‘Sivakumari is busy in the kitchen. I can smell her cooking, now that the prep is done and the real cooking has begun. Since she takes Sundays off, she does a larger batch of cooking on Saturdays so it lasts me for whatever intervening meals I might want. I sit back with a sense of accomplishment. I’ve put a big dent in the grading. I don’t have to grade the essays for my applied philosophy class until next week. Yes, it is unusual for a single teacher to cover both subjects, but Perkins left in a bit of a hurry, and the powers that be in school recognize that I’m enough of a polymath to cover both. Somewhere deep down, I’m sure they are also happy to hire just one teacher who can handle both subjects, rather than two separate teachers, and be the high school coordinator too. Probably a good time to stretch the legs. I put on some sneakers and head out the back door, letting Sivakumari know on my way out. She suspects I am in a rush and tells me that my meal will be ready soon.
The fog is still brooding on the lawn outside, but it’s not as cold as it could be. I’ve come to learn that there are many kinds of fog. There’s the heavy, warm, wet fog. It creates a lot of condensation and makes things slippery. It smothers and is hard to walk in if you’re congested with a head cold. There’s the chill, stationary fog that hangs around for a long time. It’s dense, and sound gets muffled. Finally, there’s today’s variety – a cool, flowing fog that means the clouds are moving around us and we are getting in the way. This is the most entertaining to walk in, as it moves noisily like the wind and can suddenly create gaps to reveal things. Just as quickly, those gaps will close up as more fog rolls through. This is not so amusing if you have to drive in it, though, because the usual visual markers can appear or disappear in a disorienting manner.
- Excerpted from The Element of Fog by Boudhayan Sen, Juggernaut Books, 2022
The Element of Fog by Boudhayan Sen is a finely written novel where the hills become the canvas for the digressions and playfulness of life. In spite of the human desire to calculate, control and cement the path that life ought to take, the precarious and beautiful mountain terrain, the fickleness of emotions and relationships, and of course, the ever-present fog seem to make life more uncertain, yet immensely worth living.
The plot moves back and forth between the 1870s and mid-1990s. James Erasmus Finley is a British missionary who encounters British administrators and their families in the summer in a hill station in South India—which bears an uncanny resemblance to Kodaikanal—and they eventually establish a school for their children. Suman Ghosh is a teacher at the same boarding school, in the same hill station, whose mundane life is disrupted by a series of incidents. Both these storylines, set about hundred and twenty years apart, are tied together by a familiar landscape, which is evocatively described. There are endless canopies of ‘cool, protective greenery’, hidden meadows of flowers, breathtaking views of ‘deep green valleys,’ curious flora (such as the strobilanthes kunthiana, commonly known as the kurinji flower, which blooms every 12 years), which the characters discover while hiking through the hills.
Much of the action revolves around the boarding school founded by Reverend Finley and where the narrator, Suman Ghosh, works. Prior to the founding of the school Finlay’s sole purpose in the hill station was to save the souls of the ‘natives’. But he finds himself embroiled in arbitrating the ‘indiscretions’ of the British administrators’ children residing in the hotel instead. He is quite exasperated by this as well as the personal longings and obligations he begins to have towards his fellow countrymen. But, given the momentariness of his residence among them and later, his decision to stay on in the hill station, he finds ways of reconciling with himself. Similarly, in the 1990s Ghosh finds gratification in imbuing students in the boarding school and their parents with confidence, but is shaken by certain instances of ‘indiscretion’ where his own confidence and unfulfilled personal longings are put on trial. He too eventually finds a resolution of sorts and ways of being at ease. Both their stories are about outsiders trying to find one’s niche within the larger scheme of things, in the hills.
Boarding schools, such as the one in this novel, are where parents too busy with their professional adult lives send their offspring to be ‘raised at a safe remove, groomed and ready to pick up the reins when the time comes’. However, far from being ‘prisons’ or disciplinary institutions, in such picturesque and mysterious surroundings the children begin to wander off, explore, and at times get in trouble. But eventually they find a niche for themselves, often defying parental expectations. The eagerness of one student to pursue art and literature contrary to her parents’ expectations of becoming a doctor or a lawyer illustrates this movingly.
Boarding schools are also spaces where students transgress norms and rules and act out their natural adolescent selves; where enforcing discipline is, at best, a dilemma. Such is the case when Mr Ghosh is badgered by the Vice-Principal to investigate one such ‘indiscretion’. At its worst, enforcing discipline is an excuse for peeping into students’ intimate lives as with Mr Perkins, a teacher whose eagerness to catch ‘canoodling couples in the vicinity’ leads to a grievous fall from a tree. Indifferent to the logic of control, the lives of teachers and the adolescents inhabiting the boarding school are as elusive as the fog: meandering, restless, negotiating their way through various hurdles. And this is what makes Mr Ghosh a ‘lazy chaperone’. While the couples shouldn’t be dancing too close, how do you assess what is ‘too close’? If couples are wandering off into the dark, does he follow them? And if so, which one? How does he inform his fellow chaperones where he’s going? It’s all too cumbersome and he consoles himself by deciding that he will only intervene when something ‘truly egregious’ is going on. He has learnt them to be themselves, he understands that they are figuring themselves out.
Both Finley and Ghosh, standing more than a century apart, have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and duties. They don’t seem bewildered or disenchanted by their stations in life; rather, they see themselves as well placed to ‘guide the wayward back to the righteous path’, and enable others to take the ‘right decision’. Finley’s missionary zeal for saving ‘the native souls’ is undoubted and this mood, somewhere down the line seems to linger on in the life of the school, pervading how Suman Ghosh thinks about his own role and responsibilities.
Yet, as the fog rolls in, they are drawn into situations where they are compelled to stray from the path they had charted out for themselves. While guiding ‘the wayward back to the righteous path’ was part of their rule book, with the twisting and turning terrain they found themselves in situations where they had to be inventive and playful about how their ‘righteous’ selves could be ‘safely wayward’. This is clearly brought out in how Mr Ghosh handled the investigation of the ‘indiscretion’ and in how Reverend Finley handled his own amorous feelings, even though such feelings would be deemed socially unacceptable. Of course, all this was done without raking up any suspicion or controversy, without betraying their responsibilities and duties, and by eventually going about doing what they intended to. No one knew and no one needed to know; and as it was the case during a very poignant and tender moment in Finley’s life, the element of fog had gracefully concealed it.
The mood pervading the book is much like the fog that moves in hastily, ‘filling in the spaces between trees and houses’, overwhelming everything in its way, yet purposefully headed towards a particular direction—much like the characters walking about in contemplation or escaping human company. It is like the topography of the hills, where there are no straight or direct routes, only ‘meandering trails’ that will either ‘simply end unexpectedly’ or take you to a ‘blind corner and suddenly deliver you to exactly where you had hoped to end up’.
The storyline set in the 1870s has a more well thought out and beautiful closure—further enhanced by the contents of a letter that is subsequently found. However, the same can’t be said of the strand set in the 1990s. It tends to take on a quicker pace towards the last few chapters only to end rather abruptly; almost like the sudden clearing of a dense fog. There is much that is left unsaid, and much that seems unresolved, leaving the reader restless, echoing what Eliza Rumson, wife of a British administrator, says in her letter to Finley: ‘I wish our boatman had said more to us’. Maybe the narrator will return to us, again, to tell us more.
John Thomas teaches history at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, Assam. He studied at Kodaikanal International School, and is the author of Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity (Routledge, 2016).