Esmond in India Summary
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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Esmond in India Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Esmond in India is a novel of maneuver and misunderstanding. At its center is the traditional adulterous triangle of a man, Esmond Stillwood, and two women, his wife, Gulab, and the younger Shakuntala, with whom, late in the novel, he begins an affair. Yet in ironic reversal of novelistic convention, these romantic or sexual relationships are completely dwarfed in interest and importance by the subtler domestic struggles going on around them. Gulab never finds out about Shakuntala, and, though Gulab does leave Esmond and return to her family, this has nothing to do with her feelings about him, and everything to do with the long and vocal campaign conducted all through the novel by her Aunt Uma to get her, and especially her child Ravi, to come home to Indian food, Indian manners, and her Indian ties of blood. Similarly, Shakuntala’s family never find out about Esmond, or even suspect such a possibility, concerned as they are about making a prosperous marriage for her, which will above all defeat the feared and dangerous prospect of Shakuntala’s deciding to marry Gulab’s brother Narayan, a qualified doctor but one who shows no ambition toward using his qualifications to make money.

The real events in the novel, as one can see already, are almost hidden by a cloud of hopes, fears, and possibilities, few or none of which eventuate. The general anxiety which fills the novel is, moreover, generated and fueled by events in the past, both personal and political, which everyone remembers but no one is eager to mention. At the root of the whole confusion lies the changed relationship of Ram Nath and Har Dayal, the two fathers. Both were once of similar status, rich, Cambridge-educated, full of potential, with Ram Nath the elder and guiding spirit. This relationship, however, has, by the time of the novel, been reversed: Har Dayal is rich, Ram Nath relatively poor (though still supported by portions of his former property). The change seems to have been caused by Ram Nath’s greater efforts in the cause of independence, or Swaraj. He has been jailed by the British and has had a brother-in-law die on hunger strike. Yet, ironically, once Swaraj is achieved, Ram Nath, who might have expected a major post in the government for which he has fought, does not get it or, perhaps, refuses it-this matter is never made clear-while Har Dayal, who has stayed safely on the sidelines, rises to wealth and power. The two men remain friends, with Ram Nath polite but Har Dayal deferential, embarrassed, and even feeling guilty. Their wives and female relations think differently, however, resenting or despising each other.

The scene is therefore set for a major confrontation when Ram Nath’s wife, Lakshmi, decides (supported by her much more formidable sister-in-law Uma) that Shakuntala would make a good wife for her son Narayan when he emerges from his poor rural practice. Ram Nath’s family believe that they are socially equal and morally superior to Har Dayal’s. Har Dayal’s family (wife, son, and daughter-in-law combined) believe that there is no social equality at all, and their resentment is compounded by a tinge of uneasy guilt. The whole matter is exacerbated by the memory of an event some five years before, when the families were not so clearly heading in different directions and when an agreement to marry Har Dayal’s son Amrit to Ram Nath’s daughter Gulab was broken by Gulab’s marriage to the Englishman Esmond. One side sees this as a misfortune, to be repaired by a new marriage, the other as an unforgivable insult.

In this extremely complex social setting, it is not surprising that almost all the characters contrive to misunderstand one another. Shakuntala’s youthful idealism, very soon identified by the reader as naive and shallow, is taken by Ram Nath as an echo of his own earlier feelings; he concludes that she might be a good match for his genuinely idealistic son. Successive interviews between Uma and Har Dayal’s wife,...

(The entire section is 1,312 words.)