s the title of Neel Mukherjee’s debut novel leads you to expect, this is a story which alternates between past and present. It does so, literally and literarily, by running two narratives side by side. The first, set in the 1990s, follows the life of Ritwik Ghose, as he escapes from the stultifying confines of his life in Calcutta for England; and the second, written by Ritwik, is set in the early 1900s and follows the tribulations of a do-gooding English lady, Miss Gilby, in her attempts to liberate and educate the natives.
Young Bengali man goes to Oxford to study literature and reminisce about family life in Calcutta. Hang on, haven’t we done this? Unlike Amit Chaudhuri’s protagonist in Afternoon Raag, Ritwik’s childhood is not a pleasant thing of tea and Marie biscuits. Calcutta is a grey, damp, disease- and filth-ridden hole; his mother is an abusive, violent harridan; and school masters are disciplinarian, cassock-lifting paedophiles.
Ritwik’s attempts to escape from his past are understandable, but partial....