Bart Moore-Gilbert, a professor at London University, has fond memories of his father, Bill. Bill was a game warden in Tanganyika (now Rwanda) and Bart’s childhood was full of safaris and poachers and hot sun. Bart was away at boarding school in England when Bill’s plane crashed, killing him. The family relocated to England permanently after that. Bart didn’t have much more to do with the former Empire except for his lingering love of post-colonial literature. Out of the blue, an Indian historian contacts Bart and asks him if he or his brothers have any old documents from Bill’s time as an officer in the Indian Police. The question kicks of an overdue quest by Bart to find out what kind of man his father was before he became a family man. Bart recounts his research trip to India in The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets.
Bill Moore-Gilbert arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) for police training in 1938. He left India in 1948, on Independence Day. During those eight years, Bill tracked down criminals and dacoits. Increasingly, Bill and the rest of the Indian Police were tasked with arresting and disrupting the Indian Nationalist Movement. In Maharashtra, the province Bill was stationed in, this meant Bill was working against the Prati Sarkar, the Parallel Government. As Bart digs through the various archival collections in Mumbai, Satara, Kolhapur, and Ratnagiri, he finds disturbing hints that the fair-minded man who was his father may have participated in the violent repressions against nationalists and their potential accomplices.
Bart also tracks down people who knew his father as he travels around Maharashtra. Almost everywhere he turns, he gets conflicting reports of his father’s actions and character. The official records don’t help clear things up because they’re either fragmentary or just missing. Bart’s quest stirs up old (but not forgotten) questions about the Raj, imperialism, terrorism, and nationalism. The India that Bart visits is not at peace. Instead of fighting against the British, the Hindu Indians fight against the Pakistanis and Muslim Indians. It’s the same fight, with different antagonists.
Bart is disheartened for most of his trip, until he fetches up in Ratnagiri. Ratnagiri was Bill’s last posting in India before he retired from the police, got married, and moved to Tanganyika. The town is sweltering and its Hindu and Muslim citizens strictly segregate themselves. Strangely enough, it’s in Ratnagiri that Bart starts to make peace with all the contradictions he’s found in India. There’s a portion of the book where Bart meditates on the fact that it took him much longer than other children to learn that his father was imperfect. The plane crash and Bill’s early death froze him in Bart’s memory. Now, he can finally see his father as a man and an equal.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.