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When Gaya saw love, passion, and near-adultery (also, a bridge) in racy fiction

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The novel The Hermit Doctor of Gaya: A Love Story of Modern India was published a hundred years ago, in 1916, by IAR Wylie (1885-1959), a writer who in her lifetime and in her writing flouted many accepted conventions of her day. Ida Alexa Ross Wylie – her name was derived from both her parents – used her initials as a writer. Women writers of her time either did this or used pseudonyms.

In choosing to set five of her novels in India, all among her early work, Wylie also turned on its head one of the cardinal rules of writing – about knowing a place well in a true literary sense, before writing about it. She had never been to India, and as she mentioned later in her memoirs, she imagined her stories from the ones recounted by an old roommate.

It’s a long-running debate. The Swedish novelist, Katarina Bivald’s recent novel, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, published in the US to some acclaim, is set in a town in east central Iowa, a place Bivald herself has never visited. Book-loving Sara comes from Sweden to meet Amy, her pen pal with whom she has corresponded over two years, a friendship forged by their mutual love for books and reading, only to learn of Amy’s recent death. Yet Sara stays on, opens a bookstore, and becomes a friend and confidante to all those who come by.

Adventure, love and intrigue in colonial India

India, envisioned as a land of adventure, strange mysticism and esoteric spirituality, was already a popular subject for writers in Wylie’s time –in the novels of Rudyard Kipling and Flora Annie Steel, for instance. But Wylie, it is evident, wasn’t merely a good listener and reader; her novels reveal her political sense and understanding of contemporary issues and debates.

The novel begins with a tale made popular by the British colonial official and folk-tale collector Colonel James Tod in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. It’s a story about the letter written by the queen of Mewar, Rani Karnavati, to Humayun, seeking his support against Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. It enclosed a rakhi making the Mughal emperor, in Wylie’s words, the queen’s “bracelet brother”. And this is what, despite their unassuaged, dimly acknowledged passion for each other, the dancer Sigrid Fersen, in Wylie’s novel, calls Tristram, the eponymous hermit doctor of Gaya.

That Wylie had great hopes from this novel is evident from the fact that the two novels published a year apart – Tristram Sahib in 1915 and this one in 1916 – are actually the same work. But Wylie moved publishers, choosing to move from Mills and Boon (yes!) to the more respectable GP Putnam’s Sons.

Entwined in this novel of complicated love between Sigrid and Tristram are myriad other subplots. It is Tristram’s trusted valet, Ayeshi, whom he had once saved from a snake bite, who narrates the popular folk tale. Yet Ayeshi reneges, becomes a turncoat for reasons hard to fathom – possibly to save his master Tristram from accusations that the latter was responsible for injuries sustained by Colonel Boucicault, the reviled head of the regiment stationed at Gaya.

The closed and complex world of the “sahib”

High Society life in Gaya is comfortable, yet constricted and rigidly conventional: life for the British, with the native Rajah (Rasuldu) as a necessary adjunct, is centred around tea parties and polo games. There are necessary friendships hinged around secrets never aired. This equilibrium is upset when Sigrid Fersen, the dancer of some disrepute, arrives.

Sigrid’s reasons for coming to Gaya are, just like much else in this novel, hard to fathom. She is a guest of the raja who thinks this ought to make her literally dance to his tune. There’s the merchant Mr Barclay, not accepted by the English because he is “half-caste”, whose desire to be accepted make him pursue Sigrid and propose to her.

Into these very humane complications Wylie also brings in the divisive issues of economy and religion, and the supposedly unbridgeable differences between East and West, symbolized by the bridge that, as the army regiment says, can never be built over “Mother Ganges”. It’s the river that separates Gaya from Heerut, where a cholera epidemic has broken out.

Heerut’s weavers and farmers are hapless and desperate, and Mr Barclay wants them beholden to him, promising them returns, though his real intentions are to constrict the flow of goods from Manchester – an argument against deindustrialization, except that in Barclay’s case it seems entirely self-serving.

Reason vs unreason

Strangely, the two people who are obviously in love with each other choose to marry different people. And this – it happens midway through the novel and so isn’t a spoiler – is one of the fascinating things in the novel about how Wylie tries to unravel the many ways reasonable people make unreasonable decisions. Happiness, as Sigrid and Tristram argue with each other, could mean a life well-lived, or rightly lived.

Wylie’s characters have their own complexities. Heroism isn’t glorified, and while Major Tristram takes immense risks when serving the cholera-stricken villages, he is also, in his very sick state, being reckless and silly. Colonel Boucicault is a hated bully, but lost in his own demons of loneliness. His wife, on the other hand, rejoices in her own mad freedom as her husband lies paralysed.

