Sepia shot with gold
Sheila Kumar, Jan 26, 2014
Nostalgia weaves a soft and gauzy curtain through Gita Aravamudan’s second work of fiction, Colour of Gold. The story moves between the KGF that was: bustling, thriving, happy even if fraught with all the dangers attendant on mines and mining, and the KGF that now stands a pale shadow of its old self, derelict in some places, desolate in others, a veritable ghost town at yet other spots.
Aravamudan lets loose several threads of her story in a calibrated manner, which she neatly dovetails and braids towards the end of the book. On the present track dated 2003, there is feisty Sheila headed back to KGF with a newfound friend Lionel, the former driven by remembrance of things passed, the latter by curiosity. On the past track pegged at 1953, there is shy but not timorous Arati Ram, relocating from Bombay to live with her sister and brother-in-law at KGF.
Even as she is drawn into the whirl of social activity in the new place, with visits to the club, rounds of tennis, picnics and other such pastimes, she meets and is drawn to the dashing Ian Peterson. The third track travels still further back into the past, to 1903 where the dark and beauteous Ponni is kept by a senior officer
at the mines, Robert Flanagan. Ponni has three children by the white man, two daughters and a baby boy who is so fair, he could pass for a foreigner, a child she hopes will reverse their fortunes.The story switches to and from these various characters, detailing their hopes, desires, quests, and indeed, their destiny.
Sheila needs to come to terms with the intense disappointment she feels when returning to her erstwhile home
and seeing that the days of glory are well and truly over. Lionel’s mission is a more unsentimental one; he is there to garner an in-depth account of the social and environmental impact of mining on hitherto healthy townships. Arati, recently orphaned, needs to shuck off her conservative but protective cloak and explore just what she feels for Ian. And Ponni, poor Ponni, has to come to the painful realisation after the sudden death of her benefactor, that native mistresses of white gentry have virtually no claim to anything or anyone.
However, the real hero of the story is undoubtedly the Kolar Gold Fields township. The author draws an attractive picture, of the elegant colonial cottages and manor houses
, of Oorgaum Hall where they showed movies, of the KGF club where people replicated a slice of the Raj life. Sheila’s erstwhile home with a striking akash malli tree outside, is the house Arati, her sister and brother-in-law lived in years ago, as well as being Robert Flanagan’s bungalow yet earlier, with the room Ponni had appropriated for herself. This beautiful bungalow stands in stark contrast to the cyanide dumps, the shanty town where Arul, Devanathan, Mallika and other labourers lived, a counterpoint to the dark and dangerous mines themselves. It may have been the lure of gold, of course, but in this book, the shining metal is relegated to basically being the means of livelihood for many.
Aravamudan employs a direct style of story-telling, occasionally letting a trace of wistfulness arrange itself at the borderline of the story. The class divide between the officers and the miners is a clear one. There is love, betrayal, heartbreak, hazards, horrific rockbursts, all against the brooding background of the mines. The colonial hierarchies give way to the arguably even more rigid hierarchies of the brown sahebs after Independence, and even as a vein of corruption runs alongside the gleam of gold in the underground caves, the 120-year-old mines are shut down and everything fades into near nothingness.
Colour of Gold serves as a window into a life that was, a nostalgia point not just for those who lived at the KGF, but also for those wishful of a peek into the simultaneously calm and turbulent life of a mining community. Given that the government has green-lighted the revival of mining in the KGF, this requiem becomes all the more interesting.
Colour of Gold
Harper Collins2013, pp 231