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Ireland and India a tale of two countries

Marzo 2015
Cosa hanno in comune l’Irlanda e l’India? Un capitolo molto triste della loro storia. Ce lo spiega Kalyan Ray, professore anglo-indiano che a 50 anni si è scoperto scrittore di successo. Il suo segreto? Scrivere con la stilografica.

di Mark Worden

File audio:

Ray Kalyan
Ray Kalyan
Part of the manuscript of Kalyan Ray’s third novel.
Part of the manuscript of Kalyan Ray’s third novel.

Speaker: Mark Worden (Standard British accent)

Kalyan Ray is an Indian writer who has spent most of his career teaching at university in the United States. He modestly says that he has written “exceedingly boring articles which 15 people in the world would read at conferences” but in his fifties he decided to have a go at fiction. Here he reached a wider readership. His second novel, No Country, has been an international hit and was recently published in Italian by Casa Editrice Nord as Una casa di acqua e cenere. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that Kalyan Ray writes his novels by hand:

Kalyan Ray (Indian accent)

Yes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose! I can’t take too much credit for that, but I feel most comfortable with a pen because, you know, the typewriter came to India very much later than many other things, so I’ve never been particularly adept or good at typewriters, and if I’m writing and I have this wonderful phrase to write down, sentence, paragraph, and I’m hunting for the letter “l” or “p,” I lose that thought. I’d rather write with a fountain pen.


No Country is a gripping novel that spans 150 years and several continents. There are numerous narrators. The story begins in Ireland at the time of the potato famine. The lead characters leave for India and the United States, and we follow the progress of their descendants. Like many people, Kalyan Ray thinks that Ireland and India have a lot of things in common:

Kalyan Ray

There are many parallels. For example, what happened in 1844 onwards, ‘45 through ‘48, the great famine, was repeated almost in its exact nature in Bengal. There’s a wonderful book written about this, it’s called Churchill’s Secret War. It’s written by a British woman of Indian origin whose name is Madhusree Mukerjee. It’s a brilliantly researched book of history, in which she describes how, by the policy of the British government during the Second World War, six million Bengalis died of hunger because their food was taken away to feed the armies which were supposed to oppose Japan. Of course Japan overran those troops, most of the food was either taken away by the Japanese or destroyed by the monsoons, but six million Bengalis and Orissans and Biharis died in that famine. It was the secret holocaust in India. Nobody talks about it. The Irish know it, the Indians know it.


The British left India after the war, but the English language remained:

Kalyan Ray

If I were on video, I would pull out my wallet, which I carry around in India, and show you a currency bill note, a rupee note and the denomination is written in all the regional languages and in English because English is now considered an Indian language. It is counter-colonialism, it’s just been swallowed by India, it’s an Indian language, it’s one of the many Indian languages. In fact in India the children of most of the poorer people have demanded that any schools that are being set up should be in the English medium because they think that that is the way out of poverty. And in actual fact it is because, you know, if you want to get a job in, let us say, even the most basic job in a service industry, in hotels, in restaurants, you need to be able to speak in English because not everybody’s going to be speaking in Bengali or Oriya or Punjabi or Kannada, because if I need to speak to somebody who is from, let us say, Karnataka, the only way I can do so is through English, or maybe Hindi, if that person speaks Hindi, and I pity the person who has to listen to my Hindi!



We then asked Kalyan Ray to read an excerpt from No Country. Before doing so, he explained the setting:

Kalyan Ray (Indian accent)

You know, what I could do is to read about something that happened almost exactly 100 years ago, when Robert (the son of an Irish father and an Indian mother – ed) is a boy and he happens to be where the Europeans are celebrating the declaration of the First World War. Everybody thought it was a wonderful thing, and of course it’s (the place where the celebration is taking place – ed) open only for Europeans. He comes to the celebrations and of course, you know, there’s this European lady, English lady, older English lady, who objects to his presence, senses that he’s Anglo-Indian. And of course when Robert tells his name and says where he lives, the lady is sure that she’s (he’s) Anglo-Indian:

“Where is your father, Robert Patrick Aherne?” the old lady frowned, “here?”
“No ma’am,” I said, feeling very grown-up. “My father is Brendan Aherne. He is at home,” I added, “We live on Elliot Road.”
“Elliot Road, did you say?” snorted the old lady, glaring at the army officer. “Lieutenant Harrison, am I to understand that Anglo-Indians are coming here today?” The lady in white began to move away. The army man looked discomfited and absently put his palm on my head as I looked up at them.
“He’s just a child,” he began.
Her eyes blazed as she shook her yellow shiny head, and I watched fascinated as she licked her grey teeth with a slippery pink tongue. Her neck was mottled, and her cheeks splotchy with age. “Chee Chee,” she hissed at me. “Chaalo idhaar se.” Get away from here, it meant in Hindustanee. I knew that.
“Harrison!” she said.
The army man picked me up under my arms and swung me back into my father’s brougham. Sonu-amma (Robert’s nurse – ed) was staring open-mouthed in fright, her hands clutching me. The army man would not meet my eyes, but pressed a coin in my palm, without saying a word.
“It’s for Europeans only,” he muttered. I don’t know if he said this to me, to Sonu-amma, or to himself. Even before the brougham moved off, I flung away the coin in anger. A number of brown beggar children appeared from nowhere and began a screaming fight over the coin, right in front of the flower-decked entrance. The last I saw of them was the army man kicking about in a frenzy, trying to get the nimble laughing children of the streets away from the grand gate.  
After all these years, I still remember the sting.
Then I saw the soldiers marching in formation. Our brougham had to stand aside to let them pass. I did not know then, that the Great War of 1914 had just been declared and this was its celebration. The bagpipes were strident.
I have often thought since then of the numberless columns of Indian soldiers in formation behind their British officers, many of them Irish, who died of bullets, poison gas, or despair, in soggy trenches and bomb-cratered fields, in places with unfamiliar names like Ypres, Passchendaele, and Verdun, beginning their first march towards death here in Calcutta. Those who survived would return to a different world, both changed irretrievably


No Country opens in upstate New York in 1989. The book’s first narrator (there are many), Chief Sandor Zuloff, describes a murder mystery. We then travel back in time to Ireland in 1843, just before the potato famine. We meet two young men, Brendan McCarthaigh and his best friend, Padraig Aherne. Like millions of other people, they are forced to leave Ireland. Padraig escapes to India, while Brendan takes Padraig’s young daughter to America. The book basically follows their lives and those of their descendants (mainly in India and the United States) up to the present day. In the end the murder mystery is resolved...

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‘45 through ‘48. Dal 1845 fino alla fine del 1848. Kalyan Ray usa il termine americano through (letteralmente “attraverso”). I britannici tendono a dire until ma through è forse piu chiaro.

If I were on video, I would pull out my wallet.  
Se fossi in video, tirerei fuori il mio portafoglio. Oltre a darvi un esempio perfetto del second conditional, facciamo notare l’utilizzo di If I were (se io fossi). Nell’inglese contemporaneo molte persone dicono If I was: non è considerato un errore ma If I were è tecnicamente più corretto.

Because not everybody’s going to be speaking.
Perché non tutti parleranno. L’utilizzo di going to be speaking è meglio di going to speak in questo contesto perché rende l’idea della gente mentre sta concretamente parlando.