The Tainted, by Cauvery Madhavan, Hope Road Publishing, 332 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1916467187
Cauvery Madhavan’s third novel, The Tainted, is ambitious in its timeline. The narrative opens in India in 1920, the year of the Connaught Rangers mutiny – an event triggered by reports of atrocities by the Black and Tans and other Crown forces back in Ireland. Part One runs from 1920 to 1934, with a final short chapter set in 1947 which briefly records the achievement of Indian independence from British rule. Part Two is set after independence, in the year 1982, and deals with a modern India which is beset by problems of a different kind, arising from the legacy of the past but also generated by what the leading female character of the second part, May, calls “a new kind of coloniser – the tea companies”. Attempting to preserve the ecological status quo becomes at this point a major imperative.
The above summary may seem to privilege the Irish soldiers’ mutiny over events more intrinsic to India’s national development; but India remains the core subject of the novel. The bonus is, however, that there is a lot here to engage the attention of the specifically Irish reader. The Connaught Rangers appear in the fictional guise of the “Kildare Rangers”; and the problematic reality faced by the Rangers in 1920 is the same as that faced by the Irish reader at the present day. The problem is more easily stated than resolved: why on earth, at a period when the Anglo-Irish war has erupted as part of Ireland’s ongoing struggle for independence, are Irish soldiers involved in maintaining the British Raj in India? In a work where there are multiple perspectives competing for attention, the question receives a reasonable airing in Chapter Nineteen.
But The Tainted, though written by an author who has lived in Ireland for decades and familiarised herself with Irish ways, is still primarily an Indian novel: as the very title indicates. “The tainted” is a way of describing those of mixed race who are known as “Anglo-Indians”, and the leading female characters in both Parts One and Two are of mixed origin. The young beauty Rose, aged eighteen in 1920, derives her surname from her father, Sean Twomey, universally known as the “Bacon-wallah”, a retired Irish soldier who makes a living selling pork products. Rose’s mother “was from a military orphanage”, providing Rose with “the Indian blood running in her veins”; as the regimental chaplain Father Jerome informs the twenty-three-year-old soldier Michael Flaherty, newly arrived in (fictional) Nandagiri.
Readers may well be taken aback by the dismissive manner in which the Anglo-Indians are treated. Father Jerome, for example, is basically sound and dutiful, but Michael is reluctant to inform him about his developing relationship with Rose because he knows all too well “what the priest felt about half-castes, regardless of how they looked or how well they spoke”. Michael’s fellow-soldier Sergeant Tom Nolan displays the same casual racism when he regales Michael with “horror stories of unexpected darkie children”. No wonder Rose is determined to stay out of the sun so as not to acquire a deep tan. The final instance of the harsh treatment she suffers comes from a different quarter but expresses the same prejudice. Having reluctantly taken on Rose, an Anglo-Indian, as a lady’s maid, Mrs Aylmer, the colonel’s wife, of Anglo-Irish background, ruthlessly dismisses her when it is discovered she has been made pregnant by Michael. So begins the tragic decline of the social outcast Rose.
In Part Two, the role of Anglo-Indian beauty is reprised by Rose’s granddaughter, May; and the affair between May and the young civil servant in post-independence India, Mohan, provides one of the most engaging sequences in the novel. May Twomey and her brother Gerry are the Anglo-Indian descendants of Rose’s son Maurice, retaining the Bacon-wallah’s surname; and what they face in post-independence India is not the blatant racism of the British or Irish under the Raj but a cooler kind of marginalisation by Indian society. As plain-speaking May expresses the Anglo-Indian dilemma down the years: “We’re tainted – we were never white enough then and will never be brown enough now.”
May’s appeal for Mohan has much to do with her beauty, but he is additionally attracted by her plain speaking. In order to establish a relationship with her, however, he must first overcome the prejudices against Anglo-Indians instilled in him, not least by his mother. Mohan reveals to a less than fully comprehending Richard Aylmer (the grandson of the colonel, visiting India for the first time): “I was warned off Anglo-Indian girls all my growing years.” Mohan, however, is his own man, whose capability bodes well for his future career in the IAS (Indian Administrative Service). He is astute, disciplined and well-educated; and, after due consideration, swift to turn thought into action. As a person, he is sociable, courteous, and considerate towards others. As he follows in the footsteps of a famous father who rose higher in the ranks of the civil service than he has so far done, his role as assistant collector in Nandagiri confers on him a prestige and centrality in that community; but he is sufficiently gifted in his own right to justify the regard in which he is held. In his composure, concern for others and professional sense of duty, he is to some extent reminiscent of Dr Swamy who saves Rose and Michael from the perils of rioting in Madras towards the end of Part One; the same Dr Swamy who quietly but firmly makes clear his own Indian nationalism, and features posthumously as an inspiring memory in the hospital to which he was attached as a medic in that city (now Chennai). The reader may conclude that with figures like these, India has (or would have) a bright future.
The appearance of Richard Aylmer, the colonel’s grandson, is ‑ like the emergence of May in Part Two ‑ a reminder of family continuity. There are other subtler reminders of continuity, connection or contrast woven into Cauvery Madhavan’s narrative. The scapular handed on to Michael from his drowned eldest sister makes a dramatic reappearance on the penultimate page. Through Richard it is suggested that the Anglo-Indians, who are either not white enough or brown enough, might just provide a parallel with the plight of the Anglo-Irish. The latter, Richard observes, remain “Anglo-Irish”, because “Not Irish enough yet”. Thus does the author swing the telescope around and ask us to see ourselves. There is also the contrast, sustained throughout, between the Indian fauna and flora. The beauty of the latter is undeniable, and a valley in the Nandi mountain, in its profusion of rhododendrons, poinsettias, and rambling dog roses among the grass, fern and trees, can be accepted as “an Eden of sorts”. Far more unsettling is the threat repeatedly posed by creatures great and small – lone tuskers (solitary rogue elephants), crocodiles, snakes, scorpions, bats which impart rabies through their bite, mosquitoes, ants. The visiting Richard finds it all an “unfathomable country”: “People say India is a country of contrasts, but they don’t know the half of it.”
Yet a significant counter-narrative is provided in Gerry’s attempts to preserve the natural environment. And in a more generous mood, before he has been replaced by Mohan in May’s affections, Richard accepts that “India could never be boring”. The country is richly diverse, and the richness of the novel, as in the varied ethnicity of its characters, reflects that richness. Moreover, the author’s lucid and fluent style, along with her adroitly choreographed dialogue, ensures that the reader is never mired in the “unfathomable”. This is not just a good read, but an illuminating and thoroughly stimulating one.
Brian Cosgrove is professor emeritus of English, Maynooth University, where he was head of department from 1992 to 2006. He taught English at UCD from 1967 to 1992.