The Chemist of Nainital

01 January 2015
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ABOUT THE STORY Gordon Stewart’s ingeniously constructed story is about the nature of civilisation, and about the lasting imprint left by one culture—in this case the British in India—on the imagination of another.

The protagonist, an elderly, courtly chemist in Nainital, has never been to England, but lives as an Englishman in India, one somehow both pathetic and dignified, as if elevated above his milieu by his anachronistic adherence to the ideals of a distant civilisation. His alienation from Indian society allows him to perceive the banality of the lives of the nouveau riche, while his Anglophilia, almost like a faith, gives him a peculiar stability. He has raised enough money to send his son to university in—where else?—England, and loves nothing so much as the young man’s highly detailed monthly letters, describing the landscape and manners of that country he so admires.

But is young Amit really living in an England as poised, as graceful, as self-assured as his father imagines? Or does he match fiction with fiction, supplying a vision that he knows will interlock with that so deeply rooted in his father’s mind? Stewart’s story is both a tender elucidation of a father–son relationship (one in which a generational gap is replaced by a civilisational divide) and an ingenious send-up of many other kinds of masquerade and affectation, including those in art and academia, that operate around the memory of colonialism in the twenty-first century.

Gordon Stewart Gordon Stewart is a Scottish writer and historian living in Michigan. He is the author of several books, including two sets on the subcontinent—Jute & Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire,and Journeys to Empire: Enlightenment, Imperialism and the British Encounter with Tibet 1774-1904.

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