David Richards


When Sonali, the Western-educated senior civil servant of Nayantara Sahgal's novel of the Indian Emergency, Rich Like Us, first sees a reproduction of Antoine Watteau's Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère, she regards the aristocrats depicted in the painting, 'dressed up and romping around pretending to be peasants, living in a little dream world' (204) as fit only for the guillotine, to which history and the French Revolution will inexorably and justifiably condemn them. For her, Watteau's image is an icon of the European ancien régime, perfectly expressing its mood of arrogant complacency with 'powdered hair and rouge', 'silly fantasies', and 'mythical nonsense' (204). Sonali's elderly friend, Rose, the 'Cockney Memsahib' (33), sees Watteau's painting rather differently as a 'wonderland' of 'regal satin splendour' and as a testament to her belief that 'myths were the most indestructible of all things. They're what we're made of (204). At the end, the image works its effect on Sonali also; from scoffing at its 'operatic make-believe' she comes to regard the landscape as a 'love[ly] remembrance' of Rose with 'its impossible trees, its charmed foliage, its invitation to fantasy' (254).



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