Rudyard Kipling, one of the most prominent, pro-Empire poets in his poem Recessional (1897) warned the nation about the complacency of Imperialism.
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the law,
Lord of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – Lest we forget.
Britain set it’s sights on India in the 1800’s and it became one of the most recognized aspects of the British Empire. The Empire now is something that splits the for side, backed by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson type figures, and then those who believe it is a hypocritical, blood thirsty regime. The former camp try and preserve and go as far as arguing it still lives on.
Debut novelist Srikumar Sen, deals with this backdrop in his novel The Skinning Tree. Already published with some prestige by Picador India, after it won the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, open specifically to unsolicited novels, and now Alma have brought it to the UK.
Set in 1940’s Calcutta, and steeping that precarious line of autobiographical fiction. Sen is 81, and for some reason other reviewers are finding this a key point in their reviews to make. Indeed it Is not the norm for a debut, but Sen has clearly found reason to publish his first novel, because he has something to say (there is also an odd Youtube promotional video detailing the novel and Sen’s life if you’re into that sort of thing). He might also be a familiar name to some after working for the Guardian and The Times as a boxing correspondent.
It with a spoiler pf sorts“Murder was the plaything of us kids…Then one day it happened. Sister Man was found on the rocks below.” Nicely disorienting at first. You know that when Sister Man comes onto the scene her fate is secured. But Sen obviously sets it up as retrospect, and unfortunately means that after the first 9 pages, shrouded in sombre and moodiness settle into something a lot more innocent, taking the reader on a journey as to how Sabby got to that point. Shifting from the first person to the third, which creates an interesting detachment between Sabby’s old and new self from ‘the child that I was’ being ‘shaped by the forces the surround me’.
The environment in question is Calcutta, or ‘Cal’ referred by him and his friend Henry Douxsaint (a conspicuously non-Indian name). From here onwards, death exisentially overhangs the novel; there is the advances of the Japanese on Calcutta which is referred to loosely by Sabby, the remnants of the British Empire, and the aforementioned death of Sister Manning.
Sabby has an odd way of looking at Calcutta though; he believes India to be in England “India was in England, and India and England were in Cal…He didn’t know where he got that name England, from. He must have read it somewhere, or heard about it somewhere or someone told him about it, or perhaps it was because in reality he was living in England all the time.” It becomes clear that this is an imperialised world; in the schools they are taught about the great British ‘explorers’ like Livingstone. England is mythical to him, as mythical as the people he reads about in his comic books like Captain Marvel which provide him with the only genuine moments of escapism.
War creeps into Sabby’s existence, through the impending Japanese invasion. Sabby must be sent off to a boarding school. Sabby’s worlds are ruptured and himself as the central aspect of them is a folly “That was when Sabby realised he wasn’t as important as he believed himself to be in the world. He wasn’t in England anymore. In England he made all the decisions…”. What follows is his expulsion from Cal, his England, to the boarding school, and the transition to the boarding school in Northern India. In between that there is a slightly over-symbolic, sentimental train journey, where Sabby is caught between being depicted as a war-torn evacuee, and then as a person still in control of his worlds despite it falling all around him.
At the boarding school, the action, and themes begin to develop. When the train stops in Ajmer ‘Sabby became aware of being very far away from home, because Ajmer was a very Indian city’, and ironically it is very unfamiliar to Sabby with it being very Indian. One of the few untouched parts of the British Empire in India. Sabby is exposed to authority, in the form of the Brothers. The Brothers of the boarding school are teachers, disciplinarians and priests; they are the ultimate form of authority in his world, which also means the ultimate form of rebellion.
Sabby becomes exposed to the ‘real world’, his coming of age. The reality of the Empire that was something that made Britain, Great – that is reality. The phrase ‘That is the reality of it…’ is a powerful discursive device. Sen shows in The Skinning Tree reality for some is a lot more unrealistic for others and reality isn’t always fair.
Likenesses have been made with William Golding. It’s ironic that for me that it evoked several British writers prominent at the time of the British Empire. The increasingly macabre images that build up become more noticeable until the explicable act, but with the constant reminder that these are children trying to operate in a world, not just of adults, but that has been corrupted by adults and they are on their own to an extent. There was certainly an evocation of George Orwell’s Burmese Days for me in highlighting the contradictions of the Empire, and when Sabby is removed from the town, it could be the school in Kyauktada. There is also a Dickensian element in the early stages, when Sabby is in Cal,
“The customers of the stall stood around outside drinking tea out of earthen cups, lighting their biris and cigarettes from the smouldering rope coil the shop man put there and throwing their cups to the edge of the pavement where dogs and crows sniffed around ; the customers of the bigger shop were served inside”.
Sen, in an interview, with British newspaper The Independent, stated that when he started writing it, it was much too long “His wife and their two sons cut it down to 64,000 words” which is interesting, because there are a couple of moments where it appears slightly hurried and one particular point when Sabby is beginning to settle in, and then forget about home, his epiphany, could have done with more elucidation.
Still, Sen’s prose rarely strays into the hyperbolic; it refrains from trying to be too complex, at times could be criticized for being slightly journalistic. This is minor this Sen, like the greats and conscientious of Great British authors at that time, it captures the hypocrisy of the Empire, but also the act of coming of age in such times, and the great contradictions of world power.
The Skinning Tree (248pp) is published by Alma and is out now (£7.99)
Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional taken from Lawrence James’ (1994), The Rise and Fall of the British Empire published by Abacus.
Amended several times.