Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tiger Burning Bright

I picked up the book Tiger Burning Bright by Theodora DuBois at a used book sale recently. I succumbed partly because of the charming three-color cover illustration and partly because I remembered seeing it during my 1970s library days, even though I was pretty sure I had never read it.

Well, now I have read it and I'm certain it was the first time. Published in 1964 by an author who was then 74 years old, it's set in 1857 India and tells the fictional first-person story of an American teen-aged girl swept up in the violent Sepoy Rebellion. I had never heard of this revolt before (thank you, U.S. education system), but it's easy to analogize it to China's "Boxer Rebellion," which I did learn about in school from a Western perspective. As with Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel Boxers, this story of India could use a telling from an Indian point of view.

I knew going into my reading that the book was unlikely to be from the point of view of the colonized Indian people, and I was right. The author, I think, thought she was a progressive, but she carries her Western bias throughout. Before the book opens, for instance, she explains in a section called "A Few Facts about India" that the East India Company was in control of the country, backed up by the British military. However, it
by no means used [its powers] only for the enrichment of the English. Roads, aqueducts and irrigation systems were constructed throughout the country. Famine suffering was alleviated. Hospitals and schools were built.... Education was encouraged and missionaries came and began to spread Christianity.

Unhappily, many men of India misunderstood and resented the laws and innovations of the English (page x).
So...missionaries came to spread Christianity in a country with several other religions already in dominance, but the people "misunderstood" what the English were up to? Right.

The thing I was less ready for was the casual sexism from a woman author. Every one of the English adult women in the book is useless and horrible. They are the ones who express the worst anti-Indian racism; somehow, British men are all much more open-minded. The women all end up getting killed off one way or another, leaving our plucky American teen and another young Irish servant girl as the only non-child females in the story.

The book is especially hard on a woman called Mrs. Thompson, the mother of four young children, including a nursing infant. Her husband is murdered in front of her and the rest of the family (as well as the narrator and me, the reader). Mrs. T. can't snap out of it, though, and pitch in toward the survival of the group, darn her! As a reader, I was irritated with her, as the author intended me to be, of course. DuBois lays it on even thicker, making Mrs. T. irrational about maintaining English cultural mores in the midst of a life-or-death crisis and whining about needing more water. But stepping back, where is the allowance that this woman has recently given birth, could be in postpartum depression, and is, of course, nursing — which means she needs more water than everyone else? There isn't any, of course, from our teen-aged narrator. Mrs. T. finally dies of something after going mad. Her baby is left with no food source at that point.

Mrs. T's loss as a milk cow leads to an interesting combination of sexism and racism as the story nears its end, when the refugee party is saved from dying by the people of a Jat village, deep in the desert between Delhi and Multan. The Jat people are described as "very primitive and low caste, but kind." The narrator has enough presence of mind to acknowledge that "It's strange to think of oneself being the object of charity from a group of such half-naked, almost destitute" people.

Luckily, there is a young Jat mother with an infant of her own who can serve as a wet nurse to the orphaned baby, Peter. She herself is described as "a young ebony girl" who the protagonist actually thinks of as "dinner for our Peter."

This child-mother and her husband (who is described as a "not-very-bright but devoted individual") join the traveling party and are referred to for the rest of the book as "the Jats" — they are never given names, though one member of the refugee group can speak a common tongue with them, so they could easily have exchanged names.

In the end, after the English/Irish/American refugees reach Multan and the "safety" of English society once again, the Jat couple leaves for their village, taking the infant Peter with them. The English ladies of Multan decry this action ("he's been stolen by that dreadful wet-nurse, that Jat woman") and assume the couple will harm him or at least hold him for ransom. Our heroine knows better, saying the Jat mother is "not dreadful. She saved his life. She's kind and devoted. She took him because she was afraid he would die without her and she couldn't bear to give him up." But still, she makes sure the child is retrieved nonetheless. The retrieval is described this way by the character who brings the baby back:
We soon overtook them plodding along, the woman with both babies. I will say that she didn't want to give up ours. She screamed and kicked when I tried to take him from her and he howled and held onto her hair.... [laughs]... But an English officer had driven us and he gave the Jat man a gold piece. I saw the transaction. Even the woman was impressed and she finally relinquished the baby to Katie without too many tears.
That the Jat couple were okay with exchanging the baby for a gold piece may or may not be realistic, but it's written as if there could be no question that it was more than fair.

One final aspect of the book that left me shaking my head: our main character is 14 years old in the opening pages before she leaves for India with her parents, then 17 during the main action. There is a young man from her home town who was "at least 23" at the beginning and 26 for the main action as they struggle to reach safety. Our girl has had a crush on him for years, of course, but assumed he was not interested. At the end of the book, though, he suddenly declares his love for her and asks her to marry him, saying "I've had my eye on you since you were an infant!".

Well, ick, man. DuBois's husband was 10 years older than she, but they didn't meet until she was 27. The characters' age difference is a minor point in the book but it also seems to exist for no particular reason (why couldn't the narrator have been 20 or 22?), except to allow DuBois to sell the book as a juvenile instead of an adult novel, I suppose.

It was a final twist of distastefulness on top of all that had come before it.

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