Love, war and the end of Empire

It is the winter of 1941. With the Japanese closing in, after victories in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, World War II has almost reached the Indian border. Within the country, too, the freedom movement is gaining momentum. And for the residents of Pipli, a sleepy railway town in eastern India, the world as they know it is changing. As the events of the time play out in different ways in their lives, they know that nothing is certain anymore.

Set in the final years of the British rule in India, Daman Singh’s Kitty’s War is a fine example of realistic fiction. The book progresses through the stories of four people: Katherine Riddle (Kitty); her widowed father, Terrence; their house help who is identified only as Ayah; and assistant stationmaster Chuckerbutty, the first native officer at the railways at Pipli.

As she moves from one character to the other, Singh, in her elegant and understated style, paints a descriptive picture of the time and the mood of the time. The family photographs on the wall in the house of Kitty’s friend, for example, serve to chronicle the years gone by — through the change in fashion, the appearance of a locomotive in the pictures or through the photograph of a dreamy young man who we are later told was dragged from his house and slaughtered in front of his wife and two children during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. 

Blitz, and then not during the siege of Leningrad, and so on. 

Then there is the nameless Ayah, whose son is fighting for the British in Rangoon and who, like Kitty, is no longer herself as she waits for a letter from him. A tribal, she questions if her life of oppression will change even after the British leave India. The war outside has affected her more than the freedom from the British will. Unlike her, the family cook, Latif, is certain that the ouster of the British from India will turn their lives around.

Chuckerbutty, meanwhile, wants the British to stay. He aspires to be like them. And though the British have distorted his name “Chakravarty” to “Chuckerbutty”, he is pleased about it and thinks this means they consider him one of them. But he begins to question this as the book progresses. His staff certainly don’t consider him a sahib (the master) and insist on calling him babu (a mere aide).

Kitty’s War Author: Daman Singh Publisher: Tranquebar Pages: 243 Price: Rs 350
As the plot deals with the characters’ state of mind, their class struggles and their approach to existing hierarchies, it also reveals their attitudes towards women’s sexuality. Ayah, the tribal woman who has accepted her subservient position in society, is perhaps the most emancipated and confident about her sexuality. The cook, Latif, is openly disapproving of Kitty’s. And Bela, a local woman, is punished, harassed and ostracised for sleeping with a man from outside the clan.

Singh takes the reader to that period in time with the proficiency of an intelligent writer — from the names of the places (Jubbalpore, Cawnpore) and the companies that actually existed then to the music 
and movies of the era. So you have Kitty going to watch Gone with the Wind, which released in 1939 and which the girls of Pipli are especially excited about because of Vivien Leigh. They claim the star as their own, because she was born in Darjeeling, where many girls from Pipli went to school. The music that Kitty’s father, Terrence, would play on the piano, before he decided that he was happiest in his own company and withdrew from society, also points to the time: “'Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” by Lorraine Foreman & The Singing Waiters or Nat King Cole’s “Fascination”.

Kitty’s War moves slowly. The story is told as much through the events around as through the minds of the characters. The railway colony and the railway junction remain a constant in the backdrop. At the turn of every page, you expect something to happen. In this strange, tangential way, Kitty’s War recalls Anna Karenina. It is disorienting, almost like a dream. And yet, in the end, it all comes into focus.