‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ : A Review

JG Farrell was only forty-four when he died in a fishing accident- considering his tremendous talent and the amount of insight he brought to his books, it was a genuine tragedy.

He is perhaps most well known for his Empire trilogy, which consisted of Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip– novels about British colonialism and its effects on the colonies.

I read his Booker Prize winning Troubles a few months ago and found it extremely riveting. Though I had only a basic idea of Ireland’s problems with Britain, the lack of a proper background wasn’t a problem as I read Farrell’s excellent novel about the Troubles of Northern Ireland. One thing that I’d definitely vouch for is Farrell’s ability to entrance and keep the reader engrossed; not for one moment did I feel my attention waver, and finishing one of his books always makes me feel as if I were being torn away from a world I’ve learnt to know and love, despite all its faults.

I have just finished The Siege of Krishnapur. It was a strange coincidence that I read it during the week which, 154 years ago, marked the start of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (only realising it later). The trouble started on 10 May, 1857, when a group of sepoys rebelled against the army of the British East India Company in Meerut. Discontent had long been simmering for various reasons, and the last straw came in the form of the new Enfield rifles whose paper cartridges had to be bitten off before use; the paper was supposedly greased with animal fat, which was an affront to religious sentiments. The unrest as Meerut spread gradually to various areas, including Lucknow, Kanpur and other parts of northern and central India. Farrell writes an account of the defence at a town called Krishnapur (is it the Krishnapur of West Bengal’s Hooghly district?)- as I have always viewed the Great Rebellion from an Indian perspective, it was interesting, for a change, to see it with British (or Irish, to be more apt) eyes.

The Collector of Krishnapur senses trouble, and he begins setting up fortifications around the Residency in the form of much laughed-at ‘mud walls’; the British population in Calcutta is amused at his caution as he goes visiting various important people to advise them of the brewing trouble. His warnings are not taken seriously, but he perseveres with the fortification of the Residency, thus dividing the British in the area into two groups, those who are for caution and those for assault.

Gradually, though, in the face of the mounting attack from the Indian sepoys, the Britishers are forced into shelter at the Residency, turning the place upside down with their various possessions scattered about amidst the Collector’s prized trophies from the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. The women are herded into the once-serene billiard room, while the others occupy various other nooks and corners. That the situation outside the walls of the Residency is delicate and there will be a paucity of food and water does not bother its refugees; they persist in maintaining their class distinctions. Petty fights break out among the women over the use of the one maid available; they persist in ostracising the ‘fallen woman’ who has been talked out of committing suicide and been persuaded to take shelter in the Residency.

Farrell’s skill is evident in the strength of the characters, each of them being endowed with just the right attributes that serve to make them what they are, leading to their glory or doom. No one is absolutely good or bad, but in fact possesses the mixture of qualities so apparent in people all around. The Collector, struggling with the need to stay composed in the face of adversity, maintains a tenuous relationship with the cynical Magistrate. The doctors Dunstaple and McNab are diametrically opposite in nature; the one happily kind and comforting, the other a dour Scotsman, the tension between them reaching a climax as one of them goes into decline. Louise Dunstaple and newly-widowed Miriam Fleury forge a friendship based on necessity, grudgingly accepting the ‘fallen’ Lucy Hopkins and fearing the attraction she exerts on the men of the cantonment. Harry Dunstaple, young and eager to find himself in the middle of action, finds his lot thrown in with the poetic George Fleury, to whom everything must take the shape of words, and who tries to demonstrate his love for Louise as well as he can in the rather constrained circumstances.

The most haunting character, the one that really lingered on in my head, was that of the Padre: walking around distributing tracts, protesting against the heathenism of the natives as he saw the religion he couldn’t comprehend (living in Krishnapur, as he said to himself, named after a heathen god himself), spouting theology viciously at the Collector as he tried to grapple with more earthly issues in the offal-strewn lawns of the Residency. He dug graves for the dead before they began to be dumped into a well, and grudgingly granted Father O’Hara a plot for his Catholic dead; spectre-like, he walked around in the early hours of dawn, praying for deliverance and marvelling at the magnitude of the sin around himself.

Honest, earthy and moving in its depiction of human nature, The Siege of Krishnapur definitely ranks among the best books I’ve ever read.

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Posted on May 19, 2011, in Books. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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