The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell


This 1973 Booker Prize winner is the story of a siege in a fictional town during the actual Indian Rebellion of 1857 when the East India Company controlled the country. The British inhabitants find it difficult to give up their social structures in the face of the attacks of the sepoys and deaths by cholera and starvation. Their dedication to various irrational beliefs they are unwilling to relinquish in the face of death is breath-taking.

There’s Dr. Dunstaple who quotes British medical journals to overcome the Scottish doctor who understands cholera is not spread by a “miasma” but by drinking contaminated water. When Dr. Dunstaple contracted the disease from ingesting contaminated fluid, he objected to Dr.McNab’s treatment which revived him so he was strong enough to object. This occurred several times until he isolated himself so that he died unimpeded.

The person in charge of the district was called the Collector; that refers to the district magistrate who collects the land revenue of the district. This nicely underscores the role of the East India Company in India. The individuals involved in this work believed they were bringing “civilization” to India.

During a discussion about “progress,” Mr. Rayne, the manager of the opium factory offers this gem,

It is in material things that progress can be clearly seen. I hope you’ll forgive me if I mention opium, but really, one has to go no farther to find progress exemplified. Opium, even more than salt is a great source of revenue of our own creation and is now more productive than any except the land revenue. And who pays it? Why, John Chinaman, who prefers our opium to any other. That’s what I call progress.

One character is Fleury, a young man recently arrived in India with his widowed sister. He is an idealistic young man, given to the occasional outburst such as the one to the Padre suggesting he should speak to the children of the love of God rather than about the wonders of creation compared to the feeble inventions of man. As the situation becomes increasingly dangerous, one of the military leaders tries to explain how to aim at the enemy. “Fleury, his mind a hopeless jumble of figures, was woolgathering again, though trying to look politely interested and was vaguely trying out various poses in his mind for daguerrotypes to appear in the Illustrated London News.

In defending the “superior civilization” the Company brings, the Collector touts the system of justice. When challenged that there are only two magistrates for nearly one million people in the Krishnapur district, the Collector acknowledged that while things were not yet perfect, “‘in the long run, a superior civilization such as ours is irresistible. By combining our advances in sciences and in morality, we have so obviously have found the best way of doing things. Truth cannot be resisted. That is to say, not successfully,’ the Collector added as a round shot struck the corner of the roof and toppled one of the pillars of the veranda.” By the end of the siege, the Collector seems to have a more realistic world view and becomes a more sympathetic figure.

While the humor is awfully dark, the tone makes this brilliant book a manageable one.

J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, originally published 1973, NYRB Classics reprint, 376 pages  (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.

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