Thinking about The Impressionist – Hari Kunzru

Recently, I read and very much enjoyed Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, which I subsequently reviewed at Strange Horizons.For my birthday, I received a copy of Kunzru’s first novel, The Impressionist, which I also read and enjoyed very much. This is not so much a review as a exploration of one aspect of the novel.

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education (1835)

Some years ago, a car company ran an advert in which a young Indian man gazed longingly at the sleek lines – dropped bonnet, flat hatchback – of a European car in a magazine and then despairingly at his own boxy vehicle. In a moment of inspiration, he sets out to recreate the car of his dreams, reversing the car into a wall a few times to get that flat-back look before persuading an elephant (of course there’s an elephant; it’s India) to sit on the bonnet until it slopes appropriately. At the end of the process, the car is, needless to say, a bit of a mess but its owner is portrayed as almost childishly delighted that his vehicle has in some way – perhaps only in his own head – moved closer to the car in the advert.

One might unpack this advertisement in a number of ways. Produced by a western advertising agency for a western audience, it reinforces the idea that a western product is always better than an eastern product and is something to be aspired to while simultaneously mocking the young Indian car owner for aspiring to the very same thing, for taking matters into his own hand and for taking that childish pleasure in achieving his dream. Yet his dream car can only ever be a dream, because he is not Western enough to have earned that car, or to deserve everything it embodies. He can only ever make do with a homemade facsimile that itself can never be Western, while reinforcing Western prejudices about Indian cars, and indeed about Indians

A car advert might seem a long way from Macauley’s Minute on Indian Education but they have more in common than might be supposed. One of the broad concerns of the British in India in the nineteenth century, once the government had displaced the East India Company, was how to administer so many people, so many religious and cultural groups, speaking so many different languages. While the East India Company might have tolerated its employees adopting local dress, habits and language, government employees were expected to uphold British standards. Officials may have recognised the importance of education for the Indian population, but the question remained as to what kind of education that should be. Macaulay was a member of a committee which was responsible for the distribution of funds to support the education of Indian men; however, as the full text of the Minute shows, Macaulay believes, among other things, that teaching English to Indians is rather more valuable than Englishmen learning Arabic or Sanskrit or any other languages, and indeed that the English should be teaching sciences to India rather than learning anything from India:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. – But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education. 

While Macaulay might casually dismiss the highly developed cultures of India in a few words, insisting that his own language and culture be imposed on their for their benefit and his convenience, he did simultaneously recognise a particular dilemma embodied in offering Western education to Indians. In an earlier speech, he had said:

Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition? Or do we mean to awaken ambition and to provide it with no legitimate vent? Who will answer any of these questions in the affirmative? Yet one of them must be answered in the affirmative, by every person who maintains that we ought permanently to exclude the natives from high office. I have no fears. The path of duty is plain before us: and it is also the path of wisdom, of national prosperity, of national honour.

Macaulay identifies the dilemma but dismisses it in almost the same breath. How can there be a problem when wisdom, prosperity and honour are paramount. Macaulay ultimately envisaged an India which would be ‘well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us’ and which would, critically, be buying and using English goods.

Which indirectly brings us back to that ‘class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and intellect’ which Macaulay sought to create in order to facilitate that transition. We see one such member of that class in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) in Hurree Chunder Mookherjee (Hurree Babu), an English-educated Bengali working for the British government as a spy, an ambiguous figure. What Kipling’s intention was for Hurree Babu is not entirely clear. Should we read Hurree Babu as a figure of fun? Should we mock him for aspiring to membership of the Royal Society, a membership his very name will doubtless never permit no matter how assiduous his researches and reporting? Should we laugh because he seems to be blissfully unaware of his own ridiculousness. Or should we instead think of a brief paragraph in Chapter 13 of Kim, when Hurree Babu is made outrageously drunk by two Russian spies, and after a while:

