A French connection

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 08, 2012 19:33 hrs

Private lives are not often interesting enough to merit a book unless the writer is someone eminent whose thoughts and deeds have a public resonance. Despite his erudition and engaging personality, Andre Beteille is not quite in that category. He is a man of letters, a distinguished teacher and facile writer who is well known and highly respected in a select coterie. Yet, I read Sunlight on the Garden, his “story of childhood and youth”, with complete absorption. The limpid style helps. But the real draw is the narrator’s deftness in bringing people and situations to life. If my attention wandered sometimes, it was only to ponder on those other situations he conjures up through throwaway comments on the social scene.

The observation that “no matter what they might say, Bengalis are inclined to believe that those who speak English fluently are more intelligent than the rest” is one such instance of perspicacity. It throws open a whole world of illusion, delusion, aspiration and achievement. The admission that he knows “only too well how class matters and equally well that people do not like to bring class into conversation when talking about their own lives” is another. Such observations may not endear him to everyone. They may not even be wholly accurate. But they indicate an ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Bengali society without making heavy weather of social analysis.

This light touch also illumines his accounts of events like the Bengal Famine, the Great Calcutta Killing and Partition without turning an intensely personal memoir into an academic treatise or historical chronicle. A sociologist’s training is obviously an asset but the understanding and sensitivity that leaven scholarship are what makes the book so readable.

Where the author fails himself is in his Panglossian view of almost every human being he meets in college and coffee house. Most of them are well-known luminaries of what is lovingly called the “intelligentsia”. Ambition, posturing, manipulation and influence-peddling are essential to survival, to say nothing of success, on the rarefied heights they occupy. But Professor Beteille’s characters are distinguished only by virtue. Obviously, the goodness lies in the eye of the beholder rather than the beheld. But a scholar who has reached the serenity of his seventies with faith intact might not accept that.

Not that personal angularities are altogether absent from this delightful tale. Laced into an admirable distaste for pretension is a less rational impatience with Westernised Bengali society. Possibly, this owes something to Professor Beteille’s mixed background and the milieu in which he was reared. That might also explain his defensive description of himself as lower middle class. Clearly, the entire class structure is in need of dissection since Professor Beteille goes on to make the provocative claim that Kolkata’s Presidency College is “basically lower middle class in its social character”.

He would do a service to general understanding by exploring the terra incognita of India’s – more particularly Bengal’s – class hierarchy. Anomalies need explaining. The term “middle class” has acquired a derogatory meaning in colloquial Bengali that is absent from contemporary English usage. If there are middle and lower middle classes, there must also be an upper class. But despite glib references to the class system, neither language seems to be clear on what defines it. Is it caste, education, Westernisation, official position or money? Or does Bengal, like Nancy Mitford’s England, boast a category whose superiority lies in being superior?

Obviously, the author makes no claim for himself on the strength of his French father even if, as he admits self-deprecatingly, some of his tastes might give him away. M Beteille pere remains a shadowy and somewhat sad figure. He must, however, have been a man of considerable strength and sensitivity to retain his identity instead of succumbing to his surroundings and “going native”. One suspects that the author’s quiet qualities were inherited from this seemingly neglected parent who must have found Chandannagar a challenge but also in some way fulfilling. His mother is a more vibrant presence. But her son delicately avoids probing the great enigma that gave meaning to her early life.

Another world mentioned in passing is of the Delaunays of Comilla. I have come across only one other literary reference to them, and that was an equally casual mention by Taya Zinkin, whose husband was in the Indian Civil Service and who herself wrote for the old Manchester Guardian. But having grown up on legends of those French landowners and the “Sarail hound” they bred but could not standardise, I wish someone with Professor Beteille’s delicate touch and penchant for the quaint would tell us more about this quirk of the colonial experience.

The recent history of the subcontinent is unlikely to produce another family where the father is uncompromisingly European (three-piece suits round the year) and the mother defiantly swadeshi. Such phenomena probably died out with the Mutiny and the Fishing Fleet. Technically, Professor Beteille is Anglo-Indian (“of European descent in the male line”) and eligible to join Calcutta Rangers Club. Though he gives away little of his innermost being, it’s nice to think of him as the ultimate Indian.

A Story of Childhood & Youth
Andre Beteille
Ravi Dayal Penguin/Viking; Rs 499.00

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