Laura's Reviews > The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
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's review
Jan 22, 2012

it was amazing

I am not one to set herself reading projects (it was bad enough at uni, having to read A Journal of the Plague Year), but I intend to read the full Empire trilogy by Farrell. Now I only have The Singapore Grip to go, but not quite yet, as I love the feeling of looking forward to something so greatly enjoyable.
And yet the topic is grim. I understand all three novels focus on a moment when hold of the British over one of their colonies begins to weaken. His trilogy doesn´t tell us the story of the natives rebelling or taking control over their destiny; the protagonists of his books are the British rulers: the wiltering British Ascendancy in Ireland, and here, the employees of the East India Company, the Collector, the railway engineers, the soldiers and all their families, wives and chidren who often have never set foot in Great Britain, being born in the colony.
The Siege of Krishnapur is set at the time of the Great Mutiny of the sepoys in 1857 and starts in a familiar way: while most of the British refuse to feel threatened by the rumours of trouble coming, the Collector feels uneasy and starts building up some defenses in Krishnapur, only to be considered as an excentric. But trouble does indeed come and the Residency of Krishnapur is sieged by fighting sepoys.
The novel is a magnificent portrayal of the British upper classes in India: their apparent superficiality and snobbishness at the start, during the Season in Calcutta, where women are set on the hunt for a husband; their resiliance and resourcefulness during the siege, perhaps akin to that displayed in the homefront during the Second World War. The experience of the siege unsettles the beliefs and manners of many of the inhabitants of the Residency. And yet when everything is over, generally speaking, they all return to their previous lives with apparent ease. I do admire in the British their ability to "keep calm and carry on", and in this novel, like in my daily life, I can see many examples.
It is a very philosophical novel, in a Shakespearean sort of way. In one particular scene, the Collector digs graves with the priest while musing on the sense of it all, just like Hamlet. Illness and death are a continuous subject and undercurrent, a practicality to deal with as much as grounds for meditation and despair. The characters often talk about the Great Exhibition, the advances of industry and the power and responsibility of the Empire to civilize their colonies. But they also find trouble to reconcile this with religiousness, morality or a more personal way to relate to God.
It may seem that because of the topic the plot would feel stagnant and slow, but Farrell is a master at narration and his tale of the siege shows various stages and developments that, small as they may seem to be, move the events forwards, such as losing part of the residency to the sepoys, the onset of cholera, or running out of drinking water. All this had an effect on the people besieged, in their personality, ideals or health, in a way linking them to one another, making them a group. This becomes especially clear when relief finally arrives, and there is such a strong contrast between the famished remaining population of the Residency, and the fresh, healthy, well-fed soldiers, for whom life as it used to be, has continued as normal. The rescuers even feel repelled by their dirtiness or "indecent" tattered attire. Luckily, things are soon restored to normal.
Although focused on the British, there are some interesting glimpses of the native population: the determined sepoys, the onlookers, or the Anglicized young prince held captive for a while at the Residency, as well as some other people who remained loyal to the British, such as the Sikhs. There is a beautiful love story too, where an insecure, apparently unmanly upper class youth reveals his tenderness in sacrificing his ration in order to make something similar to a birthday cake for the lady he loves.
And the dogs, let us not forget the dogs.

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