New Welsh Review

Eluned Gramich Reviews Dignity by Alys Conran (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Alys Conran

Eluned Gramich reviews the novel Dignity by Alys Conran

PUBLISHED ON: 27/03/19

CATEGORY: Audio review

TAGS: Colwyn Bay, India, PTSD, family, female, friendship, immigrant, international, marriage, multicultural, novel, postcolonial, trauma

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Eluned Gramich reviews the novel Dignity by Alys Conran (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), published on 4 April. Researched, scripted and read by Eluned Gramich, Recorded and edited by Dante Lloyd, Produced by George Carr, Senior Producer: New Welsh Review. New Welsh Review’s Multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University

 

SCRIPT

Dignity is Alys Conran’s much-anticipated second novel. While her debut, Pigeon, is set between languages, Dignity is a novel poised between histories and cultures: the time of the Raj and contemporary Britain. It is a more ambitious novel, with multiple narrators: three inter-generational first-person voices, all women. Evelyn Roberts: a Welsh schoolteacher, shipped off to marry an English engineer in India in the early twentieth century. Her daughter, Magda, who is sent away to be educated in Britain. There she grows to be an old, stubborn woman, cared for by Shusheela, a student and daughter of Bengali immigrants.

In her preface, Conran outlines Dignity’s autobiographical foundations (although the novel itself is a work of fiction). Her father was born in Kharagpur, West Bengal, where his parents remained while he was sent to live with relatives in Colwyn Bay. Later, she witnessed her father’s unexpected friendship with his Punjabi carer, Shallu. These are the seeds that led to this novel. This experience has clearly found its way into Conran’s beautiful, measured descriptions of the relationship between carer and cared-for in the novel. However, it is not only the personal dimensions that interest her, but the political: ‘Hearing {my paternal grandmother} talk about her life during the time of the Raj from my own Welsh perspective made me critical of the way “The Empire” told its story.’ A novel that moves between India under imperial rule and modern Britain must ask the question: is it possible to write a novel about the Raj from the viewpoint of a Welsh woman? Conran addresses this question; indeed, the whole work is centred on the politics of perspective.

Compassion for the three female protagonists shifts as the novel’s emotional landscape becomes more difficult to navigate. This is especially true of Evelyn Roberts, the unlucky wife of Mr Benedict Worsal Compton. Evelyn’s marriage begins badly with her contracting a venereal disease from her husband. It gets worse from then on. Yet the relationship between Evelyn and her daughter, Magda, is even more tragic. The maternal connection is damaged beyond repair by the strict regulations set out in the manual, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by which Evelyn lives her life. Magda is raised by a wet-nurse, Aashi, while Evelyn struggles in vain to rebuild the affection she had felt in the first days after giving birth.

Conran’s ability to elicit a nuanced empathy is nowhere more apparent than with Evelyn. She arrives in India a young woman, full of good intentions, interested in everything, but her desire to learn is quickly shut down by her husband, who prefers her to remain ignorant. She is critical of the way the servants are treated, and she dislikes the parochial attitudes of the other British wives, but slowly, Evelyn internalises the social expectations of a colonialist’s wife. She grows cold, distant, inheriting the same prejudices as her husband (though never as extreme and accompanied by a touch of guilt).

Magda’s childhood in Kharagpur is not forgotten. She is a child of the Raj, and certain patterns of thought are woven into her being, that she should be served, for instance, or that the house should be as clean as possible. Conran succeeds in allowing a reader to understand ways of thinking that are anathema today while simultaneously remaining deeply critical of Evelyn and Magda’s inherited colonialist mentality.

That important, critical voice is that of Shusheela, who is a funny, forceful young student with a mind of her own. But she is under so much pressure: she studies journalism while working as a part-time carer for elderly clients in their homes, including Magda. Her mother has died from cancer, and Shusheela supports both her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is struggling with undiagnosed PTSD. Loyal, kind, clever, she is the moral compass of the novel. But when she discovers that she is pregnant with Ewan’s child, her moral certainty is struck off-balance, and the pressures threaten to overwhelm her.

Magda and Shusheela develop an unlikely friendship. Shusheela reminds Magda of her Aashi, and the ghosts of Empire are re-animated in the old house in which Magda has spent most of her life.

Dignity is poetically written, saturated with simile, such as when Evelyn describes arriving at the port in Darjeeling: ‘There is language everywhere, like a hundred bluebottles against a windowpane.’ In Book Two, young-Magda’s voice explodes on the page with vibrancy and delight, showing just how well Conran captures the language of children. The work is rich, both in words and storytelling, and so much is at play between the lines. Ewan’s war experience shows the damage that empire-building causes on both sides; and Shusheela’s mother’s death suggests the unspoken trauma that runs like a finely woven carpet underneath all three narratives. Conran’s work is nuanced and complex: there is no ‘right’ story about Empire, but these multiple views, ironies and contradictions that only one of the most talented, tender writers in Wales could portray.

 

Eluned Gramich won the inaugural New Welsh Writing Awards in 2015 for her memoir, Woman Who Brings the Rain, which was subsequently shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year.