In a blend of fictional conventions, Lakshmi Raj Sharma’s THE TAILOR’S NEEDLE uses the past to highlight modern India’s fragmentation. The novel paints an intimate portrait of a Brahmin family toiling through the last three decades of British rule. The freedom struggle during the final years of colonial rule is an elegant, chastening reminder of honourable intentions long forsaken by a corrupt generation of political heirs today. By turns lyrical, mystical, philosophical, hilarious, grotesque and compelling, THE TAILOR’S NEEDLE follows the lives of Cambridge educated Sir Saraswati Chandra Ranbakshi and his three children: the wilful, daring Maneka; her docile sister Sita; and the middle sibling, their brother Yogendra. Running through it all, is Sir Saraswati’s battle to resolve affection for Britain with his belief in the ideals of the Mahatma. As Sir Saraswati’s children grow up, he balances the requirements of the State Maharaja of Kashinagar with those of the British Viceroy of India. Sita waits patiently for a life to be determined by others until circumstances lead to her marriage with the Maharaja of Behrampur; Maneka, betrayed by her lover, becomes mistress of the eerie Nadir Palace and falls under suspicion of murder; Yogendra tumbles into love with a girl below his caste. The problem of an inter-caste marriage in those times provides much of the tension of the novel. The latter event in particular determines the family’s future: Sir Saraswati supports the young couple, seeing their union as a perfect metaphor for a united India. His moral vitality serves as a subliminal lament to India’s political class today. In a dignified reproach to those who have failed the country, Sharma’s THE TAILOR’S NEEDLE is a final adieu to the great Indian Raj novel.
Lord Mortimer Edmund Griffin-Tiffin, His Excellency, the Viceroy of India, sat in his thickly cushioned chair looking at the mirror, which had a bejeweled frame, and saw in it the reflection of a rather comic face. His barber made every effort to ensure that His Excellency’s excellent skin remained unharmed by the exigencies of an overpowering pair of scissors. His moustaches, his side-whiskers, and his curly wurly hairstyle were examined from 360 angles to make sure that not a lock or curl stood out in rebellion and that every strand around the bald pate surrendered in submission.
“That’s not a bad job at all!” said His Excellency, “Am I free at last?”
“You was always free Sir!” said Mehmud, “It is we peepull who are slaves.”
“You’re getting cheeky, Maymood! I think my predecessor gave you far too much liberty. Who says India is enslaved? A country in which an ordinary barber can backchat so boisterously with one no less than the Viceroy himself, can hardly be called enslaved. Is it not a proof of the limits of permissiveness to which the British character can stoop?” said the Viceroy winking at his favourite Mehmud, the man who always provided His Excellency with lots of gaiety.
“Lord Sahab, you asking me? I says, there is in fact no limits to which the British character can st . . .”
“All right, all right,” said the Viceroy interrupting him, “Just because I like you, it doesn’t mean you’ll get away with anything that you choose to say. Come on, pull me out of this chair, will you?”
“Yes, Lord Sahab, I will. Just a meenut.”
The Viceroy was pulled out of one chair and put onto another, one that was even glossier and cushier. Four mirrors stood around the chair to facilitate His Excellency’s vision, which for the lack of a better phrase, could be described as “a vision that was focused ubiquitously”. He sat in admiration not only of his own head but also of his dear barber’s craft, which made his bulldoggish expression look more compromised and combed down. He ogled at his visage for long, trying to discover the response it would get from certain quarters. He thought of the males who mattered to him, viewing his face like Alexander the Great would when he dressed for his men. He then thought of what his homeland would make of his kind of a face; his countrymen, he held, were unduly critical. Next he contemplated what his mother would complain of regarding the new look his hairstyle had given him. Finally, he surveyed his face with the approving eyes of his Monarch. Somewhere deep within he could hear his voice say, “What a wonderful boy am I!”
