Out of a biblical flood, Pran Nath Razdan is conceived. This deluge has brought a British colonial and a young Indian bride together for a brief union. For a while only, we are allowed to see Pran as an exuberant and naughty boy, with a stirring in his loins that will ultimately bring about his downfall. With the death of his wild mother in childbirth, there has only been Pran's father to bring him up. His father is rather distant, mostly concerned with his court pleadings and great notions of hygiene, rather than his son. Spoiled by his relatives, who are rather pleased with the whiteness of Pran's skin (a sure sign of a noble Kashmiri heritage), nobody is there to stop Pran from becoming a wild brat. True enough, the astrologer called upon at the time of Pran's birth has seen something of his troubled future, but has settled on presenting a more orthodox reading for the boy to save his own headaches and to earn himself a good tip. Unknown to Pran, it is not the planets that are keeping a watch over him, but Anjali, the maidservant who knows all about Pran's dubious conception. Unfortunately, as Pran eyes Anjali's daughter Gita, he fails to see what will be the real consequences of his actions.
Hari Kunzru's depiction of the 1918 'Spanish' flu is truly authentic and resonates greatly. This biggest killer of mankind proved to be a great leveller, as Pran finds out to his cost. Following the advice of a tramp, Pran finds shelter, food, and abuse. Not for the last time in his life, Pran is dosed up with drugs to numb him against his new degrading profession. In flies Enza and two eunuchs to rescue him from this predicament, and Pran find himself thrust into the dubious court intrigues of Fatehpur. Hari Kunzru has stated that he wanted Pran to find various father figures in his journeys, and the first he comes across is the obese Major Augustus Privett-Clampe, who has rather a fondness for young boys. As an unwilling political officer, he is a ripe target for blackmail. Pran escapes from this farce on his own two feet with his sexuality intact, and wanders into the hell caused by Dyer's decision to fire at unarmed protestors at Amritsar. From there he makes it to the Falkland Road in Bombay, home to the oldest profession and the Independent Scottish Mission Among the Heathen. It's not long before Pran has met, and then becomes Jonathan Bridgeman: his last and most eventful incarnation...
One of the great themes in the discipline of Cultural Studies is that of barriers, and how one can transgress them. Pran, with the lightness of his skin, finds that he can cross bridges in all sorts of directions, being seen as both Indian and English at various times. As the Khwaja-sara tells Pran, there are a multiplicity of sexualities, and in this way, there also seems to be a multitude of identities. I know that one of the great themes of literature is the search for identity, but it does seem a great pity that Pran loses his own identity so early on. The precocious little boy rarely reappears; such is Pran's desire to conform, to fit. As figures such as Reverend Macfarlane are introduced, they also take a great deal of the narrative away from Pran. Macfarlane seems to be a hybrid of Reverend Wilson and Doctor Potter from Matthew Kneale's English Passengers, but in contrast, you never really care what happens to Macfarlane. Wilson and Potter may be odious creations, but they have vitality that most of the characters in The Impressionist lack. There is also a passage where Kunzru writes: "Delicacy suggests that this juncture might be suitable for a survey of the history... of Fatehpur". This sounds very much like an essay that I've read about Toni Morrison's Beloved, which said that slave narratives would often say "Now let us draw a veil over proceedings too terrible to relate" - we never really get to see Pran's suffering, since the "objective observers" are "sadly lacking", and Pran himself is drugged to the eyeballs and never gets to relate anything. In short, Hari Kunzru could have produced a much more powerful narrative than he has done here. The ever-present present tense seems to hark back to Hari Kunzru's travel journalism, and does not allow much variety of pace.
Privett-Clampe calls Pran "Clive" and Pran later adopts the name of "Robert" in two implicit references to Sir Robert Clive, who like Pran, was an Anglo-Indian. In the early days of the empire, it was perfectly acceptable for British men to take Indian wives, and Hari Kunzru reels off an impressive list of sons conceived from such unions: Lord Roberts, Lord Liverpool, and Skinner, founder of the Bengal Lancers. However, I think that it would have made for a more powerful book if Hari Kunzru had concentrated on presenting the stories of a few more Anglo-Indians like Harry Begg, rather than launching Pran on a huge picaresque journey, with so many twists and turns that Pran is left high and dry, and often abandoned for whole sections. True enough, there are juicy scenes, such as Pran's encounter with Lily Parry, but these do not last long. In the later stages of the novel, Pran ends up in Oxford. Yet the threat of his imminent "debagging" never seems quite as savage nor as comic as that inflicted upon the hero of Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall", and Hari Kunzru's narrative is nowhere near as pacy and witty as Waugh. But then there is that delicious scene where Pran trying to grab at Gita is presented in the form of a mathematical formula, as intractable as anything found in "Fermat's Last Theorem". Despite some shortcomings, Hari Kunzru's debut does finally leave a good impression.