Saturday, January 19, 2013

Branches of Childhood

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Delhi


It’s not easy to write about the experience of childhood. On one side, there’s the Scylla of being patronizing; on the other, the Charybdis of an adult sensibility colouring the proceedings. In his debut novel, the 81-year-old Srikumar Sen avoids the first and only occasionally strays into the second. His The Skinning Tree is marvellously evocative of the narrator’s childhood in 1940s Calcutta and in a Catholic boarding school in north India.

From its arresting opening that deals with a school matron’s tragic fall off a precipice, the novel submerges us in the mind of the 9-year-old Sabby and his privileged pre-Independence childhood.  He’s snatched from this Eden when his parents, fearing a Japanese invasion, send him away to school. Sabby’s Calcutta escapades, from watching a movie with a friend to making manja to fly kites, are portrayed in just the right tone of childlike wonder and thrill of discovery. The meals during a trip to Mussoorie are symbolic of his worldview: “variations of Windsor soup, Irish stew, Emperor pudding at dinner time and curry and rice and chutneys at lunch”. The effect is spoilt somewhat on the occasions that Sen spells this out in more literal terms.

When he faces the harshness of boarding school, the gentle Sabby begins to change. Sen captures his classmates’ Anglo-Indian patios – “I’m telling you, m’n! Yeah, m’n!” -- and challenges such as the making of a bed or the stealing of a chapatti. The school administrators, “distant disciplinarians in white habits”, keep the boys in line by whipping and caning, and this brutish treatment makes Sabby and his friends brutal too. For sport, they mutilate snakes and squirrels, throwing their carcasses onto a tree-entwined cactus on a nearby slope – the “skinning tree” of the title. Their predicament can again be read as symbolic, especially the fear of an English penny tied to a strap “to make it hurt more”.

Symbolic or otherwise, The Skinning Tree’s primary purpose is in the evocation of a lost time and its lingering effects. As such, the narrative drive can sometimes flag but Sen succeeds wonderfully in recreating sleepy afternoons, bridge-playing evenings, the strangeness of a new school and the in-between world of an Anglicised Indian upbringing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a review on this.
Seems like an interesting read.