An unconventional writer

Wylie, in her personal life, had unconventional views on a great many things. As she narrates in her memoirs, My Life with George, she became Independent very early on, travelling by ship to Norway when barely a teenager. In London of the early twentieth century, she described herself as a “militant suffragist”. She was drawn to the struggle for voting rights for she understood the desire for independence and self-reliance that women felt. She shared their sufferings and humiliation as they were beaten back by the police and jeered at by crowds: all this made her fiercely dedicated to the suffragist cause. In 1920, she moved to the US and with a fellow suffragette and companion, Rachel Barrett, driving all the way from New York to Hollywood to begin a new career.

The film version

Stronger Than Death (1920), the film made in the silent era based on The Hermit Doctor, was one of the first films made on Wylie’s books. There would be thirty more from this time onward till 1953. Stronger Than Death was the dream production of the temperamental, brilliant Russian émigré dancer actor Alla Nazimova. The film had Bhogwan Singh, one of the early Indian actors in Hollywood, playing Ayeshi.

Another of Wylie’s novels was adapted into the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn starrer Keeper of the Flame (1942). The death of a noted leader, Robert Forrest, is mourned by many Americans, but as a journalist seeks to unearth details of Forrest’s life in the hope of writing his biography, some unsavoury details emerge: of Forrest and his backers seeking divisive electoral tactics to win power. Its theme seems to eerie reflect present day political concerns in the US.

Wylie lived on in the US till her death in 1959. Her long-time companion was the pioneering American doctor and writer, Sarah Josephine Baker. Though Wylie was a prolific writer, in an interview dated 1921, she was pessimistic about the future of the novel. She expected that the novel would no longer be in existence in “about ten and fifteen years” – a fear she articulated long before the digital invasion and the end of bookshops. The reason for the decline, according to Wylie was that too many writers “were affected by the virus of psycho-analysis and morbid introspection”.

The novel as form has survived, though Wylie is little read today. A few of her novels, including The Hermit Doctor, in recent years have been digitised.

Starting the day with breakfast is a simple way to make a difference to the overall well-being of an individual. In spite of the several benefits of breakfast consumption, the phenomenon of skipping breakfast is widely prevalent, especially in an urban set-up where mornings are really rushed.

The ‘India Breakfast Habits Study’ has revealed that one in four urban Indians claim to skip breakfast and about 72% skimp by having a nutritionally inadequate breakfast. Isn’t it alarming? Over the years, numerous studies have demonstrated that eating breakfast has several health benefits and can impact future health of an individual. But given today’s fast-paced life, Indians are increasingly undermining the importance of a well-balanced breakfast.

So what makes for a balanced breakfast? A balanced breakfast should consist of foods from at least three essential food groups, e.g one serve of whole grains, one serve of dairy (milk or curd) or lean proteins and one serve of fruit or vegetables. It should provide essential nutrients like protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals besides energy.

Here are some nutrient-rich foods you could incorporate as part of your balanced breakfast:

1. Oats. Oats are cereal grains that are high in protein and are a great source of fibre, especially soluble fibre. Oats contain beta glucan, a soluble fibre which has cholesterol lowering effects and therefore considered heart healthy. It also provides some minerals like iron, magnesium and zinc.

2. Barley. Barley is one of the first cultivated grains in the world, dating back nearly 13,000 years. It has the distinction of having the highest amount of dietary fibre among the cereals. Barley is chewy with a distinct nutty flavor, and is a good source of B-complex vitamins like vitamin B1, B3, B6 and biotin as well as minerals like phosphorus and manganese. Barley is also low in fat, and scientific research has shown that consumption of barley can help in lowering blood cholesterol levels.

3. Wheat. Like barley, wheat too is among the world’s oldest cultivated grains, and a source of vegetable protein. Its easy availability makes it a vital ingredient in many dishes. Whole wheat is a good source of protein and is stocked with vitamin B1, B3 and B6 making it a healthy addition to one’s diet.

4. Dried fruits. Dried fruit is fruit that has had almost all of the water content removed through drying methods. The fruit shrinks during this process, leaving a small, energy-dense dried fruit. Dried fruits are a good source of micronutrients and antioxidants (phenols) in general. Raisins, for example, contain iron and magnesium that are essential for normal functioning of the body.

5. Nuts. Nuts provide healthy fats, protein and fibre. They also provide vitamins and minerals and are a versatile food that can be incorporated in various recipes. Different nuts are rich in different nutrients. Almonds, for example, provide fibre, calcium and vitamin E.

Kellogg’s Muesli with nutritious grains including wheat, barley and oats and delicious inclusions such as almonds and dried fruits (grains and inclusions differ for different variants) along with milk or curd can be a tasty, nourishing breakfast and a great way to start your day. To explore delicious variants, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Kellogg’s Muesli by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

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