More than a century ago, a young reporter named Rudyard Kipling
began to publish a series of short fiction works in an Indian
newspaper. These enormously popular "plain tales," as he called
them, chronicled the exploits of British colonists in India. A
recurring character was the Englishman who had "gone native" - often
lured by love of an Indian girl. Without fail, a cultural
misunderstanding would doom these men. After all, for Kipling, East
In a phenomenon cleverly known as "the empire writes back," the
genre has been turned on its head by emigrants from former European
colonies - particularly British India. A new collection of short
fiction entitled "Story-Wallah" gathers these modern plain tales
from the South Asian diaspora. They show that being a stranger in a
strange land holds psychological perils even in a world free of the
imperial politics of Kipling's day.
Some of the writers are well known: Salman Rushdie of fatwa fame;
Michael Ondaatje ("The English Patient"); and Jhumpa Lahiri ("The
Interpreter of Maladies"). All the writers or their ancestors hail
originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka, but they
also have a dual identity, living in locations as diverse as
Trinidad, the United States, and Tanzania. The editor, Shyam
Selvadurai, calls himself Canadian-Sri Lankan, writing novels from
the hyphen space between.
In Rushdie's "The Courter," the narrator attends an English
boarding school. Over the summers, he lives in a cultural no man's
land between India and England: a "seedy mansion" rented by his
Indian family "which lurked furtively in a nothing street" of
London. In adjacent apartments live two maharajas, who have been
cashiered into a life halfway between royalty and oblivion. The
mansion's Eastern European doorman is a mentally handicapped former
chess Grand Master.
The narrator is the least conflicted: He clearly prefers an
English life - singing Beatles tunes and aspiring for a British
passport. He dislikes his father, a distant and capricious drunk.
When his father is slapped by a shopgirl after mixing up words, the
narrator feels schadenfreude as well as fear that he would have made
the same faux pas.
Ultimately the gambling and philandering of the two maharajas
bring doom to the house. In the end, each character leaves the
"seedy mansion" and, in an echo of Kipling, chooses either England
or India - not both.
Other stories hold out more hope for cross-cultural