Leaving Kanpur: On Hebe de Souza’s “Black British”.

In Black British (Ventura Press, 2016), Hebe de Souza presents a powerful picture of the growing post-independence insecurity and vulnerability of a Jewish Christian Indian family who, for generations, had been living in Kanpur, and their ultimate exodus and uprooting from home. Narrated as being set in 1995 through a frame which looks back at a child and young adulthood spanning from 1958 to 1974, the narrative as a whole retrieves, through retrospective recollection, the memory of a dislocated childhood past. The central artery of the novel is the story of three young girls growing up in a comfortable middle class home of socially established parents of upwardly mobile ancestry. But, hovering over and incessantly challenging to break through their walls are the nationalistic impulses of a new nation, set free from centuries of western domination.

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Hebe de Souza

Being Judeo-Christian, the de Souzas – by birth, social standing, culture and faith – represent and embody an order which, to the common man, is both alienating and festered with entitlement. Their westernization, Catholic faith, English language and ancestry had set the de Souzas – in spite of their resonableness and generosity – on hostile terrain, while post-independence India is seen to head steadily down a widening gulf of disparity and economic want. There are two immediate shadows which haunt the de Souzas. First, the ugly but raw memory of the massacres at partition are fresh in the minds of the elders. The possibility of a similar riot breaking out anytime and their family being targeted during such a crisis is an overwhelming worry. Secondly, the family lives in a general fear of their house being broken into – a fear ignited by their economic stability and their minority status as an ethno-religious group. The narrative pays close attention to the many security and safety precautions the family elders had taken, from the keeping of dogs, parrots and geese, to being particular about locks and bolts. But, overriding both these concerns, there is a perpetual fear for the lives of the children – all girls – who are thought of being as predated on by the ordinary non-Catholic, Hindu community. The novel hints at the persistent fear of sexual predators: those who are more likely to prey on the three girls owing to their skin colour, faith and entitled background.

With increasing civil unrest and (what the writer refers to as) “lawlessness” in the mid-1970s, the family is pressed more and more to give up their home and to migrate to safer and stabler planes. Hate speech graffiti begins to appear on the compound wall. The fear of being assaulted, kidnapped, or at least, of being verbally intimidated, begin to mount. The collective paranoia of being attacked reaches a high when fear dictates the daily routines of family members (217). For instance, the family is now found to gather together in common spaces of the house, making sure they bolt or shut down unoccupied sections, even during the day. “Without being told”, the narrator – now recalling her teenage years – claims, “each of us recognized that our safety was compromised when we were alone” (217). An ugly incident occurs when the father accidentally brushes against a rickshaw  on the road – a typical ‘accident situation’ where people gather, tempers rise and mob behaviour threatens to take over (224-226). Returning home from the site of the accident in a man-drawn rickshaw, the narrator is followed by two cyclists – young men who had earlier been at the accident – who torment her with lewd and humiliating remarks:

Suddenly I felt a strong tug on the back seat and a voice I had heard before, saying in broken English, “I love you darling. Marry me,” and making insulting, kissing sounds towards me – pwoch pwoch. A second voice joined him in a high-pitched mocking laugh.

I knew who it was, but before i could react two bicycles sped past the rickshaw, turned and swooped back, all the time hollering loudly about my face, my breasts and more that I didn’t hear, as the fear-based thudding of my heart obliterated all sound. (225-226).

When inquired as to why the vindictiveness of the rabble reaches such a pitch, the father explains that the lives of the commoner is so hard and without prospect that “they hate, and rightly so, the oppressive regime that kept them subjugated for so long.” The father adds: “They see you as a representative of that regime” (226-227).

downloadThe novel opens in 1958, with the birth of Hebe’s persona, born in a Scottish hospital in Kanpur, on the 29th of November, a day before St. Andrew’s day (3). As her mother is taken to labour, the doctor is found playing the game of his life in the golf course (4). The midwife was out at a tailor’s shop fitting on her new dress for the next day’s ball (5). The small anglicized community was still securely nested  – with their colonial-gifted hospitals, saints and dances – in a world left behind by British occupation, a decade after India’s independence of 1947. However, on the eve of Hebe’s (rather, her persona’s) delivery, another Jewish Christian writer was already reading the proofs of his disillusioned poetry: an apathy at being rejected – or, even, at his not being able to blend in fully, in spite of his yearning to be ‘Indian’ – from the new nation space in which minority social groups such as his own were being outcast. This writer, Nissim Ezekiel, was born in 1928, and by the early 1950s, was already composing on themes of personal and cultural displacement, identity crisis, and the anguish of being increasingly an alien cast-away in an independent, non-English Indian world. Among Ezekiel’s early poetry – “In India” and “Background, Casually” being the popular twins – one finds echoes of Hebe de Souza’s own anguish and childhood fears.

