Review: Kitty’s War by Daman Singh
Identity, it seems, is the unsolved dilemma that defies time and histories. It also unites literature. Shakespeare dealt with it by cross-dressing his characters or pouring a tragic Oedipal complex into another. In Toba Tek Singh, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote of Bishan Singh, lost between the borders of India and Pakistan. And Haruki Murakami tells stories of souls searching for meaning in their contemporary existence.
Once the reader gets past the title of the novel, Kitty’s War, she realises that this is not a dumbed-down product of popular culture. It is surprisingly genuine in its words and message.
Daman Singh’s novel foregoes the rules of building up to a plot and speaks for four protagonists, all of whom are linked through their lives at the quaint Pipli railway colony. It is 1941 and the Japanese forces are advancing towards India. The country is on the verge of being sucked into the Second World War while its own people are awakening to the call of freedom. On the sidelines, the characters explore their roles in the divisions that are soon going to engulf the colonized nation. The Anglo Indians are torn in their longing for home – is it the country they were born in or the one to which they swear allegiance? The natives who have been serving the British have their own burdens to carry. The choice for Indians: join the struggle or be called a traitor.
The cover makes you believe the book features a grand implosion of tensions. But this isn’t to be.
Instead, the clarion never hits crescendo and the identity conflict fails to emerge from its complexities. The ripples rise to the surface, but ironically, like the war that wasn’t ours, doesn’t strike the shore.
Detachment, a major theme of the story, too works against the novel. There are enough citations of the brutal war, still it seems oddly estranged from the realities of its small-town people. The narratives that are meant to pull the readers in and devastate them are incomplete because the plot is a mere segment of the lives of the characters. In Pipli, a tribal mother waiting for her son – a soldier in the British Indian Army – should have been a haunting tale. Yet, it doesn’t hit an emotional chord.
The author redeems herself by attempting to go beyond the clamour of popular Indian fiction. The language flows easily and fits the tones of its mixed characters. The story also correctly captures the differences between the natives and the rulers. It is easy to paint all colonial Englishmen as believers in the inherent supremacy of the ‘civilized’ world against the ‘savage’. Singh, however, brings out the subtle individuality of her subjects. Not all of them, despite the colour of their skin and even when they are part of a colonizing force, are the same.
Conceptually Kitty’s War ticks all the right boxes. It falls short of mere fruition.