Olivia and Jai is a period piece, set in nineteenth century Calcutta about a decade before the sepoy mutiny. The book is a fascinating read, bringing the period alive – though it is the narrow world of British society, the tradesmen this time. And despite the fact that the Eurasian hero, Jai Raventhorne is a canker in the flesh, this world flourishes in the tea parties and balls, carefully guarded by immense walls against the Indian-ness that surrounds it. The heroine Olivia by the virtue of being an American is exonerated from such narrow confines of English society, but then the story itself charts her growth as a responsible English woman, who is able to save her foster family from scandal that could have killed them.
The title makes it clear, the plot is about Olivia and Jai. They fall in and out and then in love once again. But more interesting are the social dynamics of Victorian society and the effects that colonialism perpetrated on it. Jai Raventhrone is a good business associate, dependable if arrogant and a lot of English trade from Calcutta depends on him. He is attractive to women – apart from Olivia (who can be excused because of her American upbringing), her English cousin Estelle is thoroughly fascinated by the man. And yet despite his polished veneer and sophistication, Jai is never able to belong to the elite world of the colonial English.
That would have made the Byronic brooding Jai Raventhorne an immensely attractive hero had it not been for his past. At the time we meet him, we see him with a beautiful Indian whom he has ‘bought’ – not much different a subplot from the most Anglo-Indian women’s fiction of the times where the Indian consort of the hero (often an Anglo-Indian or English-gone-native) conveniently disappears when a rational, enlightened and intelligent memsahib appears to claim her place. Jai sets up his Indian woman with an establishment of her own – a ‘kotha’ – once the English born American appears on the scene.
The story strangely echoes that of his father, who living in a trance in the hill forests of Assam was bewitched by an exotic and beautiful girl (reminds one of Conrad). The girl who gives birth to his angst ridden miscegene son is kept in the dismal servant quarters silenced by doses of opium.
The two stories are minor subplots on the periphery of the central plot – that of Olivia and Jai and his past. As I said earlier, it is has been a general trend in most Anglo-Indian popular writing – not just that written in the nineteenth century but even that writing during the 1970s and 80s when writers like M.M.Kaye and Valerie Fitzgeralnd sought to revive the Raj. What is ironic is that Rebecca Rymann is a pseudonym for an Indian writer and the book was published in the last decade of the twentieth century. Rymann displays her sympathy for the fate of Anglo Indians or the Eurasians in the 19th century. Yet the past trends and stereotypes are imbibed (probably unconsciously) and glossed over effortlessly. The fate of the Indian woman consorting with an English man is a loose end tied up either through the plot devices like death or, as in this case, mercenary prowess of the hero. In its attidue towards India, the book inherits the social and cultural prejudices of its 19th century predecessors. Jai’s sense of angst might resonate with the twentieth century concerns with the issues of justice, racial purity and miscegenation, but in the end he proves to be his father’s son in far more profound way than the plot lets us know.