Roundabout: Return of the pines and a racy Partition thriller

ByNirupama Dutt
Jan 01, 2023 01:53 PM IST

All beginnings and closings find us looking before and after and the passing year has in hand a book on the Raj and another telling a gusty the tale of rising from the ashes of the past

It is the second coming of In the Shadows of the Pines by Mandeep Rai, an author who wields a pen that inks the past with an eye on the present. Historical fiction is his forte and he quite literally conceived this novel in the shades of the pines and the cedars when he was posted in Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital of the Raj, as an income tax officer.

Mandeep Rai with the 25th anniversary edition of his book In the Shadows of the Pines and Priya Hajela with her new novel, Ladies’ Tailor. (HT Photo)
Mandeep Rai with the 25th anniversary edition of his book In the Shadows of the Pines and Priya Hajela with her new novel, Ladies’ Tailor. (HT Photo)

Looking back at those four years (1978-1983), Rai heaps rhapsodies of praise as he recalls the environment in the hills, walking to and fro from the home to office in sunshine, drizzle and snow in the less crowded times: “Living in Shimla attunes you to the hills and the interplay of light shades of the cedars and pines. Even the calls and echoes of the hills are so different and the stills and silences open new vistas for being one with nature. But for my experience of the Shimla hills, this book would never have been written.”

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First published by UBS Publishers in 1996, the book has now come out in its 25th anniversary edition from Hardeep Chandpuri’s Ferntree Publishing with a misty landscape of the hills on the cover. Interestingly, it was released both times at the The Lawrence School, Sanawar, as Kasauli, written Kussowlie in the colonial times, features in the book.

Rai clarifies that it is not a book glorifying the British Raj but is “a tale of one man’s mission to change the destiny of the sub-continent.” The book is set in the mid-nineteenth century and covers Lord Dalhousie’s career as the governor-general who helped create a new world in India. Rai’s other novels include No Friends - No Enemies, When the Vulture Descends and The Wheel of Destiny. A little bird also tells us that he is working on yet another historical novel, but the subject is not yet disclosed.

Art imitating life

The Partition of India that came along with Independence has been the subject of fiction and poetry across languages in the sub-continent and abroad with a vast array of books across genres. The first cry came from a Punjabi poet, a few months after she migrated from Lahore in 1947, to start life anew in Delhi, when she penned the heartrending ode to Waris Shah. In Punjab and Bengal, the impact was more because these two regions were cut into halves.

So when one hears about yet another book on the Partition, one cannot but wonder what more could it be offering. So it was with Ladies’ Tailor, a debut novel by Priya Hajela, published by Harper Collins. A blurb on the back jacket made it plain that it was neither a book on religion nor an account of historical events, but a story capturing the spirit of people, who represent the immigrant spirit – the spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship that defined new India. Well, one has seen that unfold in real life from the Bollywood success stories in Mumbai to the Moti Mahal butter chicken masala in old Delhi and right here in Chandigarh in the journey up the ladder of Gulatis and Peshawari. So what now?

It was the very arty design of a sewing machine, the kind our mothers and grandmothers used, that enticed one to open it. Was art imitating life once more? I recalled hearing a story from a professor of mathematics at Panjab University whose family had migrated from Pakistan to Hoshiarpur with just a sewing machine. With that they set up shop with the man noting down the orders and his wife all set to play the tailor. The first order comes from a man who wants to get a shirt stitched, but he forgets to give his measurements and they too forget to note them down. He returns the third day and finds the shirt stitched and ready. Surprised, he asks how they did it and is told the tailor gathered that he was her husband’s size, and the shirt fit the customer well.

Hajela’s narrative is far more advanced as it has the protagonist Gurdev suffering many a loss and rising above them all by forgetting his aristocratic background and studies abroad to assist a tailor in business. The story then flies like a thriller with crossborder trips, including the smuggling in of two ace embroiderer boys – Salim and Samir, rescuing his old parents held captive in the servant quarters of their own home in Lahore and so on. Yes, it makes for a racy Partition thriller. Hajela ,who studied at Auckland House, Shimla, and The Lawrence School, Sanawar, spent her holidays with her grandparents, who migrated from Gujar Khan in Pakistan, and set up a garments shop in Ludhiana.

Hajela who worked in IT and marketing willed herself to be a writer, and pursued a creative writing course from Goddard College in Vermont in 2017 because she had stories to tell. On her novel being described as a thriller, she says: “I am a big fan of the mystery and thriller genres, but did not think I could pull off a stand-alone one my first time out of the gate.”

The author is deep into her next novel, a prequel to Ladies’ Tailor, going back to the to the Anglo-Sikh wars, the first war of independence, the Indo-Afghan skirmishes and finally the independence movement. This time, I get deeper into historical events, but still only use them as backdrop for four stories over four generations. Atta girl, keep going!

Caption: THE MOVING FINGER WRITES: Mandeep Rai with the 25th anniversary edition of his book and Priya Hajela talking about her mint-fresh novel. HT Photos

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