And Mush
Edwina And Nehru
By Catherine Clement
Penguin India Rs:150;Pages:435
THIS is a work weighed down and defeated by its own pretensions. It claims to be an example of the French historical novel, a Gallic variation of what is otherwise known as faction. Perhaps it is, but if so it is an unsuccessful one. The theory behind it is that truth is much more than a collection of facts and that this extra non-factual truth is achieved by an intuitive and inventive use of the author's imagination. Alas, in this case the imagination has flagged and the evocative truth for which the author has tried so hard remains elusive.

What we have is a French sob story dehydrated by incredible, stilted dialogue with Nehru emerging as a weak, confused figure with a tendency to start sobbing whenever anything goes wrong. In one scene he "collapsed on his bed, his body racked by sobs". In others he continues to sob, lament and whine. "I am suffering too much, Dickie. If it is this to govern, if I have to become indifferent, I am incapable of it. Oh! If only that attempt on my life had been successful." This is his reaction to post-Partition riots and killings.

Mountbatten responds: "It will take time. There will still be deaths. But if we apply iron discipline and if each one does his duty, I don't have the least doubt we will win this fight." Possibly this is the French idea of how an English aristocrat speaks, but Dickie sounds more like a frustrated scoutmaster than anything else. Yet the author assures us that "most of the dialogues contain conversation that were actually said or written." Perhaps. But difficult to credit.

At the political level in this novel, if it can be called that, Nehru is constantly wringing his hands in despair and complaining of "nothing but darkness around us" while Mountbatten is pictured as the calm, pragmatic man-in-control central figure conjuring order out of chaos. Again perhaps. Better, however, to swallow that with more than a pinch of salt.

We are told that the French like nothing better than a passionate love story based on love at first sight. So we have Nehru and Edwina exchanging coy glances at every opportunity. Nehru at one point fixes his eyes on Mountbatten in silent adoration, and at another caresses Edwina's lips with his fingers and says, "You deserve better than Dickie". "When Nehru saw her, he gazed at her for a long time as though he wanted to pour his pain into her heart." Nehru is described as having a "warm and wonderful expression, a complexion of ivory" and "quivering passionate" lips.

All of which is appropriate to the conventional gushy love story set in a tropical Eastern country against the background of the turbulence of the Indian Partition. There is no trace of true passion or even verisimilitude in these barren, boring 435 pages. But French readers possibly find an exquisite touch in such sentences as "Edwina followed the path of Gandhi's soul, blissfully free and reduced to nothing". Things don't improve when the Indian brand of rhetorical gush is added to the French. "Let us move on to the stars" Sarojini calls, and assures us that "when the birds sing, when waters smile at the sight of the sun, when flowers blossom and young brides put flowers in their hair and children make garlands of them, and when you remember all those who have gone before I bid you arise from the grave".

There is a great deal of this sort of thing, presumably on the assumption that this is what the French reader expects from a passionate story about two people in love in tropical India. There are references to monsoons, Dussehra and a careful explanation of what a charpai is, as well as obligatory mention of a cobra rustling in the leaves. Clearly this assorted mush is intended for a downmarket French readership. What, then, is Penguin India thinking of to foist this ridiculous work on Indian readers? Is it another victim of the widespread belief that banalities about India from a western source in which people like Nehru are caricatured have value-added interest for Indians?

Nehru and Edwina were mature, intelligent and sophisticated people. It is not unusual in such cases to have a meeting of minds, a mutual responsiveness, an instinctive unspoken understanding of each other, and a rapport which are at the opposite end of the pole to the gushy, wordy, supposedly passionate relationship which this work offers as a so-called re-creation. They have been reduced to characters in a cheap romantic work, masquerading as a truth that transcends the historical facts. Obviously, the publishers hoped to rake it in on the strength of the book's title. But even as cheap romance, this poor example of faction falls flat.

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