Part of the tension in the book is created by the fact that we glimpse all of the action through Tillie’s diary – a kind of mini-summation first person narrative. The different threads of the story are revealed separately in a non-linear fashion, hinting at various existences: a prisoner in some danger, held hostage in a cave by religious bandits, a memsahib travelling in style from hotel, to sightseeing and happy married woman purchasing jewellery, the white interloper playing Indian girl, a cultural misfit trying to come to terms with her new family and their difficult ways, an insecure wife worried about her husband’s potential affair
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Jane Watson
July 2002, ISBN 0 330 36361 1
Paperback, RRP A$22.00
“Our whole lives are made up of worlds which coexist, some flourishing, some dying.” Hindustan Contessa by Jane Watson is the story of a number of coexisting worlds as seen through the travel diaries of an Australian woman on a holiday/pilgrimage in India with her Australian-Indian husband Milan. These words are not only coexisting but bisecting, and as Tillie the narrator tries to make sense of her life and relationship to her husband’s Indian heritage, along with her sense of herself, her husband and the impact of the things that happen to them on their journey. The story is presented in a series of short journal entries, each with a single heading/theme. The couple are transported around India in a large, apparently inappropriate vehicle with an ambivalent name. This ambivalence, eg the strange juxtaposition of an Italian Contessa with the word Hindustan, an Indian vehicle modelled on a perception of what would be appropriate is mirrored in Tillie’s own feelings of confusion as she walks through her husband’s past dressed as an “Indian bride”.
Part of the tension in the book is created by the fact that we glimpse all of the action through Tillie’s diary – a kind of mini-summation first person narrative. The different threads of the story are revealed separately in a non-linear fashion, hinting at various existences: a prisoner in some danger, held hostage in a cave by religious bandits, a memsahib travelling in style from hotel, to sightseeing and happy married woman purchasing jewellery, the white interloper playing Indian girl, a cultural misfit trying to come to terms with her new family and their difficult ways, an insecure wife worried about her husband’s potential affair. In some ways though this is all part of a single superficial world. There is also Tillie’s metaphoric journey, her Freudian trip into the cave of her own subconscious. There are other worlds too outside of Tillie’s. Her husband Milan has to come to grips with his sense of abandonment from his parents first and then the pain of leaving his grandmother who became his carer. India is a land of contrasts and we glimpse the poverty, the revolutionaries, the sellers, the hungry and desperate or the magic. As the lines between these polarities dims, Tillie begins to understand that the linear, black and white approach to life of the west is not the correct approach for either an understanding of India or her own understanding of her life. Good and evil coexist in the same people, misfortune and fortune also are combined, so that her pain and fear become pleasurable, and her oppressors become her saviours.
Time is also distorted, as we see Tillie prior to her trip, in the cave, on the road, meeting with relatives, in a random pattern, pulled together through the power of hindsight but without cause and effect. Milan undergoes transformation as well, although this is Tillie’s novel, and the main impact of Milan’s life, those of his mother and grandmother’s, or those of their driver Ranjit are primarily focused on their impact on Tillie’s own self-knowledge. This may be a weakness of the story. Tillie is a strongly developed character, but other characters are only seen in periphery. The narrative structure and diary like form mean that there is little chance of us getting to know much of Milan, and so his own transformation is much less powerful than Tillie’s. He is clearly meant to be a sympathetic character, and at one point he glimpses Tillie’s diary, begging her forgiveness for his family’s difficult behaviour and her own misinterpretations. He also has moments of vulnerability, but again, since these are only seen in a shadowy hint through Tillie’s perspective, they fail to resonate in the same way as Tillie’s own development.
What does work well is Tillie’s sense of longing which permeates the story. Her sense of desire for what is past and is relationship on her shifting present reality comes through clearly. She has a habit of visualising of individual characters at particularly poignant frozen points in time in the middle of some other action which, when combined with a point of transformation can be powerful. For example, while looking through some old photos at Milan’s grandmother Takama’s house she comes across a one of her father in law: “It is an antique landscape. I wonder if my father-in-law ever imagined that, forty years later, a memsahib who marries his son would come to India and look upon him. Could the storyteller ever forsee that one day he would become the story?” Or Tillie suddenly imagines Gita, Milan’s mother taking off her jewellery – a pair of bracelets like the ones she has purchased herself and selling them to pay for her journey to Australia. These are presented as brief epiphanies or moments of understanding, which also mirror the way in which Tillie has begun to let go of her western cynicism and absorb the Indian culture . Ranjit’s magic tricks, and the interweaving of Indian myth – between the paintings hanging on their Melbourne walls and the day to day myths of elephants holding up the earth which people choose to believe – each takes on an effective reality which Tillie moves toward understanding simultaneously. There are other threads which are perhaps a little underdeveloped, such as the impact of Tillie’s family on Milan or Milan’s sister Priya’s strange disappearance which takes up many pages and then disappears. This is very much Tillie’s story, not that of Milan or his family’s, and attempts to reveal other realities comes across as fairly arbitrary.
The story perhaps attempts to do more than the small scale diary like structure can manage, and Tillie is perhaps just a touch over naive in her narrative. Nevertheless, Hindustan Contessa is an enjoyable and engaging read which takes the reader on a series of simultaneous journeys that become much more than simply a traveller’s tale. The combination of suspense, mythology and psychological transformation are handled well, leaving the reader pondering in a most enjoyable way, the meaning of the cave, the meaning of the jewels, the meaning of the kidnapping, the meaning of the magic and the painful transition between the world we currently inhabit and the one we have come from. Watson’s novel is an interesting read which will leave the reader wondering about time, space and reality long after the very fast and deceptively simple read is finished.