When I ordered this book from the library I knew next to nothing about it. When I finished A Fugue in Time, I scanned the catalogue for titles that I didn’t have and I picked it out from the titles that I knew weren’t in print; because there was a note that said it was Rumer Godden’s first work of non-fiction; as I hadn’t read any of her non-fiction at that stage the book picked itself.
The volume that arrived was small and sturdy, and covered by an ugly plastic dust jacket, but when I opened it I was smitten by the author’s note:
“There are only a few things in these notes:
Chinglam and its hills and valleys
There is nothing else because there was nothing else.”
In 1940, when her husband joined the army, Rumer Godden and her two young daughters settled in a rented house in Kashmir; set between tea gardens on the Himalayan slopes below Darjeeling.
The writing is every bit as lovely as you might expect as you might expect from Rumer Godden; it’s understated, it’s elegant, and it’s wonderfully evocative.
The pieces are short; and they paint such lovely pictures, of daily life and of the people and the world that surrounded the small family.
“The apple man says he has his daughter with him and she would like to sell me some peas…. He says she is very shy. Presently, she comes out slowly from behind a tree. She has a basket of peas and tree tomatoes and the colour of the pods looks wonderfully fresh against the wallflower brown velvet of her robe. She has cream sleeves and a red sash and her hair is in a pigtail braided with scarlet nearly to her knees. She does not look up, she looks down, and her eyelids make two upturned crescent shapes on her cheeks and her skin is the blend of red and pink and brown of the skins of the tree tomatoes. As soon as she has shown her basket, she retires behind the tree again. I buy all she has.”
There are so many entries that I could pull out.
I particularly enjoyed watching the author’s small garden over the changing seasons, with juxtapositions of flowers that I would love to see:
“It is getting colder. Michaelmas daisies come out in the garden with the first sweet peas and cornflowers and poinsettias. In this mixture of English summer flowers and India, there is an authentic touch of autumn.”
I loved watching her dogs:
“Old Sol lies out on the drive in the sun. The colourings of his coat exactly match the autumn: the drying grass, the ripening millet, the deep colour of the marigolds and the yellow daisies growing in the crops.”
And I was charmed by her children:
“The children have made hobby-horses of the pampas canes. These have slim green stems, and their great feathery heads make excellent tails. Some are white, others are green bronze. They go galloping on them down the grass lanes that the paths make between the tea.”
As a whole the book really felt like an author’s journal; something that she had taken time and trouble over, not something that was contrived or significantly edited for publication. It felt as if she was writing something that she could read to stir memories of that part of her life, or maybe to spark ideas for novels she had still to write.
There were times when I felt that she was a little reserved, and there were times when I wished that she would describe just a little more. She passed over the lights of Diwali so very quickly ….
And so I have to say that it is a minor work.
But it is very, very lovely …