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Hari Kunzru: The Impressionist

Kunzru’s first novel is a hilarious romp though India and England in the early part of the last century, following the life of an Anglo-Indian, as he travels from India to Africa via England. It’s not clear who Kunzru despises most – the Indians, the English or the Anglo-Indians – but he makes fun of all of them, with hilarious invective.

Our hero – Pran Nath Razdan – has the auspicious beginnings of any hero. His mother was a well-to-do but spoilt and crazy Indian princess, who is caught in a flood in which most people drown but she survives. She briefly fishes an English environmentalist out of the water and loses her virginity with him, before he casts himself back into the water – it’s his first time, too – his body later being found caught in a tree. Cut to fifteen years later, where our hero is the very spoilt brat of a well-to-do merchant who assumes Pran is his son, being unaware of his now late wife’s transgression with the Englishman. However, Pran’s obnoxious behaviour, culminating in his attempt to rape the maid, leads to his identity being revealed and his expulsion from the household minutes before the death of his now former father from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919.

Suddenly, face to face with the real world, desperate and despised, Pran falls back on his only resource, his inherent and inherited cunning. From prostitution to a British major’s pet to the son-substitute for a British woman whose two sons had been killed in the Flanders trenches, Pran follows a picaresque and slightly improbable journey round British India before he is able to take the identity of a recently orphaned and relatively wealthy Englishman and escape to England. In England, he attends an English boarding school and then Oxford but clearly does not fit in and is tormented and ostracised. In order to win the girl of his dreams, he attends her father’s anthropological lectures. He doesn’t win the girl but he does get to accompany the father to Africa. Having mocked the Indians, the English and the Anglo-Indians, Kunzru reserves his greatest spite for the anthropologists studying the supposedly uncivilised Africans. But our hero, ever the chameleon, survives even there.

Kunzru’s hero is a chameleon but, even in his chameleonness, he doesn’t quite fit in. He hovers around the margins of the different groups he joins, trying to learn their ways but never really succeeding. Kunzru tells his story with great humour, mocking and parodying everything and everyone that crosses his path. But, behind the humour and satire, there is, as always, the sad story of a man of two races who ends up being neither.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Hamish Hamilton