A modern mem­sahib mem­oir, the novel cel­e­brates Kash­mir of an­other era

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

Ever since El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert struck gold by pray­ing her way through In­dia, ev­ery Western fe­male nov­el­ist thinks she, or her fic­tional hero­ine, will be played by Ju­lia Roberts. All right, so per­haps that is just nat­u­ral envy for not be­ing born blonde and ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing 468 pages, ex­clud­ing ac­knowl­edge­ments, of finely crafted words about Kash­mir. Rosie Thomas’s novel takes a kani shawl, the most beau­ti­ful of pos­ses­sions a wo­man can pass on to her daugh­ter, and weaves an el­e­gant story around it. It’s part mys­tery, part ro­mance, and part grief mem­oir. Mair loses her fa­ther, and sud­denly can­not bear to live at home any more. So off she goes, trac­ing the arc of her shawl, left to her mother by Grandma Watkins. Through her fam­ily his­tory, she dis­cov­ers her­self. It’s a fa­mil­iar story but told with al­most too much del­i­cacy, as the jour­ney takes her to Leh and then to Sri­na­gar.

It’s rich in de­tail: from the colour sep­a­ra­tion of the pashm to the rudi­men­tary lessons a mis­sion­ary’s wife could have taught in a vil­lage school in In­dia. And it has enough ex­otic spir­i­tu­al­ity to keep the In­dia junkies happy: from the Bud­dhist idea of pun­abb­hava, which means be­com­ing again, to the more pro­saic ser­mons of Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism. The back and forth be­tween con­tem­po­rary In­dia and the Kash­mir of 1941 saves it from be­com­ing just an­other modern mem­sahib mem­oir, though it has enough of that too. Here is Mair’s grand­mother, Nerys, record­ing her im­pres­sion of In­dia: “In time she be­gan to see a vi­tal­ity in this seething coun­try, a kind of dogged ap­petite that brought ba­bies bawl­ing into the world amid all the des­per­a­tion, re­flected in the eyes of a beg­gar as he reached up with cupped hands to re­ceive a half-pice coin.” Mair’s grand­mother Nerys is not in love with her hus­band, so one knows fairly early in the novel that a great cat­a­clysmic ro­mance is to hap­pen. It does. And it works.

It’s won­der­ful to read of a more charmed Sri­na­gar, with its gen­teel clubs and gold-tipped cig­a­rettes, with its gin fizz af­ter­noons and pat­terns copied by lo­cal tai­lors from The Colo­nial Lady’s Fash­ion Com­pan­ion. The book’s flash­back ends with Kash­mir on the verge of for­ever be­ing caught be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan, just when the present in­trudes with its In­dian Army road­blocks and fire-black­ened homes. Only one thing re­mains of Kash­mir’s for­got­ten colo­nial past—its evoca­tively named house­boats, Cleopa­tra’s De­light and Gar­den of Eden. Thomas’s novel makes you wish there was much more.


by ROSIE THOMAS Harper­collins Price: RS 1,021 Pages: 468

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