There’s a little bit of Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, in here; something about the sharpness and the cruelty. Murray is not gentle with these images. There is a necessary brutality to the honesty of this childrens’ story. A smattering of a Dickensian Oliver is in there too, with an overpowering melodrama that is so unique to coming of age tales, all woven together in a strange melee of colonialism, capricious relationships and “real” magic. It is particularly difficult to review a book that is based on a “true” story. There is an unspoken veracity that is attributed to the histories and geographies of its journey that one feels compelled to acknowledge. The story also carries a marked heaviness and darkness, despite being childlike in many ways; with themes and moments that are incomprehensibly painful and unsettling, even to adults.
The journey of the children’s performance troupe, the Lilliputians from Australia to Indonesia, into Singapore and India, sweeps a grand, even majestic, imperial journey. The characters of the story are drawn out in remarkable detail, complete with the jagged edges of moral ambiguity, but without judgement- a rare quality in young adult literature. The story is replete with a rich historical and geographical account of cities, theatres and palaces. I want to focus less on these, and more on the nuances of the story and its people crafting. Tilly and Poesy, the two narrators and major protagonists of the story are cast in specific moral moulds right from the beginning. Though these moulds chip and crack and change, they remain integral to the telling of the tale, until the end. The Lilliputians are children ranging from the ages of seven to seventeen. Twenty odd children and a few adults make up the entire cast, of whom the most significant is Mr Arthur Percival, the owner of the company. It would be one way to summarise the tale as one of a brave and heroic attempt of a group of children who revolted against the evil Mr. Percival and found their way into freedom, and back home, but that would be an entirely untrue summary, and something that the author herself seems to resist. One of the more profound qualities of this story in the beginning is its simple acceptance of the impossibility to distinguish truth from untruth and good from bad. Arthur starts out as the dazzling, handsome chaperone/employer and degenerates into a child beater and alcoholic, and also carries on an affair with one of the performing children, Lizzie, who is seventeen years old. However, he is anything but the archetypal monstrous villain. There is a certain humanness and frailty that characterises each person in the book that is truly remarkable.
There are many stories of love found and lost, virginity simply lost and innocence that in fact never existed. These stand in a strange incongruous relationship with the commentary around child marriage in India, that Poesy describes as a crude and shocking reality. The incongruity lies mainly in the fact that no attempt is made to contextualise local realities even in the conversation that Poesy has with the Indian boy, Prem, while every effort is made to explain the interiority of the Lilliputians’ lives. One encounters many such instances throughout the book and the reader is sometimes unsure of the intent behind these. Is it simply to highlight the way the “foreigners” regard the “locals”, to bring the reader’s attention to the divide between “us and them”? Or is it a deeper neglect?
Charlie, one of the major supporting characters emerges as Poesy’s friend and intermittent romantic interest. A thirteen year old boy, his passion is for magic, and where else but India to discover “real” magic? There is a poignant scene when he struggles to explain the nature of magic in India, that gods here walk among men in human skin to which Poesy simply responds- “Don’t be ridiculous Charlie. There is only one God and that’s our God. The Christian God.”Charlie’s response to Poesy then involves a justification of his ideas through those of the Theosophist Annie Besant, who, not entirely comfortably, appears as an omnipresent bearer of truth and light, a champion of Indian home rule. This is not the space to debate Besant’s role in Indian history or politics, but it must be said, that as a third generation reader in post-independence India, the figure of Besant in this story jars me on many levels, both philosophical and political. While this may not seem immediately relevant to a young reader of the book, it does beg a larger question of context and history, especially to readers who are entirely unfamiliar with Indian or even colonial history. The fact is that there are several such casual or fleeting references made to colonialism and anti- colonialism, without any real space for engagement with the same, and this creates some uncomfortable and inaccurate lacunae, especially in light of the story’s historical “truth”.
