"Hillstation" Robin Mukherjee
Dreaming of escape from his remote village in the Himalayan foothills, Rabindra entreats the gods to send him an English bride. When a saucy English dance troupe arrives on the run from a Bombay crime boss, Rabindra believes that his prayers have been answered. Except that they have no interest in marrying anyone. As the village begins to unravel in the presence of these scandalous foreigners, surprising secrets emerge from the depths of its past.
"Hillstation is a love poem to a glorious, intriguing and sometimes frustrating culture still alive in the far corners of a great continent but slowly fading to the onslaught of the technological age."
I'm just going to come straight out and say it. I thoroughly enjoyed this chaotic, hilarious, colourful and charming book. The prose rattles along at such a rate that it is impossible to take a breath, let alone put it down. Rabindra's narrative flows like a burst pipe, streaming endlessly capturing his enthusiasm, naivety, innocence and simplistic belief in all that is good. It is a comedy, a love story; a novel about family, religion, culture, coming of age and belonging.
I didn't really know what to expect when I began this novel and indeed I gave myself a shock when I found myself snorting loudly only 5 pages in. By then I was completely under Mukherjee's spell.
Rabindra (also Rabin) is delightful. I loved his rapid speech with such frequent repetition of long phrases defining each character like his older brother, Dev, "son number one who went to England and became a Doctor." Dev, who went to England and became a Doctor, is revered by the whole family - if not community - for his travel and education. In Rabin's home town - an non specific village buried deep in the Himalayan foothills where the rest of the world doesn't even realise there is anything in existence, Dev's tales of England are modern folklore and he is almost equal alongside their gods.
"His room was a shrine to all things English with posters of red buses, policemen with blue temples on their heads and the secret underground city, connected with coloured tunnels....sometimes I'd pick through his display of Limited Edition Kings and Queens of England Egg Cups or his Isle of Sheppy Summer Festival Souvenir Mugs."
"'Tell me again,' I'd plead, 'about the University of Oxford Street and the River Thames on foggy mornings, of Sherlock Holmes who knew a Lemon Tree when he saw one...and the rhyming slang you learnt from an orphaned pick-pocket in the back alleys of a rat-infested slum.'"
The family are eccentric. Rabin's father is obsessed with rules, class and propriety: "What is this 'sort-of'? Is it a word? A phrase? Does it have anything to do with even the minimum standards of linguistic dignity expected in this household?" And his mother, well, she "doesn't say anything because she is dead." But if she did.....Rabin imagines she would advise him not to marry some "insufferable idiot who farts at night."
Then one day, following Rabin and his faithful, loyal friend Pol's prayers for English brides, some visitors arrive in their humble village.
"A man was standing by the steps with a face like nothing I'd seen before. It had two eyes, obviously, and a mouth common to most human beings and animals too I suppose, but there the similarity ended. His hair neither black, henna nor any recognisable colour, but an indistinct shade of stale chapatti."
And that is nothing compared to the women who climb out of the vehicle behind him:
"her shoes were an ethereal matrix of white straps with, I noticed thrillingly, sticks on the underside.."
This book is absolutely full of highly original and entertaining imagery. The descriptions are so imaginative, wry and desperately effective. I was without a pen when I read this book and I have committed a terrible crime of folding down the corners of pages where Mukherjee made me laugh and smile. The book is ruined. There are more pages folded than straight. Mukherjee is masterful at evoking excitement, fascination, sympathy and capturing the conflict between the young and the old, the new technology and old rituals. Each character leaps of the page and the vivid, fluent dialogue adds pace and colour. The voices and relationships real and lively. Each character is easy to visualise and it is screaming out for adaption to the big screen.
Rabin assists his brother at the clinic. His medical interviews and subsequent diagnosis are extremely entertaining. When one of the western girl's goes to see him about "the runs", Rabin flicks to the "R" section of the medical dictionary and starts to search for "runs" with assured authority. In her desperation to explain herself, her use of the word "squits" leads to confusion about squints and squids. It is like something out of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers but more endearing and heartwarming. I loved Rabin's response to her answer about the dosage of the tablets he has coincidently managed to prescribe:
"in the box you will find a neatly folded piece of paper with extremely tiny writing..."
Never once does his lack of experience, understanding, education or awareness of how many of his actions are the result of luck or bluff, bother or restrain him. This was the most appealing part of his character and he very much reminded me of the owner of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or the protagonist of "Slumdog Millionaire".
Despite their apparent "backwardness" and lack of technology, the characters are never prepared to lose face. Malek and Hendrix's conversation about coasters - sorry, CDs- was lovely:
"I have seen them before, obviously. they are clever devices for making music."
"But not by themselves,"
"Of course not, do you think I am simple?"
The western characters are also treated with the same affectionate humour. Cindy ties herself in knots trying to explain Christian celebrations, particularly the differences between Santa, Father Christmas and Jesus - "the goodiest bloke ever".
And then there is seriousness and poignancy. Rabin's sudden realisation of the wider world is described with one of the most effective metaphors in the whole book:
"the world seemed so very large, suddenly, with so many rooms and corners and corridors and stairs that you could turn up or down, or not, or stop, or not, or never take, or take looking down or up..."
The backdrop of the Himalayan mountains influence and shape these people's beliefs and lives:
"Sometimes they welcomed me like a cherished friend and sometimes they crushed the soaring feathers of my fragile dreams against the brute fortress of their implacability....but never so much as a twitch in the mossy hollows of its bleak indifference...."
This review is in danger of becoming like a film trailer that gives away too much of the good bits! Obviously I would recommend this book - particularly to fans of "Slumdog Millionaire", "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", "The White Tiger" and "The Inheritance of Loss". It was rather different from the other books I have been reviewing recently and therefore its freshness and originality more pronounced, but I think many readers will enjoy its gentle, heartwarming story and its boundless energy and humour.
"Hillstation" is published in paperback on 28th July 2016 by Old Castle Books.
My thanks to Old Castle Books for the free copy of this novel in return for an honest review.
ROBIN MUKHERJEE has written extensively for television and radio and won the Audience Prize for his first feature film. His CBBC series was nominated for a BAFTA and his most recent film "Lore" has won numerous awards worldwide.
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