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.

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