His Excellency then turned his eyes on a life-size painting mounted on the wall in which Lord Curzon and the Maharaja of Baroda stood, each with a gun in hand, and two dead tigers (shot by them) at their feet. The painting made the wonderful boy smile further as he began to speak with an air of contentment:
“Maymood, am I not qualitatively different to that Lord in the painting?”
“You is actually quite different Sir!” said Mehmud, making the word sound like “dufferent”. “Lord Curzon Sahab was really great man!”
“You rascal! Don’t try my patience!”
The fifty-five year old wonderful boy then asked for his diary and was given it, instantly. The diary was covered with brocade. He opened the pages one by one and saw therein memories that made him smile. He read, ruminated, and grinned characteristically. He finally turned to December 21, 1917, and began to write his page for that day:
My thoughts a few days before Christmas:
India is a unique land. You can live here almost as if you were living in anonymity. The Indian mind is anything but critical. The Hindoos, particularly, accept you without exercising their judicious faculty. It is such a relief to live in a place where the scrutinising eye is missing. A few rebellious skirmishes here and there are disturbing no doubt, but otherwise you are loved for whatever you do. The man who is quite redundant in the home country suddenly acquires a dimension of greatness amidst this society of admirers. You kill a Hindoo and are loved by a Moslem and you cheat a Moslem and are admired by a Hindoo. How simple the mechanism is for the ruler in this country.
In India one need not be apologetic for remaining a bachelor. You can use your single status as an indication of your spirituality. I love the male world of this place. The more males you endear, the more you rise in peoples’ estimate. It’s a male-lover’s paradise.
Immediate Goals for Me:
(i) To acquire more territory (through the policy of annexation) from princely rulers that are careless. (Shouldn’t be a v. difficult task.)
(ii) To try, first of all, to get the state of Kashinagar, that beautiful region in the Himalayas. The Maharaja there is ignorant. But he does have Sir Saraswati Chandra Ranbakshi to help him. That’s the man I should tackle. Ranbakshi’s education in England is likely to draw him towards me.
(iii) Try to manipulate more money at once. Mother must be waiting for her Indian fortunes.
(iv) To discover from the locals what some of my predecessors did to remain popular, and also what they did to hide their blemishes. I have to make serious effort to conceal my private life and expose the practical aspects of my sound self.
(v) To ensure that I don’t start rusting. I should read my Shakespeare and Dickens on a regular basis. Some of Swift might help as well. Also, I should try to keep track of what is happening in Britain; of what role the King-Emperor and his Ministers are playing in the War.
(vi) To do things that would distinguish me from other viceroys who were often merely noblemen who came into power. I should rule over the hearts of Indian men. Going against Indian princes may help do this.
Having written his diary for December 21, the Viceroy signalled to Mehmud.
“Would you know Maymood, why Canister McClout hasn’t appeared before me for the last two days?”
“I don’t know Lord Sahab, but Kanastar has probably catched a heart-fever.”
“Good God! What kind of fever is that?”
“It is fever in which the heart gets heated, and you feels cheated, when you is not fully greeted, and it refuses to obey the head.”
“Well, that’s poetry! You’re improving Maymood, though you’ve much to learn! The English language cannot be fooled around with. Canister, that awfully sweet idiot, is always up to some mischief or the other.”
“Yes, Lord Sahab, Kanastar is real idiot!”
“Shut up! Should we go in for my bath?”
“Yes, Lord Sahab, we will go in for your bath!” he replied with his imagination running wild as he followed this mighty man into the domains of his privacy.
Professional Reviews Gisela Hoyle, Asian Journal of Literature, Culture and Society: Volume 4 Number 01 April 2010
2) Asian Journal of Literature, Culture and Society: Volume 4 Number 01 April 2010
Reviewer: British Novelist Gisela Hoyle
Many new voices have come out of India recently, but the voice of Lakshmi Raj Sharma stands out nonetheless. The Tailor’s Needle is a novel on a grand scale seldom seen in modern writing: lyrical landscapes, a philosophical narrator, wayward daughters, a liberation struggle and political intrigue all form part of an elegant plot, which moves swiftly from family saga to comedy of manners, from gothic horror to murderous intrigue.