He became thickly treasonous, and spoke in terms of sweeping indecency of a Government which had forced upon him a white man’s education and neglected to supply him with a white man’s salary. He babbled tales of oppression and wrong till the tears ran down his cheeks for the miseries of his land. (198) [1]

It’s an oddly ambiguous episode. Hurree Babu seems to have feigned drunkenness and babbled deliberately, in order to reinforce the idea that he was, to quote one spy, ‘the monstrous hybridism of East and West’ that he wished them and they wanted to see. Yet one cannot help but wonder whether Hurree Babu, master spy that he is, working for the British government, was nonetheless using the moment to vent an otherwise carefully suppressed anger. And there is no doubt that he articulates the frustration of those babus who have not had his luck. It’s too easy to misjudge Hurree Babu’s remarkable ‘performance’ throughout the novel and to assume that he is the fool he represents himself as being, the fool that the Europeans expect to see, without stopping to consider that he is himself dissembling.

Too easy as well because, of course, we are anyway supposed to focus on Kim himself, the Little Friend of All the World, the poorest of poor whites, who has been brought up more or less to the life of a bazaar boy, who looks Indian on the outside but is an Englishman through and through – except of course that his parents were Irish, a fact that is conveniently elided by his father’s having enlisted in an English regiment. Not content with colonising the Irish, their children are now co-opted to the English cause because of the whiteness of their skins. Kim is nonetheless a fantasy figure, the ultimate mediating presence between Indians and the English, someone who understands their languages and habits but who is, by birth if not actually by rank, ‘one of us’, whose ‘us-ness’ will as a matter of course shine through once he is in the right situation, properly clothed and educated. He is thus trained in ‘us-ness’ in order to negotiate the familiarities of upbringing, now transformed into ‘otherness’, in a way appropriate to ‘us’. What he has always done naturally – disguise, speech, etc. – becomes codified and taught in order to be controlled. There is a constant low-level anxiety throughout the latter stages of the novel as to whether Kim will ‘come back’, like a dog or a falcon, once he is let off the leash, or whether he will bolt, become a wandering monk or some such, while Kim himself has determine who and what he is, whether he can in fact remain the Little Friend of All the World or whether he must settle on one identity. The great debate throughout the novel concerns Kim’s identity. ‘“I am Kim. I am Kim. And What is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again’(234).

Kipling fudges the issue but one is clearly meant to suppose that Kim’s whiteness, his borrowed ‘Englishness’ will inevitably prevail no matter how often he masquerades as an Indian. In effect, Kim is what Hurree Babu cannot, in the eyes of the English, ever quite be, ‘the reformed recognizable Other’, the one who has crossed over. Whether or not he has done so is left unclear, and I am not sure if Kipling was really certain in his own mind. Perhaps, at the last, he succumbed to a romantic notion that allowed Kim to wander joyfully but maybe dishonestly among the worlds.

When Homi Bhabha discusses ‘the reformed recognizeable Other’ in ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, he notes that:

the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. The authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have called mimicry is therefore stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal.(122) [2]

Which brings us finally to Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist, his first novel, published in 2002, and to the story of Pran Nath, the impressionist of the title. It is a novel that can be, indeed should be, read as a very necessary corrective to the romanticism of Kim. If Kim is Anglo-Indian in the more modern sense of the phrase, of Irish, by extension English, background but born and brought up in India, Pran Nath is Anglo-Indian in the older sense of the phrase, born of an Indian mother and a white father, his parentage initially concealed, leaving him to believe that his father is a Kashmir Pandit rather than a European.

As Kim’s future is shaped by prophecy, so Pran’s conception is mythic stuff: an encounter between his mother, Amrita, a young opium-addicted woman journeying from her late father’s house to her uncle’s, where she will make an arranged marriage. Stubborn, wilful, Amrita has refused to travel there by train and thus Ronald Forrester encounters her party on the dusty, treeless plains as the monsoon threatens to break. Amrita’s perversity is matched by Forrester’s own. He is quite genuinely a forester, planting trees to restore eroded hillsides, preaching soil conservation to save the land . Yet, aware that something is lacking in his life, he has come to the plains to see what a life without trees might be like, and has found that he does not like it. He is deciding what to do next when he meets Amrita’s group, and Moti Lal, family retainer, who is supervising the journey.

