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A Complex Attraction


Book Review

By Manoj Pande

“Girin Babu! Tea?”

Author: Sanjoy Mookerjee

Publisher: Towards Freedom, Kolkata (2023); 127 pages including glossary

It begins and ends at a Railway Station. The story is, however, not about railways, though it does manage to intermittently peep into the storyline of Sanjoy Mukherjee’s latest novel.

Set in Kumaon and Rohilkhand; and in the period beginning from the later part of the 19th century to the early years of the 20th century and on to the tumultuous period of the Second World War and India’s impending freedom, this absorbing short novel keeps one wondering ‘what next’ as one reads on.

Post the upheavals and the 1857 uprising, the territories thus far with the East India Company, came under direct rule of the British Crown. The period beyond was one of consolidation and growth. It saw the spread of railways and also the growth of hill stations that provided relief from the oppressive heat of the plains. Nainital was one such town that went on to become the summer capital of one of the provinces, with Kathgodam as the nearest railhead.

Kumaon, which came under British rule post the Anglo-Nepalese War, also saw the growth of tea plantations in Berinag and Chaukori, with the eponymous Berinag tea acquiring great popularity among tea connoisseurs in England. Incidentally, Berinag tea which had almost ceased production, is now being revived in a small way by village cooperatives in the region.

In small town India, the railway station is an important place that comes alive with the arrival and departure of trains. Sitapur was a halt station where steam engines of trains coming from Kathgodam replenished water in their boilers before chugging on their further journey to Lucknow and beyond. And in a quarter of an hour stoppage, what else could be better than an early morning cup of tea on the platform!

In this period of growth, many made their fortunes as suppliers of different items to the railways as well as to the British troops in the highlands. One such person was Pashupati Nath Joshi, who set up a business supplying livestock and pack mules to the British battalions in the region. His son Krishna Kant Joshi set up tea plantations in Berinag and Chaukori and was also a supplier of timber to the railways, settling down in a 26 room haveli in Sitapur.

But the story is not about them or their business ventures. It is about Girindra Bhushan Joshi, his grandson, and his bond with Walter Wilberforce Fox, ICS – the new District Magistrate of Sitapur and his attractive wife Valentina Ferraro, hailing from an ordinary family of Palermo in Italy. Not being from aristocratic British lineage, Valentina was not exactly accepted by the stiff upper lip ladies of British descent in Sitapur, despite her multiple talents.

Girin Babu, or Raja Saheb as he was known in Sitapur, was a man of many parts. His father had provided refuge to several English families during the 1857 disturbances, which was later rewarded by the government with 500 acres of prime farmland and taluqdari rights for revenue collection of 10 villages in the vicinity of Sitapur. Besides being affluent, Girindra Bhushan Joshi was an excellent polo player. His skills had earned him Honorary membership of the all-white Sitapur Club and the captaincy of the club’s nascent polo team. In the club, his Tea Tavern became a place for relishing exotic teas from his tea estates in the hills. A handsome man, Girin Babu was a bachelor.

Walter coaxes the reluctant Girin Babu to impart riding lessons to Valentina, who is totally bored at Sitapur. Reluctance was obvious due to the difference in status, colour and gender, but neither Walter nor Valentina cared. A trained nurse with great flair for arts and music, she becomes a regular visitor to the Joshi home, where she develops close bonds with Shivani, his mother, who had set up many charities in the town and beyond. The two become great friends and Shivani treats Valentina as her daughter. Valentina, being a trained nurse, finds herself busy in the maternity hospital.

The story moves on as does the Fox family from Sitapur, with Wilbur’s different assignments in the United Provinces. But the bonds remain. The families keep meeting, so much so, that a room is kept forever in the Joshi mansion for them.

As the novel proceeds, so do the epochal events of the period. A short aside on the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi en route to Bareilly, where huge crowds came to see him, is beautifully penned, taking us back to the times one has not seen, but only heard about.

As events unfold, Second World War erupts and Walter is called upon to render military service for his country, leaving Valentina and her daughter Isabella behind in Nainital. In this situation, Walter has no one else to rely upon other than his long-standing friend, Girin Babu. A desperate call and a heart-to-heart chat between the two men, leads to Girin Babu relocating to Nainital as Walter departs for the battlefield. Over time the letters from Walter stop coming. Emotionally drained due to the disappearance of her husband, Valentina finds solace in Girin Babu. The limits to the relationship get severely tested. An episode crafted very carefully by the author.

Covering a considerable period, the novel touches upon many events of those times. Interspersed are nuggets of historical information that may be fascinating for some. Yet it is light reading, of a quasi “Mills & Boon” genre if one must really classify it, that takes the reader on a voyage of a unique attraction and relationship between a ‘gori’ and a ‘desi’. The end may be melodramatic, but the story is really over by then and stretching it further would have been boring.

This is Sanjoy Mukherjee’s fourth novel, and the first with this region as the backdrop. And, as in his earlier books, the sketches by Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee at the beginning of each chapter add to its charm. An easy read and a companion for those who like to absorb themselves in a book in a train or air journey, or even a short sojourn in the hills of Uttarakhand.

(Manoj Pande is an ex-railway officer who now lives in Dehradun)