VALLEY OF SPIRITS
A modern memsahib memoir, the novel celebrates Kashmir of another era
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.
THE KASHMIR SHAWL
by ROSIE THOMAS Harpercollins Price: RS 1,021 Pages: 468