The group of travellers perhaps recalls the retinue of the Sahiba whom Kim met on the Great Trunk Road. Moti Lal is in some measure related to Hurree Babu, while Forrester himself might be any one of the Englishmen whom Kim encounters when he first takes Mahbub Ali’s message to the bungalow in Umballa. Amrita, the wild child who sneaked away from her father’s haveli whenever she could, is also an avatar of Kim, but one constrained by the demands of a society in which young women have fewer freedoms. <

When the monsoon strikes, bringing with it flash flooding, Amrita is transformed by the rains into ‘the native mother goddess’, standing in firelight before Forrester, ‘elemental and ferocious’, when he emerges out of the flood and reaches the safety of the cave where she has already found refuge. Forrester sees her as a spirit; she is the primeval India whom he has attempted to tame with trees. Only as she touches him does he wonder if she did not in fact bring him into being.

For Amrita, survivor of the flood, the previous world swept away, her encounter with Forrester is a birth, a rebirth. She pulls him, the ‘pearl-skinned man’, out of the water; significantly, he is ‘panting like a baby’. And here the apparently virginal Forrester, stripped of will, might as well be newborn; it is Amrita who takes the lead in their frenzied love-making, as she will later when she is married to Amar. But it is Forrester who leaves, assailed by some inarticulate sense of duty or perhaps the feeling that his purpose in life has been fulfilled. Perhaps he knows that he is changed:

By the last time the fire has guttered, and sweat and dust has turned their skins to an identical red-brown colour. The colour of the earth (15).

Symbolically, Forrester, a representative of order, has been subsumed into India, through the earth itself, and through Amrita, both as its embodied representative and as a symbol of the chaos that Europeans so often – too often – seem to find in India. In death he gives himself to the waters as he was born from the flood only a few hours before, as flesh rather than ashes, but there is nonetheless a sense that his death is in some way a holy act.

What this signals for the child, Pran Nath, born nine months later, is at first unclear. Given the portents surrounding his conception, we might expect an equally mythic creature – shades, perhaps, of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and the miraculous Saleem Sinai. The astrologer knows that something strange is happening:

The chart was strange and frightening. The stars had contorted themselves, wrung themselves into a frightening shape. Their pattern of influences had no equilibrium. It was skewed towards passion and change. To the astrologer this distribution looked impossible. […] It was a shape-shifting chart. A chart full of lies. (26)

But the astrologer also knows that parents want conventional reassurances about their child’s future life. While Kim has been told about his father’s ‘prophecies’ all his life and awaits the return of the Red Bull on the green field, Pran receives no such reassurance of a miraculous future. Indeed, Pran is no Little Friend to All the World but instead a violent, destructive, unloved child whose behaviour turns everyone against him. His family may be rich and well-connected but when Amar dies during the Spanish flu epidemic, Pran suddenly finds himself turned out of the house. The servants have known all along that he was not Amar Nath’s son, and they seize this opportunity to take a long-meditated revenge. As Pran quickly finds, he has no friends at all. His hybrid background is a liability rather than an advantage. India rejects him for his white blood; England rejects him for his Indian blood. For Pran, there can be no mediating role, no joyful bazaar life, only starvation and death.

