At the start of Sandeep Ray’s debut novel, A Flutter in the Colony, a young woman named Maloti is approaching George Town by ship as she and her young family arrive in Malaya to start anew. Maloti’s husband, a Mr Sengupta who goes only by “the young man” in the story, has found a job working in a rubber plantation and has left Calcutta behind. As the title suggests, the story takes place during British colonial times, but perhaps the word “flutter” should be changed to the plural since the setting is in both in pre-Partition Calcutta and pre-independence Malaya.
Sengupta, his wife, and young son, Jonaki, leave Calcutta for reasons that only become clear much later in the story as Ray alternates the chapters between the mid- to late-1940s in India and the following decade in Malaya. Ray enlighteningly shows how the independence movements played out in these two different places, but the chapters set in Malaya especially stand out as he writes of different cultures living together in Malaya during the last years of British rule. Kids are usually the first to adapt to new settings and this is the case with Jonaki and his parents.
Jonaki was now moving in a trilingual world—Bengali at home, English and Malay at school. One afternoon, Maloti heard him humming something in Chinese.
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know. My friend Boon Siew sings it when we play marbles.”
“You’re speaking Chinese now?” asked Maloti. This triggered a sense of alarm in her.
To make sure he kept up with Bengali, Maloti gave Jonaki a workbook she had brought from India. She also wanted him to be able to improve his Malay because that was the language on the streets, so she hired a local Indian man named Ganesh to tutor Jonaki. Ganesh also entertains mother and son with a story of a local legend, the Hantu Pontianak, a haunting spirit. This hantu was a woman who died in childbirth and in the afterlife finds people to drink their blood. Ganesh also tells Jonaki that sometimes the hantu inhabit other women’s bodies to marry men and become mothers. As Jonaki becomes engrossed in these ghost stories, Maloti tries to change the subject so he won’t have nightmares, but also because she is not Jonaki’s birth mother, but rather his aunt.
While the young man was studying for a medical degree in Scotland, his wife died in an accident; their son Jonaki was still very young. The Sengupta family instructed the young man to stay in Scotland and to finish his degree, but half a year before he was to graduate, the family lost its fortune in the years leading up to Partition and needed him to return. Back in Calcutta minus a medical degree, the young man was thrown into the turbulence around the partition of Bengal and lived off whatever inheritance remained. Since his wife’s sister—Maloti—had been Jonaki’s caregiver since the accident, the young man married Maloti in an arrangement that at first most benefited the young boy.
As the chapters flip back and forth between late 1940s Calcutta and the family’s arrival in 1956 Malaya, the story of the young man’s need to leave and start afresh became more apparent. But Malaya was going through its own turbulent era as pro-independent communists fought against the British during the Malayan Emergency.
When independence for Malaya did come, the people in the rural rubber plantation outpost held out hope for a better future. At the independence ceremony, the young man noticed the older Ganesh with tears in his eyes and asked if he was crying.