Review 2034: The Year of the Runaways

The Year of the Runaways is another book I read for my Booker Prize project. It follows the fortunes of a group of young Indian men who are living illegally in England looking for work.

Tochi is a young man from a low-caste family who in India had been finally getting his head above water since he had bargained for an auto so that he could work as a taxi driver. But after an election where one party rabbled-roused on the slogan of “racial purity,” his entire family was murdered. He travels illegally to England to start again.

Alvar’s father’s shawl business isn’t doing well and his younger brother will soon have school fees to pay. He also wants to marry Lakhpreet, his friend Randeep’s sister. He is able to get a student visa for England with no intention of studying, because he has had to borrow money from a moneylender for his fare.

Randeep comes from a wealthier family, but his father, a government official, loses his job after a mental breakdown. Randeep is kicked out of college in India and attacked for sexually assaulting a girl because he is constantly misreading people’s reactions. To get to London, he enters into a visa marriage with Narinder, a devout Sikh.

All of these young men travel to England with completely unrealistic ideas of how much money they can make or how easy it will be to even find work. They end up living together in a house packed with illegal immigrants working for low wages at menial work, most often employed by their own countrymen. Those with families receive constant demands from them for more money. And things get worse.

This novel is a throw-back to the 19th century social realism genre. The story is compellingly told and illuminates the dilemma of the illegal immigrant. I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters, but I felt sorry for all of them.

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Review 1881: Death in Kashmir

A quote on the cover of Death in Kashmir compares M. M. Kaye to Agatha Christie. A more accurate comparison in terms of the type of novel it is—romantic suspense rather than mystery—is to Mary Stewart, although there is just something about a Mary Stewart book that this novel doesn’t quite have. Still, Death in Kashmir is entertaining enough.

The novel is set in 1947, the year before the British left India, and it provides an interesting look at the life of British upper-class people living there at the time, although the natives are mostly only in the book as servants.

Sarah Parrish goes to Kashmir to attend the last meeting of the India Ski Club at Gulmarg in a primitive hotel that is usually only open in the summer. The outing has already been shadowed by the death that day of Mrs. Matthews in an apparent skiing accident. In the middle of the night, Sarah awakens to a scraping noise and realizes someone is trying to break into the room next door, that of another young woman, Janet Rushton. Sarah quietly hurries to Janet’s door to warn her and is shocked to be greeted by a drawn gun. However, when Janet sees someone has tried to enter by the bathroom window, she confides in Sarah that she is an agent for the government. She and Mrs. Matthews discovered an important secret and were waiting for help from their superiors when Mrs. Matthews was murdered.

A few nights later, Sarah and Janet have joined an expedition farther up the mountain to ski and spend the night in a ski hut. Sarah catches Janet ready to ski off in the middle of the night because she has finally been contacted by her people. The next day, she too is found dead.

Returning to Peshawar after the trip, Sarah tries to forget what she has learned, but she receives a letter from Janet’s attorney enclosing the receipt for her houseboat in Srinagar and telling her the secret can be found there. So, she finds herself returning to Kashmir with her friends Hugo and Fudge Creed. There she encounters all of the people who were on the ski trip, with a few extras, like the attractive Captain Charles Mallory.

The Cold War plot seems a little silly when compared to those of some of the masters, like Le CarrĂ© (and may more fairly earn the comparison to Christie, who also has some silly Cold War plots), but it leads to plenty of suspense and an unguessable villain. A small criticism is that both sides seem to have so many helpers that it’s no wonder there was a leak. A bigger caveat is that the explanations at the end go on for quite a while longer than seemed necessary.

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Review 1869: The Widows of Malabar Hill

In 1920’s Bombay, Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city. She is working with her father at the Mistry law office when a question comes up about the trust for the three widows of Omar Farid. First, the family’s agent Mr. Mukri says the widows want to change the purpose of the trust from support of veterans to the establishment of a madrassa. Further, the wives are giving up their mahr (sort of a dowry) to the trust. That may not be allowed by law. But Perveen also notices that the signatures of two of the women appear to be the same. Since the women are living in purdah, Purveen talks her father into allowing her to interview the wives.

When Perveen visits the wives, she finds Mr. Mukri rude and uncooperative and only Sakina, the second wife, understands and agrees with the requested changes. Sakina is shocked to find out that Razia, the first wife, is the administrator of the trust. Razia is unaware that Mr. Mukri has filed for a change in the purpose of the trust, but she is clearly afraid of him. Perveen also finds out that the agent has not been paying the household’s bills and that the third wife, Mumtaz, is trying to hide a pregnancy from the rest of the household. Perveen believes Mukri is mishandling the estate’s funds.

This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it is about 80 pages before Perveen goes to see the women and 120 before a murder is committed. That is mostly because Massey devotes about half the novel to Perveen’s personal life, particularly her brief marriage. It seems to me that she could have accomplished what she needed to do in a few paragraphs or a chapter, because we don’t invest much in this relationship. Perveen is afraid of her ex-husband at the beginning of the novel, but the reasons could be explained in a lot less space.

Massey does a good job of giving the feel of the indoor spaces and food and costume, but I didn’t get a good sense of what Bombay was like at this time, something that I look for in a novel set in an exotic location or other time. And, in fact, Perveen’s visit to Calcutta for the first time is an excellent opportunity to describe that city, but there is no description.

