Bart Moore-Gilbert has argued of the Jamaican-British author Mary Seacole that she sought to gain greater self-understanding by blending autobiography and travel writing in her magnum opus, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. By reflecting on her lived experience of death, migration, racial prejudice and the excesses of imperialism she was able to make some sense of her own identity and how it had been shaped by the world. There are shades of Seacole’s approach in The Setting Sun, Moore-Gilbert’s own new book about a trip to India to investigate his late father’s conduct as a colonial policeman during the chaotic final days of the Raj. In the often painful process of learning about his father, Moore-Gilbert discovers much about himself, and he is forced at every turn to question his own values, theories and memories.
The thirteen-year-old Bart wakes up one night in the dormitory of his English public school, cringing at the cold as much as at the racist epithet a fellow pupil has just mouthed: ‘Get up, Nigger, quick.’ Having recently moved to Britain after a childhood spent in colonial Tanganyika, Bart sees himself as a ‘white African kid’ exiled to a country he can barely comprehend. Marginalised by his peers, he longs for the natural colour and boy’s own excitement of his life in East Africa, playing with his beloved boxer dog Tunney, defending chickens from assault by safari ants, and taking jaunts through the bush to find honey with his minder Kimwaga. Most of all, though, the young Bart misses his father Bill, a gentleman game warden with the debonair integrity of a John Mills or David Niven. That night, Bart is led from the dormitory to his housemaster, who nervously informs him that his father has died in a plane crash. As Bart breaks down, the housemaster’s wife offers him a caramel éclair, in a pathetic act of consolation.
Fast forward five decades to 2008 and the adult Bart Moore-Gilbert, now a professor of postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths College, receives an email from an Indian academic about Bill’s ‘significant role’ in suppressing nationalist rebels in Satara District, western India. Moore-Gilbert is shocked, as ‘this is the first independent reminder in ages that I once had a father.’ Questions start pinging around his head. What exactly was this ‘significant role’ his father played in this infamously dark chapter in British imperial history? What if, like the policeman characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Bill was guilty of intimidation, torture or worse? Moore-Gilbert decides he must fly to India and discover the ‘father I did not know’.
But the truth is fiendishly hard to pin down. Moore-Gilbert searches for it in police archives, university libraries, and takes testimonies both from Bill’s now-elderly colleagues and from some of his enemies, such as the stormy, self-described ‘freedom fighter’ Lad. ‘Gilbert was the terrorist in that campaign, not us,’ Lad blurts out during their interview, which understandably upsets Moore-Gilbert. But after hearing a condemnation of this sort, Moore-Gilbert’s research will throw up a source that suggests the opposite: that Bill was, by community standards, a good cop. This feeling of oscillation provides one of The Setting Sun’s many dramatic propellers.
The son’s mental picture of the father keeps altering as new facts come in and hitherto buried memories resurface. Earlier in the narrative, Moore-Gilbert remembers Bill in almost heroic terms: protecting a local woman from domestic violence, guarding the environment from poachers, or volunteering for a humanitarian mission to save beleaguered Tutsis in what has since become Rwanda (where his plane went down). However, the more he finds out about Bill in India, the more morally hazy his reminiscences of Bill in Tanganyika become, making him wonder, finally, whether his father was such an unequivocal gent after all. Amongst many other things, The Setting Sun is a penetrating comment on the ambiguity not only of subjective memory, but of other supposedly more “objective” forms of knowledge.
For a scholar with Moore-Gilbert’s interests, this very personal quest is bound to have wider political and intellectual dimensions. To his credit, though, the professor eschews theoretical abstraction, instead using his dramatic encounters with people and places as a device for examining complex issues, from the Kashmir crisis to the double standards inherent in Western attempts to define terrorism. In one chilling sequence, Moore-Gilbert visits a tree beside Shalini Lake from which Sepoy mutineers were hanged after the 1857 rebellion and their corpses left out for the crows. ‘I have an awful vision,’ he writes, ‘of tar-black silhouettes against the blinding sky, hands tied behind their backs, rotating slowly in the putrid breeze.’ While his ‘postcolonial political ethics’ are rightly offended by such atrocities of empire and their long-running consequences, he is also worried by vulgar brands of nationalist historiography that try to blame all of India’s contemporary problems on the Raj.
Another of Bill’s former adversaries, a cheerful old-timer named Nayakwadi, has a more nuanced perspective. Despite having been a committed nationalist, he praises the British for dismantling the caste system (even if their motives had more to do with realpolitik than egalitarianism) and argues that Indian independence still hasn’t delivered basic ‘education, health and justice’ to working people. His country’s current malaise is mainly the fault of ‘the capitalist classes’ and he feels ‘no bitterness’ towards the Raj now. To Moore-Gilbert’s relief, Nayakwadi holds no grudges against Bill either, and even seemed to enjoy escaping from the policeman once by dressing up as a woman.
As his journey wears on, Moore-Gilbert starts to accept the impossibility of constructing a full and fair picture of his father. However, what he does find out, what little he can claw back of the Bill he never knew, has a definite healing effect.
Originally published in The London Magazine, October 2014