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

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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Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?

Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.

Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.

Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.

The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.

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Review 1660: Breakfast with the Nikolides

Because of the war, Louise and her children are forced to return to her husband Charles in India for the first time in many years. There, they take up what is apparently a toxic relationship.

Louise is a fearful, sometimes hysterical woman who seems to dislike Emily, her 12-year-old daughter. Louise considers her sly and deceptive when in actuality Emily is very truthful but seems unable to behave naturally with Louise. Emily loves India, but Louise only sees its dirty and ugly sides, not its charm.

The situation between husband and wife and between mother and child comes to a head over Emily’s dog, Don. In a crucial moment, Louise chooses to lie to Emily rather than tell her the truth as Charles advises.

In general, I liked this colorful novel, which, as always with Godden’s India novels, is luminous in its descriptions and sympathetic to its characters. However, for modern audiences there is a recounting of a rape scene that is handled in a very problematic way. For me, it detracted a good deal from my enjoyment of the novel.

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Review 1650: The River

Harriet and her family live along the river in a town in India. Harriet is dismayed at the changes in her sister Bea, who is becoming a young lady and is no longer fun to play with. Her brother Bogey spends his time looking at insects and animals in the garden. Victoria is just a baby. Harriet spends some time each day writing in her book that she keeps hidden away, and she also is fascinated by her parents’ guest, Captain John, who was injured in WWI. Captain John, however, likes Bea best.

This little novel has a plot, but it is mostly atmospheric and descriptive, of the garden and house, of life on the river. I was just a short way in when I realized that I had seen the movie based on it by Jean Renoir. I said, “If there’s a snake, I’ve seen this.” There was a snake.

The semi-autobiographical novel is about Harriet waking up from childhood and complete self-involvement and learning to become a writer. It is beautiful and touching.

My Virago Modern Classics version also included two short stories, “Red Doe,” about Ibrahim, a bakriwar nomad who is on the way to another encampment to claim a wife, and “The Little Black Ram,” about Jassouf, a bad boy who is tamed by being give a black ram to care for.

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Review 1566: Coromandel Sea Change

Best of Ten!
Rumer Godden was around for so long as an author that when I couldn’t find the book by her that I had on my Classics Club list, I thought nothing of substituting Coromandel Sea Change. Even when I noticed a publication date of 1991, I assumed it was a reprint. It wasn’t, however, which brings up something I’ve been thinking about, and that’s how do we decide something is a classic if it’s not tested by time? I associate Godden with the 30’s through 50’s, when she was very active, and which I considered long enough ago to put her on my list. Oh well. We had this discussion on the Classics Club blog, in fact, this book was the one that gave me the idea. In any case, it is a wonderful, atmospheric book.

Newlyweds Blaise and Mary Browne arrive at Patna Hall on the Coromandel Sea evincing different reactions. Mary is enchanted by this view of the “real India,” while Blaise is enraged that their rooms are not in the main hotel and offended by the bathroom arrangements. As a couple, they seem particularly ill-suited—the young Mary is eager to observe ordinary people and take part in their customs while the older Blaise, a diplomat, is interested only in schmoozing with important people. Very soon, they are bickering like children while the other guests and hotel staff look on in dismay and Kuku, the young assistant manager, hopes to get her chance with Blaise.

The hotel is busy with an upcoming parliamentary election, and Mary meets Krishnan, one of the candidates, out on the beach one night. He is young and charismatic and seems genuinely concerned to help his people. Mary is happy to oblige when the campaign asks for her help, but Blaise is offended and misinterprets her interest.

In this novel, the stories of Mary and Blaise are not the only interest. The hotel staff are important, and the country itself is vividly evoked and almost a character. The election is charming in its own way. Even a donkey named Slippers, an elephant named Birdie, and a squirrel have their places. Mary is likable, although very naive, while Blaise is pretty unbearable.

Despite the sad ending to this novel, I found it colorful and charming. It made me want to visit the Coromandel Sea. Research has told me that the area was virtually destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, but apparently Chennai, mentioned in the book, is considered a top location to visit by Lonely Planet, so perhaps the area has recovered. In any case, perhaps it isn’t the paradise described by Godden anymore.

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Review 1479: Funeral Games

It may surprise some readers that (spoiler!) Alexander the Great dies at the end of the second book in Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. What, then, could the third book be about? Actually, I found it the most interesting of the three novels, as it deals with the intrigues and battles for power over his empire after his death.

Alexander died leaving no named heir and three unlikely possibilities—his half-witted half brother, Arridaios, and two unborn children by Roxane, the vicious daughter of a Baktrian hilltop chief, and Stateira, a Persian princess. Stateira was living with her grandmother, but before Stateira can find out about Alexander’s death, Roxane writes a summons purporting to be from him. When she and her sister arrive, Roxane poisons them.

This act of treachery is the first of many, as Alexander’s generals and surviving relatives struggle for power. His sister, Kleopatra, makes a play for power through marriage to one of the generals. His half-sister, Euridike, has been betrothed by Alexander to Arridaios. He is used as a pawn by various regents trying to grab power, but the downfall of Euridike and Arridaios comes when Olympias, Alexander’s mother, whom he always kept way from power, takes them prisoner.

The book follows Alexander’s legacy—what happens when the empire he reigned is taken by ordinary people. The best off of his former generals becomes Ptolemy, who sensibly retires to Egypt to form the Ptolemaic dynasty and writes a book about Alexander’s life.

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Review 1330: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Cover for The Ministry of Utmost HappinessTwenty years after Arundhati Roy’s transcendent The God of Small Things, she has written another work of fiction. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness deals with varied characters and sources of unrest in India, though, rather than the unhappiness of a single family.

The novel begins in roughly the 1950’s Delhi with Aftab, the only son of his Muslim family. Aftab was born a hermaphrodite, and his parents decided he would be a boy. Aftab, however, feels he is a girl, so in his teens he joins the hijras of Shahjahanabad, a group of transexuals and transvestites who are mostly sex workers. Aftab becomes Anjum.

Roy follows Anjum’s adventures for nearly half the book, during which time India is rocked by several eras of attacks on its Muslim communities. Eventually, as an older woman who feels that the affections of her adopted daughter have been lured away from her, Anjum moves away from the hijras to live in a graveyard and befriend a host of misfits.

With the appearance of a second unwanted baby, Roy’s narrative goes off in an entirely different direction, which does not seem to tie up with the previous story for some time. Instead we have the story of the friendship between Tilo, Naga, and Musa, a Christian-raised girl and two boys. Musa eventually becomes a revolutionary fighting for the freedom of Kashmir. Roy’s book is angry as she documents abuses of power by the Indian government on relatively innocent citizens who are not Hindu.

Frankly, it’s hard to know what to make of this novel, which seems to be all in pieces and has too easy of an ending. One key to it is a poem written by Tilo at the end of the novel. “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Well, this novel feels like Roy tried to cover everything, with many characters, many forms of narration, many stories.

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