One of the more fiendish inventions of the UK academic establishment is the personal statement. Just when you’re at your most insecure, confused and willing to conform to your peers, the gods of UCAS give you 4000 characters in which to definitively define yourself and set yourself apart. Oh, and all your hopes of further education rest on these words, just as surely as your grades. No pressure.
Having been taught how to reproduce the opinions of others for years, suddenly you have to write something totally original, totally personal. It’s a recipe for disaster. Certainly my statement was. I remember sitting down with our school’s “Career Adviser”, an old buffer who only cared about people with the wherewithal to get into one or maybe two of the more elite Cambridge colleges. He swept his enormous eyebrows over my hopeful draft and threw it down on the table.
“You start “I’m passionate about English literature.” Honestly?”
“Well, yes, I am, I think, perhaps.”
“And how do you think every single applicant to every single English Literature course in the country will start their statement?”
“It’ll never do [as he crumples the paper] … what particular subject do you read about?”
“Oh, no one thing. I read a bit of everything! [proudly]”
“Useless. What’s your favourite book?”
“Um, ahh, The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye … it’s set in the days of the Indian Mutiny.”
“Right. You’re a specialist in post-colonial Indian fiction. Write your statement accordingly.”
“But I …”
Before I knew it I had Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet in my hands and a blank piece of paper. It was useless; I hated Scott’s decaying world of Europeans clinging onto a modernising India. I wanted Adventure! Romance! Riding across the open plains! Quite frankly, I wasn’t interested in reading about a single character over the age of 29.
With this illusory specialism it was only ever going to go one way. I sat in some ancient Cambridge college don’s office in my unwise sartorial choice of a moulting magenta roll-neck and increasingly pink-covered black trousers, squirming under the lightest questions about Indian fiction, dying in the awful pauses that filled my limited answers. It was, in a word, awkward. I didn’t get in.
Yet despite this unpromising start – or perhaps because of it? – my lie has become true. Indian-themed novels are My Thing. I’m irresistibly drawn to them. A Suitable Boy. Midnight’s Children. The God of Small Things. The Glass Palace. A Passage to India. Love them. So picture my surprise to come across this revered, Booker-prize winning Indian Mutiny novel I’d never even heard of: J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, which tells the tale of the siege of the British Residence in a fictional Indian city.
It’s an intriguing blend of comedy – nearly farce – and big thinking. Farrell works through the host of characters, slowly puncturing each. Initially, you feel like the book is positioning itself in opposition to some of these character’s beliefs. And yet as it progresses, you realise it is anticolonial, antireligious, antiromantic, anti war, anti technological. It is anti-everything. It has been interpreted as Marxist, but for me, it reads as more nihilist than Marxist. It laughs at any form of conviction. It’s savage and pitiless in its depiction of the destruction of the Residence and its people. In a period setting, Farrell’s extremely modern voice cuts through with all the bite, telling us elements a historic voice simply would not, like the slicing passing mention that one former beauty has stopped having her period due to starvation. As the book progresses, the darkness overtakes the story, until you’re watching a graveyard of people who will never recover and whose sacrifice has had no impact.
All of this sounds like a recipe for a bitter, twisted book. And yet – I can’t overemphasise this – it is funny. So funny. Every character and the behaviour of the herd is a rich source of comedy in their fond self-delusions and their insistence on viewing the world through the lens of their hobby horse topic. It’s one of the most humorous and astute depictions of differing characters I’ve come across, from the romantic young man neglecting to light a cannon because he’s picturing himself in a heroic painting at that very moment, to an injured priest so obsessed with rectifying another character’s sinful thoughts that he gets himself to be carried around the compound in hot pursuit of the other man.
Farrell keeps masterful control of the novel’s pace. From a typical start building tension, the action kicks off – but instead of continuing to churn from that point, it is then spooled out into a suspended state like that of the siege. The reader, like the characters, starts to find the prospect of relief distant and unreal – and even when it eventually comes it seems distant and strange as if you too are a starved human unable to register the salvation. Rather than having a mighty climax, it drifts away, making the rescuers viewpoint seem ridiculous and underlining the fact that the situation is beyond redemption. In the realisation of the impossibility and indefensibility of the British presence in India, the damage to the characters is done.
Maybe if I’d known Farrell I’d have been able to discourse more knowledgeably in my Cambridge interview, and not spent 3 godforsaken years in the freezing north. But I’m glad the encounter came to me later and purely for pleasure rather than personal statement fodder – and it was a real pleasure to read this.