Thursday, 20 April 2017

Book Review: Once Upon a Time... - One Frenchman against British Imperialism

I was going through a reader's block for a while and picked up this book on a whim and also because, Sam Miller's book on Delhi had left me impressed a few years back. I did not expect much from it but, easy reading that I hoped would put me back on the proverbial horseback riding of book reading. I was not disappointed on that front. I took to it like duck to water.

The story is full of hyperbole and loopholes but, the writer tried hard to show Indians in an somewhat impartial manner as humans and not barbarians. He also tried to be respectful of the Hindu religion though failed totally to justify untouchability. I do not think he was wrong in upholding that ideology. Many today will agree with him. He has rather ended the story in a way that the Republic of India was formed a hundred years later - equality for all.

I agreed to him in most of his views though Alfred Assolant never visited India! But, so what? Bibhutibhushan Bondopadhaya had never been to Africa and yet wrote the must-read book of all Bengalis coming-of-age, Chander Pahad. It is full of cliches and a hero who is just out of school!

Anyway, coming back to this book, I loved the characters of Capt Corcoran and his pet tigress, Louison. They are both obviously larger than life and not much unlike the merry gang of Kipling's Jungle Book though, Louison never talks and that's perhaps what puts it on the shelves for young adult and adult readers. Or anyone like me who loves a tale of swashbuckling adventures replete with beautiful young princesses and treasures. I guess no one can find fault in that genre of storytelling. It's as old as the hills.

Also, most people read fiction or watch films is to run away from the reality. Isn't it?

So, to cut a long story short, despite my reading handicap, I finished the story in two sessions and being a Bengali could not help compare it to Chander Pahar that I had read as a young adult in the original Bengali version. It was as riddled with cliches and struggling to rise above it on Africa as this one does on India.

Overall, I enjoyed it immensely because it made me laugh at the antics of the young Frenchman and his adventures in India. It is full of cardboard characters both Indian and British. We never get to understand or delve deep into the head of the characters much though each important one gets a brief historical narration about them and how they ended up in the thick of action that the book is.

However, Corcoran and Louisa are the real plot movers. The captain being the embodiment of everything heroic down to being a good human being and a just ruler and Lousia the tigress being the perfect foil, a diva of present day Angelena Jolie's caliber who can be a female and a toughie in the same frame. The beautiful Indian princess is just a cardboard prop in the story. The Balinese tigress is the real deal.

I'd recommend anyone who loves unrealistic adventure tales to go for it.

It's easy to read and fairly unbiased in narration of the Indian characters though mauling the characters of those serving British East India company badly - in words and through Lousia's actions.

I could go as far as to say that it kind of fits right in with the nationalistic fervor we are witnessing these days!

Happy reading folks. 

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