Authors: Mike Stocks
White Man Falling
White Man Falling
is that rare and wondrous thing – a perfectly realized serious comic novel. That it is also a first novel makes it all the more
“A rare gem of a comic first novel, Mike Stocks’s
White Man Falling
, set in fast-changing contemporary India, delivers an acute, affectionately observed
satire on modern family life, police corruption and the power of religion.”
Books of the Year 2006
“His elegant turn of phrase and cool command of plot are highly impressive.”
“The writing is witty and engaging… this is an entertaining read, with all the ingredients of a comedy of errors – confusion, deluded matchmaking, mystical
absurdity. There are underlying metaphors, but the book is essentially a satire of the search for meaning in the meaningless.”
“It is the precision and originality of Mike Stocks’s prose that makes this tragi-comedy of Indian manners hard to put down and a joy to pick up.”
Mark Amory, The Spectator
“Stocks’s poetic background manifests itself in beautiful turns of phrase and in the interweaving of Indian English throughout the text…
is a reminder that a single location and perspective, and linear chronology, can be deeply satisfying.”
ALMA BOOKS LTD
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Surrey TW9 2LL
White Man Falling
first published by Alma Books Limited in 2006
Copyright © Mike Stocks, 2006
This paperback edition first published in 2007
Mike Stocks asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed in Great Britain by Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading
ISBN-13 (UK): 978-1-84688-036-0
ISBN-10 (UK): 1-84688-036-X
ISBN-13 (USA): 978-1-84688-024-7
ISBN-10 (USA): 1-84688-024-6
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold, lent, hired out or otherwise circulated without the express prior consent of the publisher.
In 1888, the British laid out a grid of three-room bungalows in the town of Mullaipuram, in the state now known as Tamil Nadu in southern India. The bungalows were built for
married NCOs in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. After Independence, they were acquired by the Indian Police Service and designated as housing for lower- and middle-ranking officers. These
buildings still stand today, reabsorbed by India, their slipshod extensions pressing this way and that in the search for more space to collapse in eventually. Number 14/B is the home of
Sub-Inspector (retired) R.M. Swaminathan. He carries a morbid fame in these parts for having once attempted suicide using only a puncture-repair kit.
With his wife and six daughters, Swami has lived at Number 14/B for ten years. On the day they moved in, he ripped out the interior doors and broke them up for firewood. Why would an Appa and
Amma put a door between themselves and their children? Better to sleep together, side by side on the floor, your wife snoring like a pond of croaking frogs, your youngest babbling unconscious
nonsense as her knees twitch amiably against the backs of your thighs.
Swami, Amma and three of the girls are watching the youngest girl dancing Bharatanatyam-style to a raga playing tinnily on an antiquated Murphy two-in-one tape player. Her name is Leela. She has
a skinny and imperious facility in the art. There is a language to speak by small modulations in gesture, a semantics to convey with the angle of the elbow. A semi-trained instinct tells her what
is the best phrase her body should reveal at each moment, leaving her mind to do something else in a place she can never remember afterwards.
Amma performs the entire dance vicariously, using only one eyebrow. This is a talent that comes with middle age. Very good, she is thinking, very nice – thank God she’s still so
young. Particles of gram flour lie in the wrinkles of Amma’s knuckles. “Six daughters and no son to lighten the load” – that’s what people say of her.
There is something else that people say of this family: “Six dancing girls and a father who can’t walk!” The taunt is almost true. Two years ago, Swami administered a mild
custodial beating to a Very Guilty Suspect in the lock-up of Mullaipuram Police Station, but whereas the VGS suffered five minutes of terror and a single cracked rib – which was surely the
least he could expect for being so guilty – Swami suffered an intracerebral haemorrhage in the left hemisphere. The stroke left him with speech and mobility problems. Perhaps he’d been
a sitting duck for it, given his high blood pressure, his greediness with food and his lack of exercise – but he prefers to think that it was set off by the acute stress brought on by
selflessly beating up a criminal in the line of duty. And for evermore, Amma has resented the VGS for causing this misfortune to befall her husband. Wasn’t the fellow the cause of all her
misery? Because of him, hadn’t her husband lost his job and seen his salary replaced by a half-pay disability pension? And worse than any of these hardships, Swami has lost his pride.