Yet there remains the possibility of a rebirth. However, while Kim is, after his experiences in the hills, treated by the Sahiba and a woman skilled in massage, taken apart ‘bone by bone, muscle by muscle, ligament by ligament, and lastly, nerve by nerve’ (Kim229) and then restored to health, Pran’s disintegration is much cruder and more brutal. Stripped first of status and wealth, he undergoes a more fundamental erasure when a beggar half-maliciously, half-pragmatically directs him to a local brothel. His pale skin and girlish beauty are exploitable and the brothel-keepers drug him and dress him as a girl. One infers a series of sexual encounters but Pran’s drugged state leave this uncertain. His imprisonment in a box room severs his connection with the world; as the story puts it, he becomes a ‘pile of Pran-rubble, ready for the next chance event to put it back together in a new order’ (65)

This chance event is Pran’s purchase by two hijras belonging to the Nawab of Fatehpur who set about turning him into ‘Rukhsana’, the Nawab’s newest hijra. Although physiologically male, he is dressed as a woman and obliged to perform a female gender identity. Pran, whose ejection from his own home came about in part because he sexually assaulted the daughter of one of the servants, struggles against such a forcible assumption of a female identity, fearing in particular the prospect of castration. For the Khwaja-sara, the chief hijra, it ‘opens the door to an infinity of bodies, a wonderful infinity of sexes. As soon as you’re free of the thread which ties you down, then you can dance, and fly’ (82).

You may think you are singular. You may think you are incapable of change. But we are all as mutable as the air! Release yourself, release your body and you can be a myriad. (82)

The hijras have, as Pran finally admits, reduced him to nothing in terms of identity. Yet, while he cannot embrace the particular freedoms that their lives represent, he also comes to understand that he may put on women’s clothing and perform as a hijra, without necessarily becoming a hijra. To mimic is to dissemble and to deceive, and it is the art of dissembling that Pran embraces, though to such a sophisticated level it is difficult to determine where dissembling ends and becoming begins. He becomes, if you like, the embodiment of Bhabha’s indeterminacy; his life is a constant assumption of then disavowal of identity, and colonial identities in particular, as he progresses from one identity to another, and from brownness to whiteness. At the same time, Pran (or Rukhsana, or Robert, or Jonathan) is a mirror for other people’s expectations, or the screen on which they project what they want to see, without realising that this is what they do.

Bobby is a creature of surface. Tissue paper held up to the sun. He hints at transparency. as if on the other side there is something to be discovered. Maybe there is, maybe not. Maybe instead of imagining depth, all the people who do not quite know him should accept that Bobby’s skin is not a boundary between things but the things itself, a screen on which certain effects take place. Ephemeral curiosities. Tricks of the light. (250)

Kim’s game is about memory, but Pran’s game is mimickry, practised to a high degree as he comes to realise just what he can get away with. ‘He loiters in places where English people are to be found, and tries to engage them in conversation. Not for money. For fun’ (245). Whether Bobby understands fully what he is doing is unclear but what is obvious is that for him identity has become as fluid as the Khwaraj Sara suggested it might be, but also ephemeral, easily discardable, to the point where he is no longer entirely sure who he is himself but not actually sure it matters anyway.

The thing is, they believe him. They hear an accent and see a face and a set of clothes, and put them together into a person. After a while, a few begin to sense there is something wrong, something they cannot put a finger on. […] Rarely does this sense congeal into anything definite, and by then Bobby has moved on. (245)

This peculiar freedom then allows Pran – we will continue to give him that name for a while longer – to move through the layers of the British Empire, unconsciously interrogating its assumptions about colonialism in order to survive, constantly baffled and terrified by what he is able to get away with, learning just how little he actually needs to do in order to get by.

Chaos provides Pran with transformative energy, echoing his own conception during the flood. He escapes from the Nawab’s palace in the chaos caused by the failure of an attempt to blackmail the British government’s local representative, Major Privett-Clampe. Privett-Clampe, sexually repressed and probably homosexual, has used Pran to stage his own retreat to childhood and boarding school, teaching Pran to declaim stirring schoolboy poetry in good English, and for good measure dressing him in a school uniform and rechristening him Clive. The undertones of colonial appropriation are impossible to miss but it is by in turn appropriating English culture, in particular the major’s authoritative manner, that Pran survives the aftermath of the Amritsar massacre, slipping quietly away on a troop train.

