25 April 2012

The Spell of the Flying Foxes by Sylvia Dyer

Adventures in a faraway world
This book is set in the 1930s and 1940s in Champaran, Bihar, near the Nepal border. It is a true story, based on the childhood memories of the author. It starts with tales of her great-grandfather, Alfred Augustus Tripe. A young man from a prosperous family, he had left his home in England in 1848 to settle in this distant, untamed land, and made a fortune of his own.
Sylvia Dyer grew up in a time of great drama. There was the massive earthquake that killed many and destroyed the family home. There was immense wealth – and greed from some quarters balanced by generosity in others. There was murder, illness, suicide, complicated family relationships, illicit love affairs, devoted but peculiar family retainers, a dacoit with a heart of gold, animals charging into buildings … and much more, all in a complicated, colonized and highly stratified society. Yet, all is founded in fact, and beautifully detailed.
I enjoyed this book very much and what I admired most was that although the author was very young during the time of which she writes, she has created an intricate and evocative work strewn with insights that surely come from her adult years. I found the descriptions enchanting, and they brought the bygone landscape and lifestyle alive. Here are a few:
We ran home to wash our hands in the bathroom, in a big aluminium mug with ‘1 seer’ stamped on it. The bathrooms those days were very spacious, with polished teak wood commodes, bathtubs and grand wash-hand stands, each with a large mirror, porcelain washbasin and jug. A lantern sat on our wash-hand stand. Inside its polished glass chimney, from out of a bubble of metal, it stuck forth its yellow tongue of flame, steadfast and reassuring. But the water in the mug was as dark as the khariyan well with its monster.
Puckry village was blessed with two wells that never ran dry (a dry well was unimaginable in this land of the Baghmati), one in the east for the Brahmins and upper castes and the other in the west for the lower castes. Priests, warriors, clerks, merchants, farmers, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, oil men, milkmen and the whole long string of trades that existed at the time. You could gauge from his surname what caste a man came from. Puckry village had just about every caste with the exception of Rajput warriors, even a witch – though there was no particular caste for her.
They chewed a lot of tobacco, and did a lot of spitting. Besides, in the old days, people couldn't swallow all the things we have to now. There were spittoons in homes. Even pure silver spittoons. Outside, men were free to spit everywhere; spitting out paan and tobacco, noxious odours inhaled, revulsion, indignation, guilt and perplexity – unpalatable things seen and heard, that they could not stomach, and sought to expel with spittle, “Thooooo!”
It was spitter’s paradise.

Every January, the mustard bloomed, turning the fields to carpets of gold. Mustard was followed by linseed, which when in bloom looked like the sea on the calmest, clearest day.

Man chuckled softly. “You know,” he told us, “once a drunken Musahar was on his way home from the bazaar. It had grown late, and a full moon was up. He came to a linseed fields and – baap re, he tried to swim across! He thought he was drowning and started shouting. In the end he gave up and fell asleep in the linseed!”

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