Kunzru’s novel (his debut – I had read his latest novel My Revolutions earlier this year), has a real affinity for early Naipaul. And that’s a good thing. Kunzru has created characters (or a diverse character) who traces the arc of colonialism and racism in the British Empire to its logical conclusion. When it is learned that Pran Nath Razdan is the offspring of a British colonial’s brief fling with an Indian Princess, he is expelled from his home and must make his way in the streets. As Rukhsana, he moves from the brothels of Bombay to an unwanted role as a pawn in colonial intrigues. Escaping that life, he finds a place with a missionary couple. All the while Pretty Bobby learns to more easily pass for white, until by a fortuitous turn of events (for him) he is able to assume the persona of a proper Englishman, Jonathan Bridgeman. Pran drifts and drifts – farther and farther away from his “true” identity, until it is unclear whether he has any ‘identity’ as such left at all.
He watches intently, praying that he is wrong, that he has missed something. There is no escaping it. In between each impression, just at the moment when one person falls away and the next has yet to take possession, the impressionist is completely blank. There is nothing there at all.
Each transformation into another persona is an ‘impression’ that Pran is cultivating.
A suppressed thought starts to take form. What if, long ago, he got lost? What of he got lost from himself, and could never get back again?
Kunzru sets the reader (and Pran) up for a great irony, when he has become so totally conventional and boring that his one chance of happiness is lost with his identity. But Kunzru also seems to play with genre as much as Pran plays with identity – some of them work and some of them don’t. The result is an unevenness that is frustrating, though the overall impression of the book is is a favorable one.