Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) A novel of the Indian Mutiiny

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:J.G. Farrell
"Farrell introduces us gradually to a large cast of characters as he paints a vivid portrait of the Victorians' daily routines that are accompanied by heat, boredom, class-consciousness and the pursuit of genteel pastimes intended for cooler climates. Even the siege begins slowly, with disquieting news of massacres in cities far away..."
Alex Wilber, Amazon book reviews.

"the rim of darkness beneath the horizon began to sparkle like a firework and immediately the air about them began to sing and howl with flying metal and chips of masonry ... then in a wave came the sound. Daubs of orange hopped at regular intervals from one end of the darkness to the other. Suddenly, a shrapnel shell landed on the corner of the veranda and all was chaos."--Farrell, "Siege of Krishnapur."

J.G. Farrell's 1973 Booker prize winning novel is about a group of British colonial officials, ordinary civilians and some Indian loyalists holding out against a determined group of "Sepoy" (Indian troops) during the Great Mutiny of 1857. It is one of three book about Imperialism, British-style, Mr. Farrell wrote in his short life. Sadly, the Oxford-educated writer, who appears to have the talents of both a genuine wit, keen psychologist and vivid historical reinactor, died in 1979 at age 44 when a wave struck him during a fishing trip on the rocks near his home in Ireland in 1979.

The main characters in the book find themselves under siege in a provincial town in northern India at the time of the Great Mutiny of the regular indigenous soldiers against the East India Company, a war triggered by the introduction of a type of cartridge for the new Enfield rifles that the Muslim troops believe contains pig fat as a grease, thus making it seem an attack on their culture.
The uprising (or revolution) at first comes to the main character of the book, Hopkins, East indian official, through dispatches and rumor and some small biscuits that suddenly appear mysteriously in a dispatch box in his office. Hopkins is known as "The Collector" in the book and he is a classic 19th Century Positivist who visited the Great Exhibition of London while on leave from his employers in 1851. His faith in science and technology from industrialization is solid, so much so that he brings out statues of Shakespeare and Keats and Socrates and other Western thinkers to decorate his office and remind him of the "superior" culture that justifys the subjugation of Indians of all races and sects.

Then bad things happen. British officers stragger from a local fort into Krishnapur, the survivors of the spreading mutiny. Many are severely wounded and others have fresh tales of cut-throat engagements with their former local-recruits: privates, corporals and sergeants who have opened fire and put the Europeans to the sword. The Sepoys make up most of the active forces in northern India and the British troops are outnumbered and spread too thin to come to any timely relief. British confidence, built up over a century of progress in subjagating northern India, is shattered.

The siege goes on for weeks. All European and Eurasian citizens crowd their way into the Residency ,where a last-ditch effort is made to survive. What was a ground for cricket games and picnics and official festivities showing off a replica of "proper" Victorian society abroad is ripped apart by shell and shot. The stench of the dead, animal and human, surrounds the besieged. The necessity of burial parties and desperate counter-attacks to fend off the enemy and capture some food and cannon shot become the new pastimes of any man not already dead or unable to stand.

The European ladies are trapped in the relative safety of the chapel, making bullets out of anything metal they can find and forbidden by prejudice from taking amore active part in the defense of their lives. The poverty-stricken natives gather outside about the perimeter of the Residency, waiting for the Union Jack to be struck down and the slaughter to commence.

Stripped away of their sense of superiority to nature and the natives by deprivation, near-starvation, and a growing lack of hope in rescue, some go off the beam while others reassess their lives and their faith either in religion or Eurpopean scientific progress; all pretense of class distinctions ebb away as well.

Farrell does an excellent job in the beginning of the novel, both in establishing the main characters and having some fun wagging at the old-style romantics of Victorian romance. There are two men who just arrive in India in the novel's first chapters: a young idealistic chap named Flurey, a romantic fellow with a head filled with Byron and Coleridge, and a brave but rather callow young officer. Both men are after a pretty young lady who they first meet in the luxury and safety of the port city of Calcutta, a bastion of British power and the place where much of the opium trade to China is situated. All three will see their world turn upside down at Krishnapur.

The young "hero" of the book is a visiting English travelling gent and university educated poet named Flurey. This is no dashing hero--more like just a smart fellow with the wrong training in the worst possible place. He has to bone up quickly on the military arts to help the British officers and Sikh loyalists in defending the residency. The book is, according to the introduction, very much in the style of the romantic and pro-colonial "Mutiny Novel" that was popular for many years in Britain, where a young soldier and a lady he fancies find themselves thrown together by the insurrection and the Indian forces outside the walls of whatever town ship are always bloodthirsty savages.

But Farrell takes the obsolete "Mutiny novel" to a very different place, where more emphasis is made on anti-romantic, mordant humor and insecurities among the "middle managers" of empire. There are also and some flat-out hilarious passages (such as two doctors arguing over the right treatment for cholera whenever one recovers enough from the other man's treatment to argue against the cure) and the imaginative day-dreaming of Flurey, who fancies that his new -found military bravado will get him a big story in the London Illustrated News.

If Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling had teamed up to write a novel and to accommodate each others style, "The Siege of Krishnapur" might well have been a similar result. This is an older book, but one that has been reprinted several times--most recently by the New York Review of Books Press. To me, it is worth seeking out.


  1. Ah, Doug, this one takes me back!

    I read it decades ago - it was among the losses in my housefire, and it would make a welcome addition again.

  2. I was thinking at last one of my well-read friends in this circle had read this, Astra.

    I just discovered what a great book it is, and hope to be reading more by Mr. Farrell shortly.

    Next to personal photos, a favored book is a hard thing to lose.