At first, too, I thought I was going to object to Perveen being too much out of her time, for I really dislike historical novels where the heroines behave more like they live in the present. This particularly bothered me in the section about Perveen’s romance, but as the novel continued, it stopped being an issue.

This is not a mystery, however. Perveen pokes around a bit, but the solution just depends on her being in the right place at the right time. It is her father who actually finds the most important clues. So, overall I was disappointed in this novel.

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Review 1842: #1954 Club! Nectar in a Sieve

I don’t usually post on Saturdays, but I had one more book that I read for the 1954 Club.

When I saw that Nectar in a Sieve qualified for the 1954 Club, I was excited to read this landmark novel. It depicts the life of poor Indian peasants, and as the Afterword of my Signet Classics edition states, nothing much has changed for them in the 80 years since it was written.

As the daughter of the village headman, Rukmani might have expected a more memorable wedding, but she is the youngest daughter, so no dowry was forthcoming and she is plain. So, Rukmani is married at the age of twelve to a poor rice farmer, Nathan, who does not even own his own land. But, she thinks as an old woman recollecting her life, her parents made a good choice, for Nathan was good and kind.

Rukmani remembers her life, a precarious one where they were never able to afford to buy the land, where one misfortune could mean disaster—and they had several.

Rukmani thinks things start to go wrong with the arrival of the tannery, which turns their village into a town and brings in many strangers. But one year of flood followed by one of drought cause starvation and worse problems when Rukmani and Nathan are middle-aged.

By coincidence, just before I read this novel, I read The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, about the life of Indian illegal immigrants in London. In all these years, nothing much seems to have changed except the ultimate outcome.

In some ways, Nectar in a Sieve is more like social reporting than a character- or plot-driven novel. The only character we really get to know is Rukmani herself. However, the novel is poetically written and tells a powerful story.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

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Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

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Review 1747: Cromartie vs. the God Shiva

In its Afterword, Rumer Godden calls Cromartie vs. the God Shiva a twin to Coromandel Sea Change. It is partially set in the same location, the Patna Hotel on the Coromandel Sea, and has some of the same characters. When I realized this, I was excited, because I loved that book.

Michael Dean is chosen by his law firm to represent the government of India against Mr. Cromartie, a Canadian art dealer who is alleged to have purchased a stolen statue of the God Shiva worth a quarter of a million dollars. The statue was purchased from him, but now he is suing for money, so the government has to prove it was stolen.

Michael travels to the hotel. The statue was originally found when the hotel was built, so the owner made a shrine for it in the hotel ballroom. A noted archaeologist, Dr. Ellen Webster, had examined it several years before and told Auntie Sanni, the hotel manager, that it was valuable. A few years later, she realized it had been substituted for a good fake. When Michael questions the employees about it, they are all oddly evasive, and Auntie Sanni advises him to leave it alone. Dr. Webster arrives with her yearly tour group, and Michael falls in love at first sight with her assistant, Artemis.

This novel is a peculiar mixture. It evokes the flavors and smells of the village as do most of Godden’s India-set novels, but it turns into more of a mystery story. I don’t think it is quite as successful as some of her others, although it was nice to return to the Coromandel Sea. I believe this is my last book in my project to read Rumer Godden’s India novels.

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Review 1740: Premlata and the Festival of Lights

Premlata and the Festival of Lights is the first children’s book I’ve read in my mission to read all of Rumer Godden’s India novels.

Since seven-year-old Premlata’s Bapi died, her family is very poor. With all the village families preparing for Diwali, Premlata is shocked to find out that her mother has had to sell all their deepas, the little oil lamps that families put around their houses to help the goddess Kali battle the demons of darkness.

Premlata’s mother sends her up to the Big House to deliver some sweets to the housekeeper. While she is there, she goes to visit her friend Rajah the elephant and finds him being painted beautiful colors for the festival procession. This reminds her of the problem of the deepas, and she begins crying in front of Bijoy Rai, the kind owner of the Big House. Once she explains that her house will be the only dark one in the village for Diwali, Bijoy Rai gives her some money for her mother to buy deepas.

Premlata has a better idea, though. She will go to the town, three miles away, see Rajah in the procession, and buy the deepas herself.

This is a charming chapter book for children who are old enough to read. It introduces them to another culture and is a gentle story about good intentions gone slightly amiss. It includes a realistic adventure with elements of danger. I don’t know how easy it would be to find a copy, but I recommend it.

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Review 1704: The Peacock Spring

Una, who shows promise for studying mathematics at university, has only two more years to prepare, having fallen behind because of all her moves between different schools with her diplomat father. Then, just as she’s feeling she will stay at Cerne, her father suddenly summons her and her sister Hal to India. They are to have a governess.

Una is sorely disappointed at this behavior that is so unlike Edward. Then she meets the governess, Alix, a beautiful Eurasian who orders around the servants and calls her father Edward. Soon she figures out that Alix is woefully uneducated. She does not know the difference between mathematics and arithmetic, and her idea of studying literature is to look at pictures of works cut from a magazine, not to read the works themselves. It becomes clear to Una that the girls are in India to hide from society that Edward and Alix are lovers.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the house, the second gardener, Ravi, is an ex-university student and poet on the run from the law after a demonstration. When he realizes Una is struggling to teach herself calculus, he offers help. He cannot help her, but his friend Hem can. So, Una begins sneaking out to meet Hem and Ravi.

This novel was another stunner from Godden. It overloads the senses with sights and smells as Alix tries to hide her past and Una strays from her goals.

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

Best of Ten!

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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