AFTER THE BALL WAS OVER. By Rosemary Kingsland. Viking. 146 pp. $14.95; PLANS FOR DEPARTURE; By Nayantara Sahgal. W.W. Norton. 216 pp. $14.95.
BY NOW IT SEEMS CLEAR that the literature of India with the widest appeal to the western public is really the literature of non-Indians in India. And here are two new novels in that tradition: about the rulers, not the ruled, of Empire. Plans for Departure, the more serious but less successful, is set in a tiny community at the foothills of the Himalayas, on the eve of World War I. The rollicking After the Ball Was Over takes place in 1930, in a small railway town.
Plans for Departure concerns a group of people -- mostly Europeans -- who meet briefly in remote Himapur. The time is 1914, long after the East India Company's heyday, and the Indian Mutiny had produced a backlash in the colonial administration. Unaware that the war in Europe is imminent, Anna Hansen has left her English lover and her Danish relatives to spend a year in India. Anna is a tall, blond "Valkyrie" of independent means and ways, with interests worthy of an early 20th-century Danish eccentric: health food, yoga, emancipation, Indian nationalism, and Theosophy. She has come to Himapur to act as personal assistant to Sir Nitin Basu, a distinguished and crotchety scientist who prefers to keep out of politics and concentrate instead on studying the emotional range of plants.
The person in Himapur Anna is most drawn to, however, is Henry Brewster, the district magistrate who "suffered from philosophy, and had chronic attacks of ruling-class conscience." Brewster is the sort of "DM" who "would have been delighted to see every existing empire pack up." Instead, it's his wife who's packed up and left.
Drawn to his melancholy, intrigued by the undisclosed reasons behind his wife's departure, Anna is increasingly attracted to Brewster. This shift in romantic interest is hardly surprising, considering the quality of her English lover Nicholas' letters, which seem more like Foreign Office dispatches than love letters.
Anna's involvement with Brewster is averted, however, when she begins to suspect that Brewster's wife hasn't actually left Himapur but has been murdered by Brewster himself. Anna decides to return home to Nicholas as planned. In London, after a little awkwardness, Nicholas and Anna make their peace even though "the public certainties they had taken for granted could no longer be relied on either. Life ahead would have to consist of whatever they could salvage from public and private ruins."
One of the curiosities of this novel is that although it is set in India and written by an Indian (Nayantara Sahgal is Jawaharlal Nehru's niece), it is almost quaint in its European sensibility -- not only in its overriding concerns about the European war, or the contingency of the Indian characters in relation to the Europeans, or even the many allusions to European myth, culture, and civilization. The very spirit of Plans for Departure, the language itself, seems embedded in the amber of that European period, with all its slogans, its jingoistic cliches, its ignorance of irony.
Not only does Sahgal inflict upon her characters some crashingly tedious exchanges about the war's unfolding, she herself lapses into the hackneyed idiom of war propaganda: "Crowned heads exchanged telegrams reminding each other of the tender ties of blood and sentiment that bound them. Governments burned the midnight oil trying to keep the Austro-Serbian crisis from spreading . . . His letter rang with the hoofbeats of imperial cavalries at midnight maneuvers . . . He waited for his beloved Europe to plunge a knife treacherously into her own vitals." And so on. In short, I would have to say Plans for Departure is an enlightened but uninspired novel; in a word, dull.
By contrast, Rosemary Kingsland's After the Ball Was Over doesn't treat its smalltown officialdom seriously. It's just as well. Everybody's getting ready for the Railway Apprentices' Ball, an event so grand "People came from every corner of the East Indian Railway to attend it, fighting for tickets, frantic when they were left out." There's a lot going on -- and not just in preparation for the Ball.
Solomon, the head bearer in the European Grade Apprentices' Hostel, suspects his most recent wife of infidelity, and enlists Francis the baker as spy. Sergeant-Major Barhill, the philanderer and bully, suspects his beautiful daughter Jane of harlotry. ("Going to church, I suppose," Sergeant-Major Barhill sneers. "Well, see your daughter gets behind the organ and stays there. I want her playing hymns, not playing around, d'ye hear? And don't tell me that nothing can happen at church, because I know different.") It turns out the old goat is right: In church, behind the organ, no less, Jane must fight off the molestations of one Sergeant O'Leary, who "had edged his way up to the organ, subtly avoiding detection by sneaking from pillar to pillar." But not subtly enough for his rejected lover, Mrs. Ray (she's the real harlot), who makes her way "from pew to pew with an odd sliding motion, almost walking on her haunches, maintaining a height equal to the seated members of the congregation."
MEANWHILE, back at a farm owned by the crippled Mrs. Jameson, her overworked daughter Jessie must content herself with farmyard fantasies until she finds solace in the person of Dr. Ray, who's been cuckolded by his sluttish wife.
More scandals are afoot: The prosperous Mr. Edwards, upstanding citizen and church elder, discovers that his daughter Lizzie, who'd come home from school with a migraine, now thinks she's a bird (she later tries to build a nest). Distraught, he discloses to his wife that he once had a cousin who thought he was a bicycle. Madness in the family? Horrors? How to tell their other children, Sonny and Edna? Especially since Sonny and his wife Claire are expecting their first child. Only, the child is not Sonny's but Joseph's. Joseph is married to Edna, Sonny's sister, but has been having a fling with Claire, Sonny's wife.
I've given away too much, I fear, so I may as well give away the rest: Sonny takes up with the indefatigable Mrs. Ray, but in the end Claire decides she really loves Sonny, her husband, and not Joseph, her brother-in-law; Lizzie Edwards the bird doesn't show much improvement (in fact, she's gone and laid some eggs), but at least she isn't dangerous; Jessie Jameson finds happiness with Dr. Ray; her mother finds happiness when her despicable daughter-in-law is discovered in a pool of blood, killed by a marauding tiger who barged into her spare bedroom; the beautiful Jane has her dreams come true, too, when she is saved from the clutches of dirty old Dad by a rich and handsome Irish-American actor.
Everything comes up roses -- even for Solomon, who learns that his young wife hasn't been cheating on him at all. As for the ball, the best part of it is what happens to the Controller, the Very Honourable Bertram Papworth, "a large, purple-faced, got-a-nasty-smell-under-my-nose, don't-see-anybody-round- here-worth-my-notice type of gentleman." Didn't I mention him before? Well, at least I haven't given away everything.