Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Lesser Breeds by Nayantara Sahgal

It happened during a conference. The professor was singing a paean in praise of a novel called Mistaken Identity and I was slowly getting enraged. I had read the novel a couple of years back and had found it no great shakes. In fact, to me, the writer had committed a cardinal sin. Though the novel was set in the late 1920s and was political in nature, there was hardly any mention of the event that shook both the Indian sub-continent and Westminster: the throwing of bombs in the assembly by Bhagat Singh and B.K Dutt. The subsequent trials and hangings had stirred an entire nation.

Finally, I just could not take in the eulogising anymore and asked the professor regarding this very thing. Momentarily taken aback (perhaps she had never expected to have really read that novel, high praise notwithstanding), she came back with aplomb and informed the gathering that in her next book Lesser Breeds, set during the same time the writer Nayantara Sahgal had discussed that very particular act.

Well, that was it! Lesser Breeds immediately went on my Wishlist!! I took it up eagerly. The blurb was a little disconcerting. The action begins in 1932. The Revolutionaries had been hanged in 1931. Okay, perhaps there would be flash-backs or discussion of their ideas. The novel begins with a young English teacher, Nurullah, arriving at the house of Nikhil, a man fighting for India's independence and modelled both on India's first PM (and the author's uncle) Jawahar Lal Nehru, and the firebrand Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Nikhil asks Nurullah to tutor his young daughter Shan. Inevitably, Nurullah too gets involved in the freedom struggle.

Half-way through, the narrative suddenly shifts to US as Shan has gone there for higher studies. That passage ends with the second world war. Then there is a time shift and the book ends with a plane crash. If this is too desultory a summary, it is that the book too is like that. Too many distractions without any centre makes the novel fall apart.

There are some outstanding passages, like this reflection on the final solution

No one betrayed by so much as a wink or nudge that the bomb bred for Hiroshima was the most scientific solution ever devised - the ultimate solution - for disposing of detested pigment. (330)

And the title, taken from a text of Kipling's is a clear winner:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
wild tongues that have not Thee in awe
Such boastings as the Gentiles use, 
Or lesser breeds without the Law.

Besides the phrase,one simply has to love the use of the upper and lower cases.

A 369 pages long meandering saga and No mention of the Revolutionaries who had died just a year ago.

Never underestimate a professor. They have subtle ways of taking their revenge...


First Line: '... two hundred thousand men for the regularly army, voluntarism if possible, conscription if necessary.'

Title: Lesser Breeds

Author: Nayantara Sahgal

Publication Details: ND: Harper Collins, 2005

First Published: 2003

Pages: 369

Other Books read of the same author: Mistaken Identity


The book can be purchased on the Net. I borrowed it from the College Library [823.93NS S19L]


Submitted for the following challenges: South Asian, & Wishlist.


  1. Nicely reviewed, Neer. I'd never heard of either of the books by Nayantara Sahgal and Sudhir Kakar in spite of the subject-matter falling squarely in my area of interest. Thanks for the heads-up.

    1. Thanks a lot Prashant. Am so glad that you too are interested in the interpretation of the Indian past. If you get hold of the books, do read them. I'd love to read your thoughts on them.