The Memsahib of Mandla by Khushwant Singh
In The Memsahib of Mandla by Khushwant Singh we have the theme of opportunity, independence, freedom, fear, control and mortality. Taken from his The Portrait of a Lady and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Singh may be exploring the theme of opportunity. The Dysons have a chance to live their life on their own terms. Not answerable to others and to be free to do as they please. However with this freedom comes a cost and that cost is the fact that Mrs Dyson is living her life in fear after seeing the ghost of Jean Memsahib. Who in reality appears to be harmless and non-threatening till she herself is threatened by John Dyson. This may be important a Khushwant may be suggesting that John is not showing Jean the respect that she deserves. Something that is similar to how the government treated her. Jean was altruistic in nature yet she lost the rights of her land to the government who had other ideas as to what the land should be used for.
It is also interesting that the mali never sees Jean appear even though he is most likely the closest person to her. He also has not got a bad word to say about Jean which may help in explaining as to why Jean has not appeared in front of him. As to why Jean would appear in front of John and Mrs Dyson is interesting as John no doubt has plans to change how the land and house is used. No longer is it to be a sanctuary for education or for helping other people. It is also noticeable that John views the animals on the land as being sport. He is keen to kill any animal that may get in his or his family’s way. This too could be significant as the reader senses that Jean did not live her life like this. In all possibility she was kind to everyone and everything. Something which John himself is not. John’s character also dominants the house. He enjoys drinking alcohol when the reality is the house has a lot of work that needs to be done to it. John’s main priority appears to be to sit on top of his castle (the house) and enjoy himself to the best of his ability. Without having to do any work.
If anything John likes to be in control though not necessarily having to do any of the work. Unlike Jean who worked hard all her life teaching the children. This may be important as Jean’s appearances are most likely based on the fact that she knows the Dysons are not like her. They are a different generation of settlers who use power to control their environment. Something that is symbolically noticeable by John’s continued attachment to his shotgun. He considers it to be the great leveller. While for Jean education brought everyone together and treated everyone as the same. Jennifer’s character is also interesting as she does not really have a voice due to the fact that she is just a child (in her parent’s eyes). The reader can’t imagine Jean treating Jennifer as her parent’s treat her. Similarly with the mali he has been treated well by Jean hence him staying so long at the house. As to whether John will keep him on the payroll is another thing.
The end of the story is also interesting as John is determined to get to the bottom of matters. It is not that he believes in ghosts but due to Mrs Dyson’s shock he may feel under an obligation to find out what is happening. In reality John may be waiting for Jean purely in order to keep the peace in his family. A peace that John is yet to realise does not involve him. The fact that John accidentally kills himself rather than firing a shot at Jean adds an element of surprise to the story. It is as though Jean will not be beaten by somebody who she considers to be an imposter and not worthy of living in her home. Which may leave the reader to suspect that Singh has in some way character assassinated John. Knowing that he is a different breed to Jean and may not be worthy of taking on Jean’s role. A role he has shown no interest in pursuing and which the reader suspects he may fall short of due to his own selfishness when it comes to how her treats his wife and Jennifer. His word is his bond when it comes to his family. However he has been beaten by an old woman who happens to be a ghost.