To be sure, there are some telling moments like the one when Charlie challenges Poesy’s claim that Britain is “in charge” of India with a clipped retort of “India isn’t a ship” or when the children discuss the Swadeshi movement and some of them completely debunk it as “daft”. Elsewhere, Tilly makes the observation that Dutch imperialists are inferior to British imperialists while Lionel, Charlie’s brother, declares the whole troupe loyal subjects of the British empire. Now this is not to suggest that the story is in any way morally bound to narrate the story of European colonialism in a colony- sympathetic light. Indeed, it is free to take the view of whatever time and thought it is set in, but since the characters make the pointed attempt to dialogue with Colonialism in several instances, it must be said that the engagement falls short of any real depth or insight. The discussion on race too, is made conspicuous by its absence. While there must be mention made of the relatively low levels of Asian exoticisation in the book, and whatever exotica one does see is very organic and without fuss, there is little or no mention of the racial dynamics that the children who otherwise so razor sharp and insightful, must surely have witnessed and experienced.
The other major theme, as in all coming of age tales, is one of romance, sexuality and discovering the body. In keeping with the general theme of the book, this too, is not a pretty process. Tempe, an older girl, decides, partially out of desire and partly to spite Arthur, to respond to the advances of a male admirer who takes her and 4 other girls, including Poesy for a car ride to the jungles of Kuala Lumpur. While the other girls wait in the car, Mr Tolego and Tempe return, the latter with a crushed hat, crumpled fawn dress, frizzy hair and bright, feverish eyes that regard Mr Tolego with a “wary and calculating” expression. At yet another instance, we hear Poesy, in the aftermath of her shock at discovering that Arthur and Lizzie, whom she loved as a sister, had in fact been carrying on a torrid sexual affair, speculating that Lizzie did not want to be with Arthur; that “he was hurting her”. She describes Arthur as a drunkard, brute and adulterer and Lizzie as shameless, a woman who allowedherself to be used against her will again and again. An already emotionally devastating scene, we see a rejoinder to this, where Poesy has another conversation with Lizzie about Arthur where Lizzie simply states that all she has ever wanted, was to marry Arthur, which, by the end of the novel actually transpires, as we find out through a letter Lizzie sends to Poesy, years after their travails. These themes of sexual exploration and consent, rape and abuse are wrenching, but also vital to the narrative that Murray creates. Tilly meanwhile, finds an amazing experience of love in a young soldier, but this romance remains unrequited, on account of Lizzie and Arthur’s spiteful interference. The stories of girls trying to run away or protest, being beaten mercilessly by Arthur reveal the deep root of darkness and misery embedded in the lives of the Lilliputians.
There is an extremely complex network of relationships full of doubt, conflict and betrayal, particularly between the older girls that is explored in the greatest detail by Murray. This is both deeply disturbing and wonderfully elevating at different moments in the book. There is something both very gentle and terrifying in the way Murray explores the way in which bonds of friendship and sorority form between young women, particularly those whose childhoods have died so quietly, that these women-girls don’t even know that they must grieve. The physical bonds between them are very significant, whether it is Tilly or Poesy caring for the little ones, soothing them by touch and hold or between Lizzie and Poesy sleeping in the same bed, “fitting like spoons in a drawer”, or still others who are beaten or afraid and cry themselves to sleep or comfort in the arms of their friends and sisters. There is a fragile but deep sensuality that brings comfort and protection throughout their experiences of fear and not knowing.
The narrative takes us all over South and South East Asia; to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and India. We see the sights of Calcutta, Allahabad, Bombay, Bangalore and Madras, following the journey of the Lilliputians so filled with silver dreams and dazzlethat turn more and more swiftly into a bitter ache, a clamour to be free, and to go home. There is a coup, an almost “Lord of the Flies”- like mustering together by the children, a total dissolution of morality or sympathy when they decide to sue and destroy Arthur Percival by any means necessary. The story ultimately ends with the children who have long been dispossessed of their childhoods, some even before they were Lilliputians returning to an ironic and illusory “home”.
The epilogue that Poesy, now a teacher narrates, tells of what happened to the others in a desultory, meandering sort of way. Some became stars, others starlets, still others died. Poesy has her final epiphany, her realisation of Annie Besant’s teachings about truth, when she confesses the entirety of her past to a loving and accepting husband, for the first time. There is an abruptness to the end of this remarkable story that doesn’t quite add up. If this was meant as an eventual triumph of truth and justice, then it rings a little hollow; and perhaps undermines the real triumphand magic of life, loss and love that we learnt so well from the Lilliputians.
Author: Kirsty Murray
Price: Rs. 295.00
Publisher: Young Zubaan, 2010
Subject category: History/Adventure
Age group: 14+