ABOUT THE STORY Mankind has never known as much about its own past as it does today. But intriguing gaps persist everywhere in the stories of nations, groups and individual human beings. When it comes to thinking about what we do not know about the lives of the great, to the educated speculation of biographers we should sometimes add the educated imagination of fiction writers.
We know, for instance, that before Joseph Conrad attained fame as a writer, he spent many years in ports around the world as a sailor. One of his stops in the 1880s was in Calcutta, coming off a ship called the Tilkhurst. Who did he meet there? How did his experience inform his political outlook and his style? In Tanuj Solanki’s intriguing and often ingenious story, the young Conrad walks through the streets of this strange oriental city, seeking connections and insights that his more complacent English colleagues disdain. He knows, already, that he wants to be a writer; more confusingly, even to himself, he wants to write in English. On his walks, he runs into another man who seems to be wrestling with similar dilemmas, both as a colonial subject and as an aspiring writer in the language of the coloniser. His name? Rabindranath Thakur.
What do these two men think of each other’s situations in life, language and literature? Solanki is not afraid of showing up either man as slightly pretentious (“Józef wanted to include all the heavy words he had acquired from poring over heavy English dictionaries”), but their shared insecurities seem to form an advance map of postcolonial literature, illuminating not just their respective characters but that of the very civilisations to which they belong.