Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Ruskin Bond - A Flight of Pigeons

It was a chance meeting. Smita was passing through Chandigarh enroute Mumbai and the train was stopping for 20 mins here. We met on the railway platform and chatted like old friends, turning our virtual friendship into a real one so easily, you would have thought we knew each other forever. 20 mins was too less, but we have to be thankful for such chances to meet. There was an exchange of books between two book-lovers before the train pulled out. Smita, it was awesome to meet you and your hair really looks good with the red glints.

A Flight of Pigeons is a book set in the times of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A pathan Javed Khan is struck by the fresh beauty of a very young Anglo-Indian girl Ruth Labrador. A few days later, the mutineers strike Shahjehanbad where Ruth lives with her parents. Her father is struck dead and Ruth is taken in by a kind Indian acquaintance, Lala Amarnath along with her cousins, aunt, granny and mother. Javed Khan is hunting for Ruth, and manages to track her down. He takes Ruth and her mother to his home and declares his intention of marrying the girl. Ruth is terrified of being wooed so roughly by this savage. She is lucky to have her mother protecting her. Miriam Labrador is the daughter of an Indian Muslim and a British man. She is well versed in urdu and the muslim ways, thanks to her mother. She is extremely resourceful and well spoken. She is able to act tough and speak softly as the occasion demands. She is hard pressed to preserve her daughter against the decent but unwelcome attentions of Javed Khan.

Miriam uses the uncertain temperory victory of the mutineers as a reason for not agreeing to Javed Khan's proposal. If Delhi Falls, she will be yours, she says. Luckily for Ruth, Delhi does not fall. Her mother's sagacity saves the girl from a certain ruin.

Like most Novellas of Ruskin Bond, this book is slim. Like most books by Ruskin Bond, it is powerpacked with a terrific story, amazing style and language. The backdrop of Sepoy Mutiny, with its merciless killings, mercenary nawabs and caught-on-the-wrong-foot English rulers is brought out just perfect. The impatience, impudence and imprudence of Javed Khan; the wise old Kothiwali and her gaggle of womenfolk who love to bond over festivals; the savvy Miriam who is able to turn a bad situation into a tolerable one, these characters stay with you long after the book has been closed.

I loved this peek into history. It reminds me that pre-independence India was really a conglomerate of various provinces misruled by lazy, greedy nawabs and the subjects quite oppressed. The mutiny was an additional reason for these nawabs to kill and plunder in an attempt to fatten their own treasuries. The British used underhand methods to wrest power from the provincial rulers, but they did give India some form of formal governance.

This super book is a classic and was turned into a wonderful movie called Junoon starring Shashi Kapoor as the tempestuous Javed Khan, Jennifer Kapoor as Miriam and Nafisa Ali as Ruth. Ruth has little to do in the book but look good and be scared. But in the movie, Nafisa quite stole the show with her lovely schoolgirl looks. The movie is as good as the book. Both are not to be missed.

I read the book in one go on Sunday, it is simply unputdownable. Thanks ! Smita.. and the title refers to you ;)