Reinventing the Self
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
Robert Burns, “To a Louse”
In one of his interviews, Hari Kunzru said that he is bored with all his reviews starting off with the whopping advance he received for his debut novel, The Impressionist and whether the book is worth all the hype it got. So I won’t.
The central character of The Impressionist, Pran Nath, the most un-heroic of heroes, never pans out to be a rounded character that the reader can identify with because of his propensity to reinvent himself at every juncture as a different character with no association with the earlier ones. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful read with its spirited comic irony that throws up deadly serious questions on race and the empire.
The Impressionist is in the vein of dialogue created by earlier novels, Kim by Rudyard Kipling being the most obvious one. In fact, the epigraph in Kunzru’s novel, “Remember I can change quickly . . . What shall the third incarnation be?” is from Kim, which was written more than a century ago. Kunzru’s novel is the modern day Kim in that it tries to answer “Who is Kim?” through the novel in different ways. Kim suffers from the same problems of identity that Pran Nath does—that is being able to walk on the streets of colonial India as a native and as a White boy when the need arose. Although Kim’s place in the bracket of great literary classics is firmly assured, Kim would be unpalatable to many modern day readers for its celebration of the empire and its unquestioning stance of the empire’s role in ‘civilizing’ the world. The Impressionist on the other hand mocks all the well-known symbols of the empire by standing them on their head and satirizing the empire’s downfall.
For all its amusing and satirical look at the declining days of the British empire, The Impressionist is a serious book about race, empire and identity. It gently points out the beliefs that empowered the empire and outlived it. These are issues that the modern day world and post-colonial societies still struggle to address in the legacies that were left behind by the empire including those of language, institutions and enduring racial tensions as is evident in the partition of India.
Kunzru has been compared often with Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth who shares his incisive irony towards the fiction surrounding race. Kunzru and Smith have been put in the bracket of hip new multi-ethnic writers of Modern Britain. Kunzru is trendy and hybrid himself (father Indian-Kashmiri, mother English) considering the firm grip that Indian writers have over the literary market. The Impressionist is really more of a British novel than an Indian one as is apparent in the writing. Kunzru is more comfortable in the English parts than the Indian ones in that the English character are better fleshed out than the flat one-dimensional Indian characters. However, the book traverses as much through colonial India as it does Britain. And oddly, the English characters are always portrayed in an unflattering way. Set in the period immediately after World War I, it charts the dangers following that of an undefined identity. The freedom to invent oneself can also mean an absence of moral conscience. For Pran, dishonesty as a means of survival becomes the very facet that begins to make him uncomfortable and question his conscience.
The story is fairly straightforward, at the turn of the last century, a drunk Englishman civil servant crosses paths with a high-on-opium reluctant Hindu bride in an apocalyptic, surrealistic flood. As a result, Pran Nath, our hero is born. Pran Nath is light skinned, but his lightness of skin attributed to his noble heritage. Pran Nath grows up to be a nasty spoilt teenager largely ignored by his hygiene-obsessed Kashmiri father. He is kicked out of his household when a servant reveals his true parentage to fend for himself.
From then on each section of the book is titled after the different personas Pran Nath takes on in his journey of survival. After the avatar of Pran Nath, he becomes Rukhsana the transvestite, who gets sold to the Nawab of Fatepur. Clive/Rukhsana then becomes White Boy who stumbles around in Amritsar in the aftermath of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, where people glare at him mistaking him for a White boy. Escaping from Fatehpur to Bombay, he is adopted by a Scottish missionary couple where he becomes Robert or Pretty Bobby.
A little further down the story, he assumes the identity of Jonathan Bridgeman, along with an English passport and ticket to England. He then sets sail to England to study. In Oxford he meets the beautiful, capricious Astarte. He falls in love with Astarte and finds himself a part of her father’s anthropological expedition to Africa. Just when he has perfected being the Englishman that he has wanted to be, he learns that Astarte has no interest in his Englishness. In Africa, where the book ends, Jonathan comes face-to-face with all that he had repressed. Africa is the emptiness that reflects the hollowness he feels.
The Impressionist can be read on several levels. It can simply be read as a witty adventure story and it can also be read on a more serious level as an examination of race, identity and hybridity. It throws up all-pervasive modern day questions of what hybridity is, what being rootless means, and how one defines ‘home.’
Although Pran Nath remains a fairly flat character until the end, which Kunzru says was deliberate on his part, “he is somebody who is not available to himself,” The Impressionist is a delightfully picaresque novel that’s worth reading for its wildly colorful minor characters, its rollicking wit and for the issues that it examines. It is a novel that one would go back to again in a few years down the line.