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In the Twilight of British Raj…

Two books both set in Colonia India; both set in early 20th century, in era of World Wars and Mahatma, told in the back drop of Himalayas and both written by women in 2000s!!

The first book is my long overdue review of “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas. To begin with grammatically, the name is incorrect – like the French Perfume is called the French Perfume and not the France Perfume, it should be “The Kashmiri Shawl”. That in itself put me against the novel, since the very name displayed a very superficial understanding of the land and not a lot of in-depth research. Anyway I soldiered on and I cannot say the story was all bad. After the death of her father, Mair Ellis discovers a shawl belonging to her grandmother. Exquisite in the riot of bright colors and hand-woven embroidery, Mair realizes the shawl is completely out of sync with her missionary grandparents’ lives and characters and sets off to India to discover the story behind the shawl. It is 1941 and Neyrs Watkins is a newlywed bride when her husband is assigned a remote missionary posting in Ladak. In order to recover from a miscarriage, ill-health and address some of the issues that is creating a distance between herself and her husband, Nerys moves to Kashmir in the company of her friends Myrtle and Evan McMinn. In Kashmir, she discovers the true life of British Raj – Shikara’s of flowers, houseboats on Dal lake, the social events at the Regency and new friendships which would change her life and course of  Mair’s life as well. The description of Kashmir is beautiful and from the back cover I gleaned that the author has spent several months in Ladhak and Kashmir which would account for the some lovely word portraits of the land. The friendship between Neyrs Watkins and Myrtle McMinn is warm, humane and alive only in the way women who have close girlfriends would understand. Kashmir in British Raj comes alive with all its gaiety and social hierarchies and hypocrisies even at the height of World War II which is as genuine a description as it gets! But despite all these redeeming factors, the story is bordering of improbabilities and fantasy. There are Swiss citizens walking about Kashmir during World War II and that in itself is a questionable fact. While Switzerland was not officially at war, all citizens who did not belong to the Allied Nations were treated as Alien Citizens with limited movements, especially in the border regions, like Kashmir. Then there is a “magical” disappearance of an Indian child and her “adopted” mother and how she was brought up in Switzerland! I do not think there were too many Indian children growing up in 1940s in Switzerland. All lot of this seems like taking the tale too far and while there is something to be said about poetic license and liberty, it leaves the reader feeling slightly incongruent with the plot line. This especially becomes highlighted as there the very epitome of stereotypes – the evil Indian Prince – Yawn! Indian Princes are soooooo evil and the only good Indians are the menials and underlings! And of course, the very old and boring reason for being unfaithful – your husband swings the other way! I mean why? Why cannot we come up with a more plausible reason for an illicit affair between a British Memsahib and an Indian Prince? I mean she could have just fallen in love or does the author still lie in the morasses of colonial mindset where the Memsahib cannot sink “so low” unless there is a very good reason for it! Otherwise it’s all very “Chi! Chi!. All in all, not a bad yarn but not a good one either ….your literary endeavors will not be incomplete if you give this one a pass!

The second book with similar heritage is “Ragtime in Shimla” by Barbara Cleverly. Set in 1922 Shimla, the Summer Capital of British Raj, the book follows Commander Joe Sandilands who is heading to the hill station in the company of a famous Russian Opera Singer, when he is shot dead. Why would anyone kill a Russian Opera singer in a part of the world, where he had apparently no past acquaintances? Joe Sandilands begins to discover all is not what it seems and just as he seems to have unraveled  a knot, a new one appears! From Shimla to South of France, Joe finds surprising connection between a brutal train accident and the death of not only a famous opera singer, but also a lost heir and a political plot! Now for the review, British Shimla is live and throbbing through the pages of the book – there is the famous Christ Church, the Cecil Hotel and The Mall. There are Residency balls and fashionable shops and rickshaws!  And then there are the majestic Himalayan Mountains – borrowing heavily and acknowledging the sourcing of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the author describes the land beautifully with its conifers and pines and lovely houses, which, for all their beauty seemed a higgly piggly motley crew, much to the disgust of Lord Lytton, the architect of New Delhi. The tale in itself is a very good whodunit. Just when you figure out, oh! I knew that all along, a new twist comes along and you are thrown off the rock again. The characters though not really written as multilayered or with depth in some cases, are nevertheless believable – they are neither very good nor very bad, mixture of all that is humane – wanting success, wanting better lives, angry of past actions/injuries, believing in the joy of future.  Very real and very endearing, and even the morally wrong ones are fun. Thank fully there are no justifications for the whys of a fallen woman and no need to expatiate her past of make her sound like a victim, a la “The Kashmir Shawl” style – they are what they and no apologies. There is the clichéd Indian Prince Villain – charming, seductive and crooked! Yawn!! At least, there is not too much time spent on him. Like in the naming of “The Kashmir Shawl”, a minor flaw revels the lack of complete of understanding of the India on the author’s part – the Indian Prince is a Pathan and a Muslim; son of King of a princely state on the North West Frontier Border – the author calls the Prince’s father the “Rajah” which is Hindu epithet and not used by Pathan rulers of the North West Frontier Border – they rather used terms like Shah or Amir.  However the overall book is very good read, for the mystery alone, if not the era. Again your literary endeavors will not be enriched by this book, but some time one reads for fun and this book us great fun!

