In her preface to this novel, Rumer Godden wrote:
I suppose, in a way, I am a divided person, having two roots: Sussex, England where I was born and India where I first went when I was six months old. For most of my life I have gone back and forth between them in one I am homesick for the other.
Sometimes this homesickness becomes acute …. I seemed to feel the warm Indian dust under my sandalled feet, smell flowers in sun, and other smells pungent and acrid …. I had no reason to go back to India, but the longing persisted; then, as if in answer, came a story linked to a memory of something strange and sad that happened many years before ….
This story draws on that particular memory; and it was so fortunate that it belonged to an author who knew India as a child, who saw that country more clear-sightedly as an adult, and who loved both England and India, and could see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and what each one brought to the complex relationship between them.
Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Halcyon (Hal) were happily settled in an English boarding school, after spending most of their childhood in different homes in different countries as their father’s diplomatic career, when a most unexpected letter arrived. It brought word that Sir Edward Gwithiam wished his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he had recently been posted by the United Nations.
Hal was delighted with the prospect of a new adventure in India, but Una was desperately unhappy. She was clever, her teachers were encouraging her to set her sights on a good university, and she knew that even the best of governesses in India could not give her the education that she wanted and needed. The prospect of spending time with her adored father was little consolation.
When she reached her father’s new home in Delhi, Una quickly realised that the reasons that her father had quoted in his letter were mere pretexts. Miss Lamont, who was to be her governess, was a beautiful woman, she held a privileged position in the household, and she was clearly unqualified to teach a well-educated fifteen year-old.
Of course Una understood what the real situation was, and why it was that she and Hal had been summoned.
Hal had never been much interested in lessons, she accepted Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily accepted all of the lovely things that her new life had to offer.
Una resisted all of Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and a fierce battle of wills would develop between them. It was a battle that she could not win, because her adversary was cold and calculating, and determined that noting should prevent her from achieving her ambition, and because Una’s father shared that ambition and treated his daughter’s opposition as the behaviour of a spoilt child.
Hurt, troubled, and lonely, Una retired to the abandoned summer-house at the bottom of the garden, with her beloved books.
It was there that she met Ravi, the under-gardener. He was a handsome young man, he was an aspiring poet, and the gift of a blue peacock feather would lead to a clandestine romance.
Una was smitten with the young man and the very different side of life in India that he showed her; and of course it don’t occur to ask why someone with his education was working in a garden. Ravi’s friend Hem, a more worldly-wise medical student, knew why; and he warned him that the relationship could only lead him into more trouble, but Ravi took no notice at all.
When Una made a discovery that she knew would appall her father, she and Ravi made a desperate plan, that they hoped would allow them to escape from the worst of the fallout. It didn’t occur to either of them that while Sir Edward might be happy to allow his daughter to ‘sulk’ for a while he still considered her a child and would act as soon as he realised that anything might be amiss.
The events that played out would be a painful coming of age for Una.
I was caught up with her from the very first, I understood her feelings and her actions, and my concern grew as the story progressed. That story had a wonderful understanding of the complications of family life, the awkwardness of the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, the intensity of first love, and the pain that learning more about how people are and how the world works. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden understood and that she care; and she made me understand and care very deeply.
Her characterisations were deep and complex, and this was a story of real fallible people. Even Miss Lamont, who could be considered the villain of the piece, was a woman who could make me feel care and concern. She was mixed race, she didn’t fit into English or Indian society, and so her life had been a struggle and she had to hold on to the wonderful and unexpected chance that she had been offered. In contrast, Hem was lovely. He was a little older and wider than his friend, his advice was almost invariably ignored, but he would remain the truest and most thoughtful of friends to both Ravi and Una.
The prose is rich and evocative; the attention to detail is exactly right; but above all this is a human drama, and that drama felt so real that I might have been looking into the lives of people who really lived and breathed for a short but significant spell in their lives.