Sir Saraswati, named for the goddess of learning, the arts and creativity, struggles to find an appropriate balance between his admiration for the liberal ideals of British intellectual culture and his clear understanding of the greed and corruption of British Indian politics as he protects the province of Kashinagar and its royal family from annexation by the British empire and supervises his children’s education by English governesses. In a world of colliding cultures, he believes that education ‘should free one from prejudices. It should make one capable of independent thinking and prepare one for life ahead. It should make one adapt to his world without being difficult with others or miserable himself. It should make one positive and sociable. It should make one what he called ‘the tailor’s needle.’’ (p20)
His son, Yogendra, is eager to absorb this philosophy, while at the same time unable to escape from his father impressive shadow. His sister, Maneka is more rebellious and independent, but gets herself involved in fairly archetypal princess problems all the same – remaining trapped in a world not that different from Jane Austen’s: of arranged marriages as opposed to love matches, of suitability in suitors, of feminine accomplishments. The novel is, after all a final adieu to the great Indian Raj novel, honouring traditions now faded and, for many modern readers probably thankfully, consigned to the pages of history.
Sir Saraswati wore his tweed coat and grey worsted trousers. Summer evenings in Dehradun tended to be chilly in those days. Fans were never used and fridges were unheard of . . . when an unknown friendly person invites you and you are on your way to meeting him and knowing him, there is an inexplicable joy in your visit (p120).
But the novel is anything but nostalgic for the colonial past, which was problematic in itself and has left behind it many more. And though the language in the novel is often seemingly naive in this way, the reader is warned early on not to take the language lightly:
The British were sometimes casual when they wrote to the natives of India. When they wrote to their colonised subjects, they seemed to imagine that history was speaking through them. The Englishman often got into a fitful expressiveness in which the language was more important than what it was meant to convey, becoming rhetorical and even artificial at such moments. The same Englishman, however, could use his language very naturally when he spoke for himself, in his true voice. But it was hislanguage, which he had the right to use anyway he liked. It was only the Indian who had to be careful in its use (p14).
So underneath the lyricism there is a constant awareness that the narration is in the language of a conqueror, who is both arrogant and smug. Beneath the genteel and graceful world of the Ranbakshi family is the fragility of power within the empire, beneath the ludicrous figure of the viceroy Mortimer Edmund Griffin-Tiffin and his ugly dominating mother is the sinister truth that such people still populate the upper class of England, and beneath the elaborate horror of Nadir Palace lies the truth of abusive relationships and paranoid obsessions. And the apparent naiveté is deeply ironic, through all the experience of the novel runs the concern with justice and freedom: from imperialism, from overbearing parents, from caste rules and from prejudice. What The White Tiger does with brilliant savagery, The Tailor’s Needle does with elegance and wit: presenting complex and authentic experiences of another world with thoughtful compassion and with humour.
Ann Northfield, Historical Novels Review, (UK), Issue 51, February 2010.
Set in India in the 1930s, this novel follows the fortunes of Sir Saraswati and his three children, Yogendra, Maneka and Sita, who have all been brought up in Western style of education by British governesses. The novel examines pre-independence India, the feeling of different people towards the British, and the movement towards autonomy. It slyly pokes fun at many aspects of British and Indian culture with a gently sarcastic style, as Sir Saraswati struggles to reconcile his admiration for the British with the ideals of Gandhi and the development of independent India.
The novel also looks at the role and status of women, contrasting the feisty and strong-willed Maneka with her more traditional mother and sister. The concept of caste and its role in the new India that is emerging is also considered.
The title refers to the belief of Sir Saraswati that his children should be like the needle of a tailor, passing through all kinds of cloth without discriminating, and this is a central metaphor throughout the book. The style is interesting and quite different. The dialogue is rather stilted, yet somehow this seems to suit the characters and the time well. It is something that the reader can adjust to quickly and it does not affect the enjoyment. This is an unusual novel that carries the flavour of its time and setting. Anyone who enjoys books about India would find this worth a read.