Burial At Sea
By Khushwant Singh
Hardcover: 198 pages
Publisher: Penguin/Viking (May 16, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0670057797
ISBN-13: 978-0670057795

Burial At Sea is not a big book. Less than 200 pages it is a short tale and on the jacket cover of the book, a summary of the story is given; it states:

After Nehru, Victor Jai Bhagwan is Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite Indian – a brilliant young man with the temperament of a leader and fiercely committed to his country. Though Victor adores and respects Gandhi, he disagrees with the Mahatma’s vision for the future of India. He returns from university in England determined to bring the benefits of modern industry to the subcontinent and within a few years of India’s independence, becomes the country’s biggest tycoon. But this is not the only ideal of Gandhi’s that he defies: facing a midlife crisis, he falls passionately in love with a tantric god-woman (who keeps a tiger as her pet and has a dubious past). She introduces him to the pleasures of unbridled sexuality, but also becomes the reason for his downfall.

When writing a novel, one of the first things an author aims to master is the ability to make one’s opening chapter hook the reader. In Burial At Sea, the author employed a manner which showed such honesty that it was enough to hook me. He wrote:

Despite these shortcomings we can fill in the gaps in our information from what people who came closest to the father and daughter had to say about them. And from some intelligent guesswork. We cannot lay claim to being authentic; at best it makes for interesting reading.

As I continued to read, I was becoming increasingly intrigued by the story for a very special reason. If, like me, you’ve read Mr. Khuswant Singh’s biography, Love, Truth and a Little Malice, you’ll begin to speculate just how much of the story herein is real. With that in mind, the final product of this Burial At Sea is that it is a story which is deeply rooted in some of the events in Mr. Khushwant Singh’s life – for example the fact that Mr. Mattoo earned more as the Chairman of his son’s company than he did as a lawyer; the fact that Jai Bahgwan’s business empire started out with a textile mill. All of these incidents are clearly rooted in Mr. Singh’s own personal history.
After the opening chapter, the rest of the tale is told in linear fashion and it flows smoothly right to the end but, I did not feel completely satisfied with the conclusion of the tale. It transpires that Jai Bhagwan loses his temper with the leader of the Unions and slaps him hard. The tantric god-woman then makes this comment: ‘Lose your temper and lose the argument’. Thereafter, in the space of 10 pages, we find that the tantric god-woman is pregnant, she and Jai Bhagwan decide to end their relationship, his long-time friend who betrayed him, Nair, now gets his comeuppance and subsequently, Jai Bhagwan dies. All this happens a little too fast and perhaps a more detailed analysis, as in the manner of Jai Bhagwan became ‘a national icon and a role model for future generations,’ would have made this story ‘fuller’. In this, I am reminded of the words of Alexander DeLarge’s review on the Amazon.com site wherein he states this:

Burial At Sea seems harried from the beginning and very scattered, lacking direction. The conclusion doesn’t fair any better as the tale ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily. It seems like this novel was written in a rush, meant to either quickly satisfy a publisher’s contract or to add a boost to the author’s bank account.

Nevertheless, I did like the character of Victor Jai Bahgwan. He came across as a man who knew what he wanted and got it. This did not make him a selfish capitalist who in the words of one of the characters in the story:

We [his workers] have to stand united against capitalists who exploit us. You know the slums and hovels we have to live in. Have you seen the palatial mansions these people live in with hordes of servants? Your proprietor even has a ship of his own where he spends his days and nights so he does not have to see how the poor of Bombay live.’

The truth of the matter as to why Jai Bhagwan chose to live the way he did was clearly explained on page 95; the words showed his desire and reasons to keep aloof from all of the inhabitants of Bombay. While he did not care what others thought of him, he was concerned about the welfare of members of his own family; I particularly liked the way in which his remorse at not showing his wife due attention while she was alive was written. True enough, with the words ‘tantric god-woman’ used, one would be prepared for there to sexual content in this tale. Still, Khushwant Singh has, to his credit, managed to write about such a subject without making it sound sordid.
In Burial At Sea, the settings which came most to life were Jai Bhagwan’s tiny mews apartment behind Albion Street in London and his holiday home in Rishikesh. Other than that, the paintings created with his words about Jai Bhagwan’s homes in Bombay, Delhi and even his yacht were somewhat vague and lacking in detailed description – exotic , perhaps, but not enough to make the scenes come alive.
It is hard to pinpoint a single purpose in this story – is it an autobiography about Jai Bhagwan’s life? Is it a tale about the rise and downfall of a capitalist? Is it a tale that delves into an exploration of tantric sex? Perhaps, it’s all of these. In all, it remains that Burial At Sea has, in the author’s own words, made ‘for interesting reading’. I would certainly recommend this book which can be read for pleasure in one sitting.

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