‘How can they be so blind? How can they not tell?’ (185), Pran asks himself. They of course see and hear what they are conditioned to see and hear in relation to such a uniform. And here Pran vanishes forever. First, he comes Robert/Chandra, a hybrid creature acting as Indian servant to Elspeth Macfarlane, working to improve living conditions for the people who live close to the mission, and as assistant to the Reverend Andrew Macfarlane, missionary and amateur anthropologist. Here Kunzru sets the relentless imperial measuring and taxonomising of Macfarlane himself against Elspeth’s embrace of all things Indian. One might think here of Adele Quested’s desire to see ‘real’ India in Forster’s A Passage to India, except that Elspeth has actually engaged with ‘real’ India, even if she is still intending to convert it to Christianity. When she is arrested for what is perceived as political activity, this represents a formal but inevitable rejection of her work.

Robert/Chandra exists in the gap that lies between the estranged couple, given that Macfarlane has strenuously argued against his wife’s immersion in Indian cultures, and against her taking the former Pran into her employ, but rather like Kim Robert/Chandra also has an outdoor identity. While Kim assumes the clothes of a Hindu beggar, Robert/Chandra assumes the sartorial markers of an older man and goes out onto the Falkland Road, itself undergoing an evening transformation, to become Bobby, pursuing his own modest career as a messenger, pimp and fixer. This, one might argue, is what Kim might have become had the Little Friend of All the World stayed in the bazaars, using his capacious memory to maintain an information network, carry out a little light blackmail and generally make a living as best he can. His looks and manners have got him this far but even his clothes were insufficient to convince Mrs Macfarlane that he was an English boy when he originally arrived at the Mission. He continues to watch, to learn, to emulate, and to discover just how far he can go. As Bobby he has not only learned to dissemble but to be secret, and to exploit that secrecy:

It makes him tantalising, precious. Yet this aura would not be there if Bobby himself knew why he does what he does. It is cowardice, of course, but he tells himself he does not want to understand. Better, he thinks, to live an unexamined life. Otherwise you run the risk of not living at all. (250)

Bobby has come a long way from Pran and destined to travel further as he finds himself more and more frequently mistaken for an Englishman and plays the game more and more intensely, to the extent that he falls in love with and pursues a young Englishwoman, Lily Parry, before discovering that she in turn is not what she seems to be. Indeed, as Bobby belatedly realises, he is surrounded by people who are mimics like him. He is successful, yes, but there are others who are more successful and he has so much more to learn.

Bobby’s transformations have taken him deep into European society in India but his final transformation within the confines of the novel turns him into an Englishman, Jonathan Bridgeman, travelling home to attend Oxford university after the death of his father. This is perhaps the most unlikely transformation within the novel, relying heavily on Bobby being able to assume the identity of a friendless man, murdered in the street, on his way ‘home’ to people who haven’t seen him since he was a child, and being able to cover up social deficiencies because of his new identity’s unorthodox childhood.

All along, there has been a notion within the novel that blood will out. Major Privett-Clampe taught Pran to recite poetry in order to shore up the English blood he saw in Pran while Mrs Macfarlane assured Chandra he should ‘be content to be an Indian, which is more or less what you are’ (199), but at boarding school and at Oxford, Jonathan is on less firm ground given he has no behavioural models on which to draw. This is perhaps not surprising in that he has always before worked with the end product of the process, so to speak, whereas now he is closer to its beginning. Here, for the first time, Jonathan actually settles into educating himself about what Englishness means, making lists of things which seem to be important to English people. He has effectively become an anthropologist among what are, supposedly, his own people but his attempts to understand Englishness, echoing English attempts to define and catalogue India, are as hit and miss as those of anthropologists overseas. Mimicry, at however deep a level, and Jonathan’s past experiences have been deeper than most, still does not bring one fully into touch with the quintessence of national identity, perhaps because there is no quintessential thing. Jonathan’s success suggests that there is no one thing that can be characterised as ‘Englishness’ any more than there is one thing that is ‘Indian’. Instead, an understanding of identity is pieced together out of scraps of behaviour, approval or disapproval of those behaviours, reinforcement of them or transformation

