Deborah Baker’s The Last Englishmen traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order. An exhilarating drama which includes Indian and English writers and artists, explorers and Communist spies, imperial ‘Die Hards’ and Indian nationalists, political chancers and police informers. An excerpt:

Hatibagan, 139 Cornwallis Street, Calcutta,

12 May 1939

Near about the time John Auden was recording his reflections on love in Harsil, the three unmarried Bonnerjee sisters arrived at Sudhin Datta’s adda in a phalanx of colourful saris to settle like tittering birds around the leading literary light of the Congress Party, a fifty-eight-year-old poet named Sarojini Naidu. That evening her wide, expressive face was framed by hair done up with flowers. A Congress legend and a great raconteur, Sarojini was the daughter of a revolutionary who had been executed by Stalin two years before. Her own resistance to British rule began with the 1905 partition of Bengal. She had accompanied that ‘little Mickey-Mouse of a Man’ on the Dandi Salt March and been imprisoned during the civil disobedience campaign that followed. The first thing she said that evening was that Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s relations with Congress had become so unfriendly of late she needed a coat to ward off the chill. Gandhi was warmer. Unlike Nehru, with his hangdog eyes, he was just as quick to laugh as she was. Sarojini made India’s nationalist leaders seem like part of one large and bickering joint family household. The adda lapped it up.

While Sarojini told a mischievous story about Tagore, Sudhin introduced the Bonnerjee sisters to a young friend of Hiren-da’s, a flaming Red. Sudhin knew perfectly well that neither Minnie nor Sheila Bonnerjee was in the least political, though Anila was something of a smouldering Pink. Slim and sharp as a knitting needle, Anila had recently returned from Russia, accompanied by a love-struck and penniless Pushkin scholar from England. The previous Friday she had got into a fierce argument with a man who worshipped Adolf Hitler as an incarnation of Vishnu.

After the death of their mother, Kitty, Minnie, the eldest and most brilliant of the sisters, had tried to step up but had never quite managed to master the art of running a household. A scholar of Smollett with a teaching position at a women’s college, she had long been the sole female of the adda regulars, much to the dismay of the secret diarist. He couldn’t abide intellectual women, particularly unattractive ones. But what Minnie lacked in looks or domestic skills, she made up for with her enormous fund of gossip concerning the private lives of the Set, making her terrifically popular at dinner parties. She was often found in the company of Hiren-da and Lindsay Emmerson, a Statesman editor. Humphry House had adored her. Beneath Minnie’s badly draped saris was a stout heart.

But what Minnie lacked in looks or domestic skills, she made up for with her enormous fund of gossip concerning the private lives of the Set, making her terrifically popular at dinner parties.

Sheila, both the prettiest and the family artist, shared Minnie’s fatalistic view of life and her sense of the absurd. After attending Calcutta’s Oriental School of Art, she had received a scholarship to attend Munich’s Deutsche Akademie until the Nazis obliged her to shift to London. Recently returned to Calcutta, she was working with Jamini Roy, a classically trained painter turned folk artist whose current exhibition they had all just attended. Had he not needed the money, Jamini whispered to the adda diarist (who thought Sheila’s English accent overdone), he would have given Sheila Bonnerjee a wide berth. She was far too westernised. Sudhin had been coming to his studio to watch Sheila paint; Jamini doubtless suspected something was afoot between them.

However often Sudhin reminded himself that, at nearly forty, he was an old man to this pensive, wry and beautiful twenty- seven-year-old painter, he fell hard for her. Unlike the lover he’d left behind in Germany in 1929, Sheila Bonnerjee came from his own betwixt-and-between world. She made him laugh. She teased him. She was a talented painter. In her company he felt like a free man. But what could he offer her? He was not a free man. He had never been free. It was not just the British who ruled him, or even the oppressive propriety of his joint family household. It was his aged and gentle father’s good opinion that bound him. So even if he had the money to keep a mistress, Sudhin didn’t want to become the sort of profligate he’d often disparaged. Sheila deserved better. As the dog days of May gave way to June monsoons, with a European war threatening and promising to upend everything, Sudhin struggled. The longer he carried on with Sheila, the more impossible it would become. While outwardly he smiled as easily as before, inwardly he raged to see this chance, too, slip away.

He was not a free man. He had never been free. It was not just the British who ruled him, or even the oppressive propriety of his joint family household. It was his aged and gentle father’s good opinion that bound him.

Ever so slowly, he resigned himself to losing her.

One evening a month after the rains had arrived, Sudhin told Sheila she must meet his friend John Auden when he returned from the mountains. He tried to describe him.

‘John Auden sounds like a cold fish,’ she said with a laugh. Soon ‘John Auden’ became an ongoing joke between them. Only once did she take it too far. After putting up green curtains in her room at the family flat on Bright Street, she teased Sudhin that she wanted it to have the light of an aquarium so as to make the cold fish feel at home in her bedroom. He gave her a pained look. She was more careful after that.

Sheila had been fifteen years old when her father’s drinking and debts caught up with him. She had been there, too, when Protap and Bharat returned from boarding school, their education permanently curtailed. She had watched a procession of carts pull up at her childhood home, the Park Street mansion where her legendary grandfather had once presided over an elaborately set table. The bailiffs had packed up the gilded imitation Louis XIV furnishings, rolled up the carpets, and stripped paintings from the walls before hauling everything off to a Russell Street auction house. Beloved cousins, aunts, uncles, servants and pets were all dispersed.

Sheila had been fifteen years old when her father’s drinking and debts caught up with him. She had been there, too, when Protap and Bharat returned from boarding school, their education permanently curtailed.

After that Sheila vowed to travel light and pretended to be more frivolous than she was. While she and Sudhin flirted madly and drank too much, she wondered what would become of her. Yet while he might tease her for her high-born airs, she saw in him a sense of loss that ran even more deeply than her own.

Excerpted with permission from The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire by Deborah Baker published by Penguin. Pages – 320, Price – Rs 599

Image Credits: Penguin

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