HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: The Element of Fog by Boudhayan Sen

Review: The Element of Fog by Boudhayan Sen

No writer has created magic with stories about the mountains, its people and the big and small creatures that dwell in them, like Ruskin Bond has. Generations of Indians have grown up on a staple of his writing and have been in love with his mountain stories. In his case, familiarity has only fanned the affection. In general, there is an inherent romance about the hills, and in the stories they hide and tell. Other acclaimed names have woven tales set in similar locales: Irwin Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, where the themes play out larger than the landscape, and Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain are just some of them. First-time novelist Boudhayan Sen picks the hills of south India as his setting for The Element of Fog, his tenderly told tale of life at a prestigious boarding school and of love blossoming in the wrong places.

Set amid these sylvan environs in the 1990s, one half of the tale is told through the perceptive voice of the teacher protagonist, Suman Ghosh. A parallel thread runs through colonial India and tells the story of Reverend James Erasmus Finley travelling through Madras Presidency in the 1870s “in the hope of establishing a church in a corner of the empire that most needed it”. The intrepid Finley finds himself accompanying the Rumson family, stationed at Madurai, on their annual trip up the hills to Highpoint Hotel, the summer retreat of many a sahib.

344pp, ₹599; Juggernaut

Although the two seemingly unconnected stories are divided by a hundred and twenty odd years, the reader is drawn gently into both worlds. Sen juxtaposes the daily hubbub at a 1990s boarding school against the decorous ambience of a summer retreat in 19th century India. The charm of his story is in the placing of these two men, separated by more than a century in the exact same location, right down to the homes they inhabit. “Before the school was a school, it was a hotel. And before it was a hotel, it was the sprawling summer house of a bureaucrat of Her Majesty’s administration who had had the initial misfortune to be assigned to Madurai district, with its long, hot summers, its drenched and muggy monsoons and the persistent ministrations to its temple.”

Sen’s Suman Ghosh exudes a certain wholesomeness. Keenly observant, he is prone to wry self-deprecating humour. “A teacher that claims to enjoy midterm exams and grading is either a liar or a masochist or both. One must truly grit one’s teeth, to confront the reality of what meagre share of instruction has found purchase in the students’ minds.” The reader gets to know him intimately through his frequent bouts of introspection, his meanderings and pithy commentary on life and his fellow creatures. He has a secret crush on his colleague but is too shy to do anything about it. Well suited to his role as high school coordinator, he comforts visiting parents obsessing about their children’s career paths while being equally solicitous about students scrambling to get the grades to be admitted to the right colleges. “Sometimes with children like him, you have to express faith in them before they have any faith in themselves. Somewhere between learning to walk and the end of middle school, children lose that faith. And the reflective ones – like Tarun – can’t find it again on their own. They became aware of the difficulties and limits of the world too early, so reasons for apathy come more readily than reasons to press on. Remedial optimism ought to be a school subject.” A big challenge comes his way when a staff meeting is convened to discuss the finding of an inappropriate photograph in the dark room by photography teacher, Miss Little-K, the object of Ghosh’s affections. He is assigned the task of solving the mystery. Ghosh’s solitude is disturbed by a number of things: the intrusive presence of monkeys around his cosy cottage, the visiting cook’s dinners-gone-cold, and when he becomes an unwitting voyeur of a new colleague’s affair. It makes him uneasy and leads to a transient bitterness; but essential goodness prevails.

Author Boudhayan Sen (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Boudhayan Sen (Courtesy the publisher)

Finley is similarly sketched with compassion. He is self-effacing and gracious but has inner conflicts of his own. “As a trainee pastor, he had taken easily to the study of scripture and reflection. But the act of instructing others on how to comport themselves made him uneasy.” And when faced with the biggest emotional and physical challenge of his life, he finds himself out of depth. While Finley is still fighting his moral dilemma, he is also called upon to execute shepherding duties, to help rein in the hormonal youngsters who are part of the congregation at the Highpoint Hotel.

Sen treats the mellow drama in both these stories with sensitivity. There is no attempt to moralise, nor is there any recourse to prurience. He also makes good use of fog as metaphor. There are several other noteworthy elements in the narrative, especially in the third person narration of Finley’s story, which is, perhaps, the more sensitively penned of the two: the subtle handling of class and race distinctions between the ruling class and the serving one, the description of the meadow where the rare purple flowers blossom, the nature walks which are Finley’s discoveries and get named after him, and the final poignant letter in the epilogue which acts a culminating point of both the past and the present.

Ruskin Bond has called The Element of Fog “an impressive debut.” This reviewer is already looking forward to Boudhayan Sen’s next book.

Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

The views expressed are personal

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