A remarkable novel with its subtle balancing of humour and gravitas
The year is 1943. The Great Western Railway in Swindon has just hired the services of three Indians for special covert operations. The Indians include railwaymen Vincent Rosario, Imtiaz ‘Billy’ Khan, and mathematician Akaash Ray. Their work is imperative to push the war effort in Britain and to free Europe of the scourge of Nazism. While the three debate who’s the most English of them all, their fates are intertwined through a series of extraordinary events including romantic entanglements, espionage, murder, and a broken-down toilet.
McCallum’s finest hour is his characters; he creates simmering tension and passive aggression simply by layering them with opposing cultural and political values. His study of people pays off in the fine details he flourishes them with. The competitiveness of Indians is captured in the heated exchange between Akaash and Vincent about Akaash’s Ph.D. and Vincent’s derisive remark about Akaash not being a real doctor. One of the longest-running gags in the novel is the ironic representation of culture, say, in the way Akaash slurps his tea or Billy’s dress uniform.
This same attention to detail is evident in the descriptions of locomotive engines, local flora and fauna. One forgets that the past is a different place; McCallum evokes it with such completeness.
The trope of using cultural differences to elicit laughter is often laden with stale clichés such as accent jokes, unintentional double entendres and clumsy gaffes related to cultural ritual. This is where McCallum’s treatment shines. He turns a simple domestic meal into an occasion for hilarity through the divvying up of pork chops and chicken soup among a by-choice-protesting-vegetarian Akaash, a devout Billy, and an opportunistic Vincent.
Mrs. A’s Indian Gentlemen is a remarkable novel for how McCallum manages a subtle balancing act between humour and gravitas by portraying a working class that tries to make the best of what it has. McCallum reminds us of the truth that despite cultural differences, what binds us is kindness, and that, surprisingly, people are capable of it.
It’s 1943, and war rages across Europe. In Britain, the Great Western Railway Works’ labour force is comprised of a few men too valuable, old or infirm for active service and thousands of recently recruited women. With critical skills in short supply, the British government looks to the Empire to provide vital expertise in the run -up to the D Day invasion.
And that is how railway engineer Imtiaz ‘Billy’ Khan, logistics supremo Vincent Rosario and maths prodigy Akaash Ray find themselves in Swindon, lodging with the well-intentioned Mrs A, hilariously navigating bland food, faulty toilet cisterns, secret assignments and a mutual distrust of one another.
This is a rollicking tale of misadventure about what happens when cultures collide, dedicated with affection to the town of Swindon.
Part courtroom drama, part political thriller, part military history, The Final Charge explores the nature of both the brutal Emergency in Colonial East Africa in the 1950s and the institutionalised corruption in present day Kenyan politics. It also asks important questions about what it means to be a minority in a society, where responsibility lies for past wrongs and who gets to decide who is condemned as a terrorist and whom lauded as a freedom fighter: themes more relevant today than ever.