Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond

If a movie is made based on a book you have read, watching the movie is a must. But if you have seen a movie based on a novel you haven’t read, it’s unlikely that you would read the novel. We somehow tend to believe it’s always a novel to a movie and the reverse journey doesn’t excite us a much. But with The Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond I did make that reverse journey.

I had watched Junoon (based on the novel The Flight of Pigeons) many years ago and liked it, the story of a passionate one-sided love of a Pathan for an English girl in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years ago I chanced upon the book the movie was based on. A few months ago, after wanting to read it for many years since I saw it the first time, I finally read it.

 In a foreword Ruskin Bond informs that as a kid he had heard the story from his father, who, in turn, had heard it from Bond’s grandfather, a soldier those days, several times. The incident which took place in a small town in UP (Sharanpur) during the Mutiny had captivated a young Bond.

Many years later, when Bond decided to write a novella based on the incident,  he visited Sharanpur and found many of its parts, especially those the British families occupied in the days of the Mutiny, unchanged from how his father had described them.  

The action starts with a church where a mass is underway being attacked by rebels inspired by the hate wave that’s blowing across swathes of the country against the British. Among others, the narrator’s (a British teenage girl) father is killed. 

Following the death the family takes shelter in a Hindu merchant’s house who has braved the consequences of sympathizing with a British family amidst the anti-British frenzy which has gripped the town. 

In the meantime, a Pathan, a married man with a reputation for his dare devilry and cruelty, who is wreaking havoc in and outside the town by killing and looting the British and wealthy Hindus and setting their establishments ablaze, has taken a shine to the British girl and coaxes the Lala to let the family go with him and stay in his haveli.

After bringing them to haveli the Pathan does what was not expected of him. Instead of forcibly marrying the British girl or dishonoring her, he asks her mother for her daughter’s hand and the mother says the Pathan could marry her daughter if the rebel side won the war. Finally, the British win the war.

After some time the British reenter the town of Sharanpur to the relief of its British inhabitants and those who had persecuted the British families following the outbreak of the Mutiny and the reverses the British had suffered, flee the town to escape British retribution. 

However, after knowing that the lover Pathan has fled the town and gone beyond any possibility of return or been seen again, the British girl, in a silent acknowledgement of her softness for the handsome and chivalrous man, wishes him a safe passage.

By reading the outline of Flight you would expect it to be a romantic thriller, but it is not. After the initial burst of action it settles into a slow pace and shows reveals different layers of the story. 

The reaction of the people to what the Pathan wants to do, the transformation of the Pathan from a reckless troublemaker to a lovesick man patiently awaiting the matrimonial permission of his muse’s mother, the grit of the girl’s mother, who, despite the fact that she and her family are at the mercy of the testy Pathan, manages to keep her wit and composure in place.

And then you have the magic touch of Ruskin Bond to savour.  
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