In fact, the commonalities shared by the two writers – which include a Catholic education, a connection with a war veteran defending the Crown, and repulsion felt towards local attitudes towards their privilege -, in spite of their belonging to two generations, place them in a comfortable, mutually-enforcing dialogue. Ezekiel writes:

I went to Roman Catholic school,
A mugging Jew among the wolves.
They told me I had killed the Christ,
That year I won the scripture prize.
A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears.
I grew in terror of the strong
But undernourished Hindu lads,
Their prepositions always wrong,
Repelled me by passivity.

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Nissim Ezekiel (1928-2004)

The “terror” felt of the “strong but undernourished HIndu lads” with their misplaced prepositions closely mirror the sentiments the de Souza girls felt as a part of their day-to-day existence. When someone spoke too loudly, relentlessly knocked at the door, or hawked and spat, the persona’s father used to claim that “all Hindus are like that”:

All Hindus are
Like that, my father used to say,
When someone talked too loudly, or
Knocked at the door like the Devil.
They hawked and spat. They sprawled around.

However, Ezekiel ends this poem in a tone of resignation – as one who submits to his conditions and resolves to carry on. In spite of being rejected and relegated to a margin, his willingness to identify India as home is locatable in some of his early (pre-1970) pieces. “Background, Casually” concludes with a similar evocation:

I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place.
My backward place is where I am.

Hebe-Sept-1969
Hebe in 1969, pic c/o of a Hebe de Souza interview with Marina Marangos

However, the de Souzas decide to snap the ancestral roots and to break away from sentimentality, in view of their daughters’ future well being. Yet, up to the girls’ parents, aunts and uncles  live to thrive and breathe their last in Kanpur – the city of their childhood, youth, middle age and waning years: the nursery of their whole life. The girls’ Uncle Hugh – perhaps, the most understanding and worldly of the elders – summons his nieces shortly before his demise. His final advice to them is one wrought with pragmatism and progressive spirit: “Don’t waste your lives… Be careful you’re not left holding the ladder for someone else to climb!” (244). The tug to sell the family’s ancestral home and leave – a prospect that, at one point, seemed an absurdity – comes from the father. In a long, detailed and persuasive speech, he outlines how – by 1974 – India had become “no longer the country” for a small, Christian minority that wasn’t conversant in Hindi. (248-253). In a speech that places in perspective the adverse effects of colonialism and the social order therein derived (254-255), he maps with dispassion and objectivity the post-colonial trends and treks of surging Hindu nationalism (256-259). “We are too different” he says. “Our culture is different, adopted from a far-off island and left over from a bygone era. Our customs are different, the songs we sing, the books we read, the clothes we wear, the respect you expect and take for granted” (252). Their forebears having migrated there from Goa, and in spite of the life they had inherited in Kanpur, the father’s verdict is decisive: “You cannot stay in Kanpur. If you do, you’ll be a living sacrifice to the glories of yesteryear” (259).

Unlike Ezekiel, the de Souzas are one of the many families that opted for an exit strategy,  and broke away from the dangerous and debilitating vortex of an age. Like their ancestors – who, we are told, left Goa for an industrious life in Kanpur when such opportunities were beckoning – they had effectively moved beyond numbing circumstances, in search of freedom, courage, and hope. Black British is both a testimony  of that removal, as much as it is a eulogy for what they were forced to take leave of, if not leave behind.

2 thoughts on “Leaving Kanpur: On Hebe de Souza’s “Black British”.

  1. Vihanga, Your review is my book Black British is excellent. You’ve picked up on the fear and insecurities that we lived with, that we fully understood and accepted. You’ve also recognized how hard it was to leave one’s childhood home where one’s family has lived for over 100 years.
    I wanted the show the effects of colonialism over generations. My family was displaced three times in 400 years – first by Portugal when we lost our Hindu name and religion, taking on a Portuguese name and religion, then by British India when they kept their name and religion but lost their language and culture (music and dance is a strong item of Goan life) and finally by India when we became strangers in what should have been our own land. Though each generation of my family flourished under and within the new regime, it doesn’t make colonialism right. Someone somewhere paid a price for that success.

    Thank you for your wonderful writing.

    PS: My childhood home is on the cover of the book and features in the story. My sisters and I are so grateful that it became a Saint Mother Teresa orphanage and fulfills “its destiny and through the years house[s] lots of noisy, laughing, happy children saved from the streets. They’ll have a home and a future. A fitting bequest from my lovely daughters.” (268).

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    1. Dear Hebe, thank you for writing in. I read the book with deep interest. In fact, something that deeply drew my attention was the school atmosphere – the oppressive and not-too-darling memories of the educational hierarchy. I am interested in impressions of school from both colonial and post-colonial classrooms, and this gave me much food for thought. Best wishes.

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