Saturday 19 September 2015

Nowhere People

‘Can one just step into a photo frame and thus re-enter the past?’

The first time I heard of a place called McCluskieganj was in 2013 when I read Ian Jack’s lovely collection of non-fiction work, Mofussil Junction. It is a  village located roughly 65 kilometers from Ranchi (Jharkhand) which gets its peculiar name from its founder, Mr. Timothy Ernest McCluskie. Mr. McCluskie ( who ran  a real estate business), was a  prominent member of the Anglo-Indian community along with being a member of the Bengal’s Legislative Council in the 1920s. He had a vision for establishing a separate homeland for his community and formed a cooperative society through which fellow members could buy plots near a station then called Lapra.The foundation ceremony was held in November 1934. Unfortunately Mr.McCluskie passed away the following year but his dream was fulfilled even though it was doomed to fail in the future. The community was looked down upon by the British ( “racially impure’’) and local population (mostly tribals) always looked upon them as outsiders. Though many Anglo-Indian families settled there post independence, most of the next generation decided to migrate out of India to Canada, Australia and New Zealand for better prospects, never to return.

Vikas Kumar Jha’s book, McCluskieganj, The story of the only Anglo-Indian Village in India (Harper Perennial 2015, Rs.399) presents an updated account of life in the village seamlessly mixing fiction and non-fiction. The author who is a journalist, has spent a considerable time in the village and several of his characters are based on actual people staying there. The protagonist is Mr. Dennis McGowan who like many others had moved to Hong Kong from McCluskieganj, and now longs to go back to his village where he grew up. He is extremely nostalgic about his life in the village and continuously shares his stories with his son Robin. This motivates Robin to plan a visit to McCluskieganj and write a novel about the place. Meanwhile life moves on slowly in McCluskieganj where mostly the senior members of the Anglo-Indian community are left and they have over the years more or less integrated well with the local tribals. Their daily chores and challenges are very well described in detail by the author and they seem to have made peace with their existence even though a sense of tragedy always hangs in the background. Each and every character has an interesting story linked to him/her. Most poignant amongst these is the story of Mrs. Kitty Taxeria who once belonged to a wealthy family but now sells fruits at the railway station to make ends meet. (Her photograph also adorns the cover of the book).
 Robin’s arrival in the village triggers old memories in the community. At one level the novels also works as a commentary on nostalgia and displacement. After spending time in the village and falling in love with a local tribal girl, Robin comes up with the idea of celebrating 3rd November as the founder’s day. This decision sets of a chain of events as the whole village starts gearing up for the big day with relatives flying in from abroad to take part in the celebrations. Towards the end the story, a rather dramatic turn takes over. Some of the readers would find this sudden turn in the story a bit incredulous but that is only a minor irritant in an otherwise excellent book. It is a tribute of the small community which has not got its due and may not even exist in the next few decades. Many of us would always be grateful to the community for the excellent educational institutions which they continue to run selflessly  with discipline and without compromising on the values.
This book was originally published in Hindi in 2011 and it is easy to see the amount of effort put in by the author and the relationships he established in the village. In a small interview towards the end he says ‘The completion of McCluskieganj left a big void in my life. For several years I was at a loss as to what I should write next’.

The book also contains several photographs of prominent people and places of McCluskieganj and these along with the excellent cover add value to the book.

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