MHOW DIARY: (As it appeared in Free Press; Indore 5 April 2007)
An interaction with Jaysinh Birjepatil the author of Chinnery’s Hotel
Technology is indeed a wonderful thing. I couldn't imagine doing this in the pre-internet era. I have been in touch through email with Jaysinh Birjepatil, the author of the novel Chinnery's Hotel which is set in a fictitious Mhow. Jay, as he is known to friends, is a retired Professor of English. Although technically retired he returns to Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vermont, U.S.A to teach one course in literature each semester. He has been associated with this college since 1987. He completed his M.A. in 1965 and his PhD from the University of Manchester (U.K.) in 1967. When I asked him to send me some biographical information about him his response was very modest. This is what he had to say: ”As for my bio may I say that I am too old to relish the thought of being written about in greater detail than is absolutely necessary.” If only some of our politicians were to think along similar lines. He sent me some information about himself from the Marlboro College Calendar. I have promised to stick to the information provided in this Calendar.
Jaysinh Birjepatil was born in India and educated in England. He is trained in theatre in which he won a Gold Medal Certificate from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Chinnery's Hotel was his first novel and he is currently at work on another. He first arrived in the United States as a post-doctoral fellow at Yale. Subsequently he served at Brown as Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature and Theatre Arts. He describes his past as "a patchwork quilt of multiculturalism," and, in his own words, "a constant search for roots across three continents." He has published poems and scholarly works in Indian, British and American journals. The courses he taught at Marlboro range from "Shakespeare and his Contemporaries" to British and American fiction, poetry and drama. According to the college calendar, and I quote verbatim: He has produced and directed more than 50 plays. As a creative writer operating primarily from a Third World perspective, He has been particularly influenced by the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. "My approach to literature is semiotic and dialogic," he says, "but I part company with the signifier that floats beyond the range of human intelligence." Although technically retired he returns to Marlboro to teach one course in literature each semester.
This what he had to say about why he chose Mhow as a setting for his novel: “In my book Mhow is a trope for all the Cantonment towns in undivided India and serves as a as an imaginary locale. The characters as well as incidents are invented and mostly drawn from people our family knew in Poona and Ahmednagar and other Cantonments. Chinnery's Hotel itself is based on Percy's Hotel in Secunderabad and a couple of places in Poona. I should like to add that Mhow was chosen as a locale because it still retains, albeit in a slightly tumble down form, the old world charm of a cantonment whereas Poona and Bangalore Cantonments have been superseded by highrise structures. “
Though the novel is set in a fictitious Mhow the real Mhow is not absent from it. Most booklovers from Mhow, self included, have thought of Craven’s Hotel in Mhow whenever we hear the title of Birjepatil’s novel. This is what he has to say about the real Mhow seeping into the novel: “Although largely fictional, Mhow in my book is fraught with history, with the graves of the Lilleys in the Old Cemetery making a strong appearance in the context of the famous Crawley affair.” He also gave some very interesting information about Craven’s Hotel: ”Mrs. Threlfel nee Craven was very nostalgic about Craven's Hotel when I met her just before she passed away in Basingstoke. But unlike that of the Chinnery's her life in Mhow was apparently a bed of roses. She was very helpful in evoking the social life in Mhow between the wars. Craven's was on a much smaller scale, a bungalow opposite the Bakery off Post Office Road. I met her after Chinnery's Hotel had been conceived but something of her nostalgia for Mhow must have inevitably seeped into the book.”
When he came to know that I live in Signals Vihar, a colony where retired Defence officers and their families reside, he commented “Signals Vihar in my book is called Signal Vihar.” I smiled when I read this. Signal Vihar, the corrupted form of Signals Vihar, has become institutionalized in Mhow. Even signboards on the Mall refer to it as Signal Vihar. I wrote to him that in my childhood I would often hear One Tree Hill in Mhow being referred to as One Trill. If the English in India could anglicize Indian words I am sure that non-anglicised Indians had an equal right to Indianise English words.
When I wrote to him quoting Khushwant Singh that it was a pity the book did not get the readership it deserved, Birjepatil wrote: “My book has not done so badly in the West. If you let me have your postal address I'd be happy to ask Amazon.com to mail you the new edition with strong endorsements from distinguished British and American critics.“ Needless to say I have jumped at the offer. There is nothing a booklover would love more.
Tailpiece:Aruna Rodrigues, who belongs to the first Goan family which arrived in Mhow in the mid-nineteenth century, writes to me: "Perhaps the best claim to the name 'Mhow' is that it was derived from the word ‘Mowasee’. This was an area inhabited by them, i.e. the 'Mowasee', (tribals) and the word appropriately means "stronghold". It is also where Holkar's troops were cantoned before 1818.” According to her Mhow has been spelt as ‘MOW’ in Sir John Malcom's famous map of Malwa and Central India. Interesting information this. Thanks Aruna. Any more thoughts on this issue?