by Professor Ross Poole, lecturer in philosophy and political theory at the New School for Social Research, New York.*
The narrator for much of Ian Bedford's story The Last Candles of the Night is Philip, Philip Chalk. His surname tells us something. For most of his life Philip has been a school teacher, committed and professional, slightly old-fashioned, and happier with a blackboard than a white board, let alone with a computer screen and IT. We meet Philip in 2001. He is 76, and has just returned to Sydney after working for over fifty years in India, with only occasional visits to Australia. He is living in Kogarah, in a house he grew up in but which now belongs to his long estranged though tolerant wife, Jenny.
The house is full of memories of his childhood, and Philip often indulges himself with these. But the task he gives himself is the search for much more disturbing memories.
His grandson, Jim, is the only one of his family who shows much interest in him, and Philip begins to tell Jim about his life in 1947/48 when he was a school teacher during the last days of the independent principality of Hyderabad, and was a witness to some of the struggles and chaos accompanying the formation of modern India. Jim prods him with a question: Why did he stay? Why did he come back to Australia only to return to India, leaving his wife and family behind? Philip's answer – that it was for a job – does not satisfy either of them. Later, Philip repeats to himself Jim's skeptical response: "You stayed on in Hyderabad for the sake of a job!" And he imagines himself replying: "I stayed because Anand was in trouble, as simple as that. I stayed because Ragini stayed." (p8) But as he knows it was not as simple as that. It is Philip's search for a better answer to Jim's question that provides the focus of much of the book.
Philip is on his own admission an unreliable narrator. In his account of his early days as teacher in Hyderabad, he keeps repeating how much he did not know. And if there was danger of his forgetting that, his friends – Ragini and Anand – keep reminding him. Anand tells him: "You're an Englishman. I don't mean Englishman, you know what I mean. A kind of blundering fool." (p26) But Anand adds: "You can get away with it." Ignorance brings with it a kind of innocence, and because Philip is a privileged outsider, his ignorance does not bring with it the risks that it would for insiders. And so it proves. As the political struggles become more intense and religious differences become grounds for war and murder, Philip leads a curiously charmed life, taking risks that he does not even know are risks. But for his friends, Ragini and Anand, the stakes are higher.
If the story Philip tells is one of his ignorance, it is not a Bildungsroman. If he is to be educated, this will come later. Of course Philip in 2001 knows that the young Philip was not innocent. When in memory one recollects the past, it is from the perspective of the present. One always has knowledge that was not available at the time: that is, the knowledge of what happened afterwards. (This is what Peter Goldie calls the irony of memory; it often takes the form of condescension, sometimes of envy.) But if the account that the later Philip gives of what happened is informed by his knowledge of what was yet to happen, this does not provide understanding. However, perhaps paradoxically, as Philip painfully retells his story, his words say more than he recognises. It is one of the many achievements of this novel that Philip tells us much more than he knows.
For Philip, the key to understanding lies in the relationship between himself, Anand and Ragini. The three friends love each other, but Philip and Anand are in love with Ragini. Ragini is more elusive, but she responds to Anand. In a way, Philip accepts this, even recognises its inevitability. Philip sees in Anand a passion and will that he lacks. Characteristically he experiences his failures as residing in what he did not do, rather than what he did. At one point, he confesses to Ragini that he had only asked to be with her. To which she responds: "Should you have asked for more?" (p21). Anand does ask for more, and is given it. Philip's initial response is subdued. He leaves Anand and Ragini together in his apartment, and wanders around the streets. He compares himself with the committed Anand: "Philip was a guileless headmaster... Anand knew this. Ragini knew this. Philip leapt as he ran, punching the air. He was good for nobody. He stood for nothing. Or you tell me what he stood for. He did not even aspire to stand." (p72) But his contempt for himself turns to something else when Anand reveals that Ragini took him to a secret place: the Ramappa Siva temple in the forest of Palampet, a place of magic that Philip knew was special to Ragini. For reasons that were unclear, at least to Philip, the fact that Ragini had shared this place with Anand was a great betrayal.
It is at this point that politics takes over. Anand is working for the Congress Party: his cause is a democratic and inclusive nation of India. Ragini is a Communist, working for revolution and the redistribution of land. As daughters of a landlord, she and her sister have arranged for their lands to be given to the tenants. After independence, the rulers of the new India make it clear that they intend to take over the principality centered on Hyderabad. The rulers of Hyderabad legalise the Communist Party in a futile attempt to establish a united front against an Indian take-over. For Anand, this was a personal betrayal – not merely by the Nizam, but by Ragini. In his anger, he holds her personally responsible. … In the chaos that follows, Ragini suffers personal tragedy [and] both Ragini and Anand lose themselves in their divergent political projects.
Philip blames himself for what happens to Anand and Ragini. [Later] he acknowledges that he does not and did not know what was at stake for Anand and Ragini. He recognises they had a commitment to each other, but a commitment that was bigger than that: it was this duality – to each other and to something larger – that was important. It both brought them together and divided them. It was something that Philip did not have. He comes to realise that Ragini and Anand had a stake (his word) in, if not India, at least in the country that was to become India, and this had cost them more than he could know. It was because he wanted to understand and share that commitment that he deserted his wife and family, and went back to India. And now, paradoxically, back in Australia, with his alienated family, he was still seeking that understanding.
Philip does not find it. There are a number of reasons for his failure. If I had more time, I would suggest that it is not unrelated to his being an Australian. He is not just an outsider, but an Australian outsider. In this novel, as in his previous novel, Ian Bedford is engaged in a not unsympathetic but unsparing interrogation of Australian history and identity. The kind of political comfort of Philip's Australian background, the lack of what we might call the politics of passion, presents a barrier to the understanding of the political investment so important to Ragini and Anand. Again and again, Philip presents himself as an observer of political, and indeed, of a social scene in which everyone was engaged in a struggle and conflict. If he was neutral in the differences between Ragini and Anand, it was a disengaged neutrality.
* This speech has been edited from the original to remove spoilers.