Books

The Seventh Gate by Peter Greave

A tragic-comic tale of an Englishman growing up in India in the time of colonial rule.

The Seventh Gate is the autobiography of Peter Greave, born in Calcutta in the time of the Raj and he tells his tragic tale with wit and grace that make this one of the best books to come out of British India.

He’s born into a commercial family with a demented but talented father whose capacity for dazzling business success is matched only by his tendency for inviting rapid disaster. A daring and energetic entrepreneur, he soon becomes persona non grata in India for scurrilous financial tricks and his unfortunate obsession with exposing himself in public. Greave relates that when his parents first married, his father would insist his mother would play the piano for hours while he supposedly relaxed in the other room – whereas in reality he was pulling down his pants for the dubious benefit of the neighbours.

Grave’s childhood is more colorful than most and tells the tale of a world now buried in history. His family move to New York and when his father takes up bootlegging, he and his brother are dumped in a reform school for some months, battling it out with the toughest Irish and Italian youths from the wrong side of the tracks. Then they all return to India and this time Greave is left in a joyless boarding school run by sadistic monks in the Himalayan foothills and he endeavours to escape, bunking trains across half of India with the railway police on his trail.

Most books written in the time of the Raj focus on tiger hunting, the difficulties of managing the Indian domestic help or military campaigns. Greave’s tale is much more humble and closer to the ground as we learn about the lives of the colonial debris, the people who slipped between the cracks, neither belonging to the ruling class nor the Indian society they lived among. Amid the tangled, convoluted episodes of his own harrowing life, we get a glimpse of the mess that was made of India by the British and the passions simmering beneath the surface of colonial rule.

But The Seventh Gate is primarily a personal tale told with candour, wit and heart as Greave relates the tragic-comic collapse of his family’s fortunes, the sufferings endured of his youth and the heads towards the ultimate degradation as he contracts leprosy. He enters the ranks of the most outcaste of all and by the time of independence has almost entirely lost his eyesight as well as his reason to live.

Yet this is not a sad book so much as a tale from the heart of someone who has come to appreciate life as something precious and vital, perhaps because so much of the quality of life was taken away from him in one of the cruelest ways imaginable. The Seventh Gate is a delightful, moving and enlightening read.