The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan is a story that explores the complexities of post-colonial identity. The novel is composed of two parts: the ill-fated affair between Kildare Ranger Michael Flaherty and Anglo-Indian Rose Twomey in the 1920s, and the chance meeting of the Alymer and Twomey ancestors in 1980s India.
The early chapters centre around the Royal Kildare Rangers, an Irish regiment of the British army based in Nandagiri in South-East India. When a young soldier Michael Flaherty strikes up a relationship with the Anglo-Indian maid to the regiment commander Colonel Aylmer, it triggers a tragic chain of events for Rose; while she contends with the consequences of their relationship, Michael is drawn into a doomed army protest against the behaviour of the Black and Tans in Ireland, a development based on the real-life mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920.
The latter half of the book brings us back to India in the 1980s, where the grandson of Colonel Alymer visits Nandagiri to photograph the landscapes that inspired his grandfather’s paintings. Richard is a houseguest of Mohan Kumar, the Collector of Nandagiri, and becomes acquainted with the adult grandchildren of Rose Twomey during his stay. As friendships develop between the four of them, it offers a unique opportunity to examine the caste systems and identity crises that have marked both Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Indian history. It would be challenging enough to explore as complex a topic as the national identity of either India or Ireland alone, and yet Madhavan succeeds in illuminating the histories of both, side by side and with great eloquence.
There is so much to be explored in the rich historical and social context Madhavan has chosen that it’s perhaps understandable that some of the minor plot developments don’t hold nearly as much appeal. Mohan’s recollections of a young love affair, and some of the time spent navigating the relationships of the younger Alymer’s and Twomey’s, pale in comparison to the earlier stages of the novel. Some characters – such as Father Jerome, and Rose’s Aunt Mags – are retired from the story all too soon. Similarly, Richard’s brief mentions of his grandfather’s difficult memories of the mutiny and subsequent depression are avenues that cry out for further explanation. It’s a testament to the compelling story Madhavan created to lay the groundwork of the novel, that the departure to 1980’s India sometimes feels like it’s getting in the way of the fascinating historical context of the story.
The Tainted is a nuanced exploration of the heroics and heartbreaks that can spring from social and political turmoil, and Madhavan’s command over elements like dialogue and cultural context are clear markers of a considerable talent for historical fiction. Her deep knowledge of the complicated and contradictory histories of both Ireland and India is obvious; and the novel is essential reading for those with an interest in Anglo-Irish or Anglo-Indian history, and the far-reaching consequences of colonialism.
Words: Joanne O’Sullivan