Review: Mistaken Identity by Nayantara Sahgal
Title: Mistaken Identity
Author: Sahgal, Nayantara
Length: 196 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Harper Collins and The India Today Group / 1988
Source: Airport bookshop in Delhi.
Why I Read It: It sounded interesting and I wanted to pick up some books by Indian authors after my visit there.
Date Read: 08/04/11
On a train journey home to north India after long months of travel abroad, the playboy Bhushan Singh, son of the Raja of Vijaygarh, is arrested and thrown into jail. Charged with treason, Bhushan finds himself in a filthy prison cell surrounded by elderly trade unionists as innocent of any political crime as himself. But the year is 1929, the country is town by strikes, and a jittery government sees sedition under every stone.
Set mainly in the prison cell in India, Bhushan takes the reader and his cell-mates back to the home of his youth, abroad to America, and on searches for his lost love through the tales he tells to pass the time waiting for the trial. In the background the struggle is on and there are hunger strikes, Gandhi’s Salt Marches, mass arrests, and more. The reader gets a lot of general information about the country during that time and how ordinary citizens could be treated, and the class differences that existed.
At the start of the novel Bhushan is a well-off young man who seems quite sure of his rights, though not of his place in the world, and who wants simply to be left alone and is sure that he will be. As the story progresses he slowly learns how similar he is to his cell-mates, regardless of social class and background. It was interesting to read about him slowly becoming one of them and accepting their common humanity in the fight for justice rather than holding himself apart.
Also interesting through the book was the descriptions of the justice system and the way in which it worked. It was crazy to see the paranoia and think that it actually happened and still does happen like that in many places. People picked up on some suspicion or another and thrown in jail, with little recourse to true justice.
Because Bhushan is such a reticent and unambitious character, though, it was hard to ever truly connect with him. He was just drifting along and seemed to have no goals or ambitions. Plus his infatuation with a girl from so many years ago was rather disturbing. One wonders if his upbringing caused him to have such a lack of focus or if there was something else behind it.
I didn’t love the book and won’t be rushing out to find more from this author but it was a good way to spend a few hours. Interesting book but not great. Recommended to anyone who likes historical fiction from the early independence movements or who is looking for more Indian or South Asian fiction.