“Appa, see!” one of his daughters shouts, entranced by Leela’s haughty signature in resolving the dance.
Yes yes, I see. Seeing is something I can still do…
The question is put a few seconds after the music dies, before Swami has adjusted to its absence. When a father watches his daughter dance like that, he needs a moment to die as well.
Tea, always tea. Do they think I enjoy passing water every three minutes, when it takes me so long to get there and take my thing out?
He grunts as he hauls himself to his feet.
“Wife,” he says. “Tea,” he says. “My books,” he says.
He can risk short sentences. More than that and he hardly knows what oddities may come sidling out of his sloping mouth.
His wife carries a white plastic chair and a folding table to the noisy verandah – a fine vantage point for the day-long Mullaipuram rush hour – and sets them up. Jodhi, the eldest
girl, drags out a plastic crate of books and papers. Swami follows her with his slow, sad limp. Outside, he tests the gradations of the day’s hustle and blare with a cocked ear, and watches a
former colleague walking past on his way to an evening shift. The man gives a lacklustre salutation. Swami returns the gesture gravely, with his good hand.
That man hasn’t stopped to talk
to me since my stroke
It’s late afternoon on a January day that will not remain ordinary for much longer. The rainy season has passed, having done its worst. Mullaipuram at this hour is hot dirty air and 110
decibels of hysterical honking traffic. Swami collapses, in a controlled fashion, into the hard seat. The verandah looks out over a ruined British wall to the busy Madurai road; on the other side
of the road are shops selling electrical and plumbing supplies. Buses, lorries, old Ambassador taxis and the slick new cars of the middle classes tailgate one another casually, parping without
cease, scattering the yellow-and-black autorickshaws, the families on scooters and bicycles, and those unfortunates who are merely walking. A fetid ditch lies under the ruined wall, as though to
catch the crumbling brickwork as it falls. Half the policemen in Mullaipuram piss in it every day.
“Which book, Appa?”
,” he says. “
,” he adds. He is tired, and defeated, and in such circumstances what in the world is there to do but read 2,000-year-old poems
Jodhi fingers through the books, head down, frowning slightly. A petal from the jasmine flowers in her hair flutters down. There is a slight dampness visible at the junction of the sleeve and
tunic of her
, an odour residing there, not unpleasant.
The Eight Songs
,” she mutters dubiously, “
The Eight Songs…
What colour is it?”
A nasty whip of temper cracks within Swami
– doesn’t she know anything about anything?
– and “Blue!” he shouts; then, curiously, “Four
This puzzling numerical rebuke doesn’t seem to faze her.
“Yes Appa,” she says. “So sorry. Getting tea.”
The Eight Songs
on the table, and his exercise book and pen, arranges them tenderly and withdraws.
Swami turns the pages, brooding about his daughters: there is Jodhi, the academic one and the eldest, with her calm unnerving acceptance, who is in the third year of her B.A. in English
Literature at the Madurai University-affiliated local college, inexplicably studying the books of some foreign devils rather than those of the Sangam poets or the great Kalki; there is Kamala, the
domestic one, now finished with school and studying, who fusses around them all like Amma at Pongal time, and is forever sewing lurid pencil cases to sell at the market for a few extra rupees;
there is Pushpa, the witty one, who has a temper on her, and who is the cleverest girl in her school year; there are the twins, Suhanya and Anitha, who live in their own little world, and who were
the obvious choices to send away to Swami’s brother and childless wife in Coimbatore – to give away, almost – after Swami’s stroke left him unable to support all his family;
and there is Leela, the youngest, just eleven years old and everyone’s spoilt and naughty favourite, who always has something mischievous to say, and who can dance like Nataraja until the
other five weep in wonder.