Whereas Kim can finally reconcile the different aspects of his character, for Jonathan it is less straightforward. Engaged, however, improbably, to Star Chapel, daughter of his professor, he discovers that their relationship is at an end when he meets her in the company of an African American jazz musician in Paris. Her new relationship is Star’s contribution to racial harmony, and she contemptuously dumps Jonathan for being too English, a situation he can now no longer rectify. Jonathan has become subsumed into a culture that would like to keep him at arm’s length, educating him in its ways but not allowing him to fully participate in them. He is no longer simply a screen on which other people project their expectations but has become so fully masked he can no longer emerge as Pran even if he wanted to. He has constructed a fully-fledged but entirely superficial identity for himself, one which he can no longer escape.

Or, rather, he cannot escape it by conventional means. As so often happens in this novel, release comes in the form of an encounter with something deeper and more fundamental, a connection with the land. In this instance, Jonathan is now in Africa, part of an anthropological expedition which has gone horribly wrong. The Fotse have encountered colonialism head-on and the complexities of their culture have been annihilated in only a few years. The anthropologists are now as much a part of the problem as the road-builders cutting through Fotse lands but Jonathan is somehow identified as someone who has been possessed by a European spirit, but who can be freed from its sorcery. This ritual is enacted in a cave which resonates with the conditions of Pran’s conception.

I’ve teased out and followed one particular strand of The Impressionist because that is what interests me at this particular moment, but the novel examines a wide range of responses to the colonial situation and Kunzru shows that the Europeans are, in some ways, equally trapped by social mores and cultural failure. For some going abroad, going to ‘the other’, is the only way to gain any respite from ‘home’ and its constraints – which is not to condone their using the ‘other’ in this way, but Kunzru has a sharp eye for the pressures of being obliged to behave in a socially appropriate way; that is, to deny class or sexual orientation in order to fit in, to attempt to seem less in order to remain invisible. Again, this is something that is barely addressed in Kim, except, indirectly, through the presence of the Woman of Shamlegh who was once in love with a young Englishman who left her behind when he returned ‘home’. Kunzru, a hundred years later, addresses it head on and far more broadly.

This was Kunzru’s first novel so there is perhaps an element of laying out his wares, showing just what he can do. There is, for example, a taste for out-and-out farce which Kunzru mainly employs to good effect, though I occasionally wonder if he doesn’t overplay the ineptness of the Nawab’s retainers, in effect playing up a certain kind of perceived ‘Indianness’ in order to then demolish it. He likes resonances and coincidences too; they surface again in Gods Without Menbut in The Impressionist, Kunzru seems rather self-indulgent in not only having Jonathan end up at his father’s old school, carrying out the same role in the cricket match and for the same reasons, but in having Jonathan’s former fiancée later become engaged to the Nawab of Fatehpur, who is clearly Prince Firoz, the Europeanised Indian, corrupt playboy that he is but also excited by the opportunities afforded by that European science Macaulay thought so important, with whom the English wanted to replace the traditionalist Nawab. But even as Kunzru brings the novel round full-circle, at the end of it all, a nameless man slips away into the desert, part of a camel train, travelling on.

For now the journey is everything. He has no thoughts of arriving anywhere. Tonight he will sleep under the enormous bowl of the sky. Tomorrow he will travel on. (481)

That same sense of moving on into the unknown is apparent in the ending of Gods Without Men and I suspect I will find something similar in Kunzru’s other novels, which I am now looking forward even more to reading.


[1] W.W.Norton, 2002. All page references to this edition.

[2] Bhabha, Homi ‘Of Mimicry and Man’ in The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994)

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