The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

BCA, 1974, 331 p.

This book, an imagination of a siege during what became known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Krishnapur being an amalgamation of several besieged British Residencies,) is the second in the author’s loose trilogy examining the legacy of British imperial power. Troubles looked at the Irish independence struggle, The Siege of Krishnapur India, and The Singapore Grip the harbinger of that power unravelling in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Troubles won the Booker prize in 1970 and The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973.

The main viewpoint character is the man in charge of the Residency in Krishnapur, Mr Hopkins. He is known as the Collector because of his interest in the Great Exhibition, a then recent historical event which is mentioned many times in the book. Others include George Fleury, who has just arrived in Krishnapur with his recently widowed sister Miriam; the local medic, Dr Dunstaple, whose children Louise and Harry, an army officer, are living there; Dunstaple’s more modern minded colleague Dr McNab; the Magistrate, a devotee of phrenology; and Lucy Hughes, a dishonoured Englishwoman who when the siege starts is living in town on her own in a house called the dak bungalow.

The early chapters are devoted to laying out the course of the lives of the European inhabitants of the town, poetry readings for the ladies and so on, manifested in the petty jealousies and rivalries of both the men and the women. A hint of the impending revolt arrives when piles of chapatis begin to be left on people’s desks or doorsteps. The Collector realises this is an indicator of trouble but is at first much mocked for instructing earth barriers be erected round the Residency and the banqueting hall. Lives carry on almost as normal until the neighbouring cantonment of Captainganj falls and its survivors straggle into Krishnapur.

Some of the Collector’s thoughts are of the time, “Speaking a great deal in company is not an attractive quality in a young lady. A young lady with strong opinions is even worse,” but then again on the feelings Miriam expresses towards Lucy Hughes when she thinks Lucy is trying to entrap her brother, “in an attractive woman even faults and weaknesses are endearing.” On his rounds one day during the siege he reflects on women and the ‘natives’ as being alike, “It’s true,” he mused, “they’re just like children,” and, “Women are weak. We shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives.”

A hint of the twentieth century is present in some later thoughts. “Perhaps it is our fault that we keep them so much in idleness? Perhaps we should educate them more in the ways of the world. Perhaps it is us who have made them what they are?” Then the Victorian age resurrects itself. “But no. It’s their nature. Even a fine woman like Miriam is often malicious to others of her sex.”

Once the siege becomes prolonged the aura of complacency regarding British occupancy in India has been deflated. “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained.”

Over time there is a gradual decline of standards as hunger and sickness takes hold, the women sit about in their chemises and bodices, the two doctors quarrel in public over the correct treatment of cholera. Dr McNab’s demeanour does not help his cause, “Scots very often appear bleak in the eyes of the English,” but Dr Dunstaple’s attempt to disprove his colleague’s modern theory leads directly to him contracting the disease.

Despite it being serviceable enough there is something to the text that is unsatisfying, almost plodding. Too much is told, not shown. The characters, too, seem like types, rather than individuals. And (though perhaps this was the point,) there is not much of India here.

As to that Booker Prize, it was nigh on fifty years ago. I doubt The Siege of Krishnapur would win it in the present day.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for ‘seated’, “attah of roses” (attar of roses) “the military wre being made to look ridiculous” (the military was being made,) “‘if that attack us here’” (if they attack us here,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “there were a number of windows” (there was a number,) one “Eurasions” (elsewhere Eurasians,) “to staunch wounds” (stanch,) “a taciturn man from the Salt Agency called Barlow” (the Salt Agency is called Barlow?) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “rose to a crescendo” (to a climax, the crescendo is the rise,) “so many of the garrison was already dead” (were already dead,) “A handful of confident zemindars were standing” (a handful … was standing.) “There were a number of Brahmin priests” (there was a number,) “the dining room was to spacious” (too spacious.)

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  1. Constance

    I read this some time ago and also found it a bit wooden. I did not persevere with his other books despite my love of historical fiction set in India.

  2. jackdeighton

    Yes, wooden was the word I was struggling to hit upon when writing the review. This is the only book of Farrell’s I’ve read. I won’t be in a hurry to read him again.

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