Turf Wars and more in Victorian England

I am still very ill so I will make this post short and sweet. While I have some pending reviews,  let me review what I have just finished reading and fresh in my mind so that I do not labor myself too much (Yes! I am reduced to dithering hypochondriac except I really cannot seem to take on too many tasks!)

Therefore without further ado, I present to you Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. I had bought this one way back but for some reason or other I did not get around to it; recently this book came back into view and seemed like a perfect staple for my Century in Books project.

Framley Parsonage is the fourth instalment in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire and was published in 1861. I do not know why I took so long in getting round to this book, because I had so far read three of the Chronicles and loved them – The Warden, Barchester Towers and my personal favorite Dr. Thorne.

Framley Parsonage continues the saga of the Cathedral Town of Barchester and follows the life of Mark Roberts – a young Vicar who is blessed in every possible way when our story opens.  Mark Roberts is a son of country physician who had done well and had sent his son to a private tutor; as luck would have it the only other pupil at that time was the young Ludovic, Lord Lufton. The dowager Lady Lufton impressed by young Mark Roberts and encourages the friendship with her son as a fitting companion including convincing Dr. Roberts to send his son to Harrows and then Oxford and upon graduation, presenting Mark Roberts with a valuable living in the rectory of Framley Parsonage. Furthermore, Lady Lufton also finds him a suitable wife in Fanny Mosell who is the closest friend of her daughter Lady Justinia Meredith. Fortune smiles on Mark Roberts and things are looking up when Mark decides to increase his hold and place in Church of England by interacting with such Nathaniel Sowerby a Member of Parliament in serious financial trouble and Duke of Omnium, an unprincipled libertine and a staunch Whig supporter and an opponent of Lady Lufton. As Mark is taken away from his home and rectory and is implicated in Nathaniel Sowerby’s debt, he also incurs Lady Lufton’s displeasure by consorting with a worldy group whom she violently opposes. In the meanwhile, Dr Roberts dies, and his youngest daughter Lucy Roberts comes to stay with Mark and Fanny. It is here that the young Lord Lufton meets and falls in love with her and though she also feels the same way, she refuses to marry him unless Lady Lufton consents, which everybody agrees will not happen, since she has decided to make a match of her son with the beautiful and wealthy Griselda Grantly, the only daughter of daughter of Archdeacon Grantly. What ruin does Mark’s future hold and what happens to the star-crossed lovers is the core of the novel. Other staple characters of Barchester intermingle with these new entrants including the Proudies, Dr .Thorne, Miss Dunstable and the Arabins.

I am told by Wikipedia, that Anthony Trollope said that Framley Parsonage is a “thoroughly English”. I think this is the perfect description of the novel with only a footnote – thoroughly Victorian English! This novel is Victorian at its best – there are church wars and there are wars raging in the Parliament on India policies and French diplomacy. There is as Mr. Trollope rightly points out fox-hunting and I add seasons in London. It is a beautiful vibrant picture of the golden age of the British Empire in all its grandeur and all its folly. There is never any pedantic voice on the follies but a gentle mocking humor underlining the need that is clear even today of a great nations that stops itself from greater glory because of the pettiness’s of its people. The narration is linear and very straightforward and the plot line though simple touches upon some of the everyday facts of life and the challenges we all face ins resolving them. There is a lot of humor and a subtle irony.

