Willie Somerset Chandran, a youth from a starkly dysfunctional mixed-caste family in India, manages to attend university in England during the 1950s.
Willie was living in the college as in a daze. The learning he was being given was like the food he was eating, without savour…. He was unanchored, with no idea of what lay ahead….
At the college he had to re-learn everything that he knew. He had to learn how to eat in public. He had to learn how to greet people and how, having greeted them, not to greet them all over again in a public place ten or fifteen minutes later. He had to learn to close doors behind him. He had to learn how to ask for things without being peremptory.
The college was a semi-charitable Victorian foundatioin and it was modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. That was what the students were often told. And because the college was like Oxford and Cambridge it was full of various pieces of “tradition” that the teachers and students were proud of but couldn’t explain. There were rules, for instance, about dress and behaviour in the dining hall; and there were quaint, beer-drinking punishments for misdemeanours. Students had to wear black gowns on formal occasions…. The academic gown probably was copied from the Islamic seminaries of a thousand years before, and that Islamic style would have been copied from something earlier. So it was a piece of make-believe.
Yet something strange was happening. Gradually, learning the quaint rules of his college, with the churchy Victorian buildings pretending to be older than they were, Willie began to see in a new way the rules he had left behind at home. He began to see–and it was upsetting, at first–that the old rules were themselves a kind of make-believe, self-imposed. And one day, towards the end of his second term, he saw with great clarity that the old rules no longer bound him.
His mother’s firebrand uncle had agitated for years for freedom for the backwards [low-caste people]. Willie had always put himself on that side. Now he saw that the freedom the firebrand had been agitating about was his for the asking. No one he met, in the college or outside it, knew the rules of Willie’s own place, and Willie began to understand that he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution. The possibilities were dizzying. He could, within reason, remake himself and his past and his ancestry.
And just as in the college he had boasted in the beginning in an innocent, lonely way of the friendship of his “family” with the famous old writer and the famous Beaverbrook journalist, so now he began to alter other things about himself, but in small, comfortable ways. He had no big over-riding idea. He took a point here and another there. The newspapers, for instance, were full of news about the trade unions, and it occurred to Willie one day that his mother’s uncle, the firebrand of the backwards, who sometimes at public meetings wore a red scarf (in imitation of his hero, the famous backward revolutionary and atheistic poet Bharatidarsana), it occurred to Willie that this uncle of his mother’s was a kind of trade-union leader, a pioneer of workers’ rights. He let drop the fact in conversation and in tutorials, and he noticed that it cowed people.
It occurred to him at another time that his mother, with her mission-school education, was probably half a Christian. He began to speak of her as a full Christian; but then, to get rid of the mission-school taint and the idea of laughing barefoot backwards (the college supported a Christian mission in Nyasaland in Southern Africa, and there were mission magazines in the common room), he adapted certain things he had read, and he spoke of his mother as belonging to an ancient Christian community of the subcontinent, a community almost as old as Christianity itself. He kept his father as a brahmin. He made his father’s father a “courtier.” So, playing with words, he began to re-make himself. It excited him, and began to give him a feeling of power.
His tutors said, “you seem to be settling in.”