The real show stealers of this novel are its characters. They are wonderfully drawn as usual and like life there are really no black and no real white characters. Mark Roberts is not the hero, though he shows heroic tendencies in the end nor is Lord Lufton the hero, though there is much virtue in his conduct. The heroines and I do say the heroines because that’s what they are; and are an absolute pleasure to read. Fanny Roberts is intelligent bright and sensitive and though not blind to her husband’s faults, defends his character with as much gusto as possible.  She has thoroughly developed sense of propriety and can see the rightness of Lady Lufton’s actions, even if they are against her husband and is a complete champion to Lucy Roberts. Lucy Roberts is one those remarkably fine characters – though to world in general and in terms of Lady Lufton seems insignificant; she had depth, principles and courage of the bravest kind – the courage that requires you live knowing you have sacrificed every happiness of your life for the sake of another. She is a marvelous character and her episodes are a joy to read; I especially enjoyed her interactions with the Crawleys.  Lady Lufton while masterful  is a wonderful woman, capable of great love and it is love in the end that always steers her actions in the right directions despite her pride and her constant urge to take charge. Nathaniel Sowerby though he comes through as dyed in the wool villain is also shown to be capable of honor and even sensitivity. The Arbins, Dr. Thorne and Miss Dunstable are as always delightful to be reacquainted with; with their sense of integrity, delicacy of mind and in Miss Dunstable‘s case a brilliant sense of fun!

I know I promised this to be short and sweet, but remember this is Victorian novel and it is long. Judging by current standards, this novel could have been a 100 pages less; but I am not complaining. This is one of those books that you read and immerse yourself slowly and bit by bit.

I had mentioned earlier that Dr. Thorne is my favorite among the Barchester Chronicles – here’s the postscript – it’s just been replaced by Framley Parsonage. Like a fine wine, Mr. Trollope keeps getting better and better!

Random Notes on Illness, Books and Love…

I have been so ill…for the last two weeks I have been confined to my bed with multiple disorders including a low blood cell count that has led to such weakness that standing on one’s own two feet for more than a minute is risky (On account my loosing balance and falling) I have not been this ill, ever in my adult life – never been this sick to be unable to stand, write or even read. Anything remotely difficult or challenging makes my head ache and eyes water…I mean Shakespearean Sonnets are not even difficult but there, cannot read it!

It is times like this one really misses one’s true blessings – never a very active child (I mean physically! I hated sports, though I was always active enough to run around the house doing all I want!)I was never weak and this past two weeks I am all namby pamby . Make me lift the serving spoon and my arms ache. Make me walk from my bedroom to the drawing-room and my head spins! I hate not having control over my body which in turn impacts how much I have control over my mind and me losing control over my mind – a very very bad thing! But now as I write this post, I miss the strength and the stamina to go on and on. In a brief spell of time, I seem to have become this wishy-washy person who is no longer in charge of her life and this makes feel worse because I never really appreciate good health and stamina as something that makes life better! Now of course, I know better and once I get back to my old self I am going to make sure I never go back down this road again!

What have I been doing these last two weeks – no prizes for guessing: reading? I read Conn Igulden’s War of Roses, I read Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel,  I read Claire Benson’s Murder at Sissingham Hall, I re-read all the Harry Potters (Trust me there is no better antidote to bad humor or ill health) as well as all the feel good classics – Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Jane Eyre and Little Women. I also started on New Grub Street by George Gissing and am loving it. Somebody should do a study in sick room and reading patters – me thinks it will show a lot about the psychology of the person and may even give correct prognosis about by when the sick person will be healed (I know the last part is a very 19th century, but one never knows! These days I am trying to live with a mind over matter principle, because I would otherwise be unable to get through simple tasks of the day like taking a bath!)

The only upside of this illness is again to make me aware how blessed I am. As you can figure out, I am pretty ill and incapable of simple acts like cooking cleaning etc. My parents are very old and 2500km away from where I stay so dragging them so far is out of question. My sister is in teacher’s conference and out of the country….so who is taking care of me at home (I refuse to be admitted at the hospital; I am sure I will become more sick!!!) My flatmate/my best friend/my mentor all rolled into one. Very rarely does one come across in life a friend who puts his or her life on hold for your sake – well I am truly blessed to have her. She has taken care of my meals, ensures I eat the right stuff at the right time, cooking, cleaning and managing my ill humors when they raise their head! She has been an angle though she hates the comparison and would rather be called a mysterious la elegante damsel. Well damsel or not she was my knight in shining armour and I am so blessed to have her in my life. The doctor said that my body was reacting to some unpleaseant shock which may have happened months ago but to which I did not react properly then and its coming out now. I can think of what happened and now that I think back, I did bounce on my feet very early, perhaps a bit too early! However if betrayal and dishonesty were the root of my illness, surely the love and care of my flatmate, my friends and all my well-wishers (and trust me I have many for I was besieged during this illness with cards, flowers, calls and a genuine wish on everybody’s part to actually help me!!) should serve as the protective shield against any such damage.  May be it’s my illness that’s making me maudlin or too much of Dumbldore’s advice (When you read 7 Harry Potters in two days, Dumbledore is as real as it gets! Besides wisdom is wherever you want to see it) but love does make a person a whole lot better!!!

P.S. I will for sure go back to review of all the books I have read from next week – big time catch up needs to be done!!

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