#ReadingIndiaProject Book 1/36
This post is part of my #ReadingIndiaProject. I flagged it off at the beginning of the year but finally getting down to writing about it. You can read more about this little pet project of mine here.
This post is so long overdue it isn’t funny anymore. Late last year I decided to embark upon the #ReadingIndiaProject and my first choice for this was Puducherry. I’ve never been here but the idea of a French colonial and Tamil region against a backdrop of striking blue waters and leafy green trees sounded nothing less than paradise. Hence, I picked up K’s A House in Pondicherry by Lee Langley.
This is my first book by the author. A page on British Council’s website notes Langley as having been born in Calcutta. Same pinch! But the similarities probably end there. She has written quite a few novels, with this one being part of a ‘loose trilogy of novels’ set in India. What I’ve understood is that she is heavily into historical fiction spanning years, if not centuries. And this is exactly what she brings to the table with A House in Pondicherry, while Distant Music, published in 2001, spans six centuries. It starts from the Portuguese island of Madeira and winds up in London in the 21st century.
Did you know that she’s also written film scripts and screenplays? How brilliant is that? She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I mean, she’s renowned and celebrated.
The story begins with the Grand Hotel de France, Pondicherry, a hotel with a character, slightly dilapidated, bearing the scars of the past, of history, and of time. The main protagonist, Oriane, lives in the hotel which her parents run. She has never visited her motherland, so her mother always tries to set her daughter up with French bachelors. But she doesn’t fancy the life of fancy-dress balls and chamber recitals. She had other plans, however hazy they may have been.
I would like to be of use in some way – I don’t mean good works, that is something we all do to the best of our ability, visit the sick, feed the starving – I want to change the world. Be changed.
While her mother still persisted in changing her mind, her father knew that his daughter would do just what she wanted. Soon, she befriends two students, Thomas Ettridge and NV Guruvappa. The story proceeds with Oriane’s life, entwining both their lives. Their friendship grows stronger as they talk about science, literature, politics and everything under the sun. No doubt there were clashes with Guru, or with people of his ilk, over politics and contributions the French made to India.
“Mud huts and fishing boats, that was all you had when we arrived!”
And in due course of time, one realises just how steadfastly Oriane defended her little corner of France, how she hated the change of course in Pondicherry’s history, in the transfer of French territories to the Indian government, and the change in pace of the region. It wasn’t the beautiful idyllic town she knew as she grew up. The present day Pondicherry was loud and rude for her, travel and tourism had changed; the hotel too crumpled, in need of some major TLC, while the abhorrent telephone would soon have to be installed.
The story also portrays the trial of Aurobindo Ghosh and obviously, heavily features the creation of Auroville and its effect on the region.
Pondicherry is definitely spoken about with a sense of romanticism attached to it, in fact, both the town and the house. The descriptions are no doubt lush and lend a wonderful colonial vibe. The concept of the story is beautiful. It spans decades trying to trace the history of the region from being a mere selection of huts to a beautiful town, though it had to be rebuilt. It gives one the sense of being in a dry and hot environment, or the feel of the searing red earth or the calmness that takes over one under the cool shade of the verdant trees.
Both the house and the main protagonist have stood the test of time and witnessed a number of historic events, however, it felt a bit much. I felt the author tried to cram in a plethora of characters and historic events, while also adding in a number of social issues for good measure. I understand they would be featured but at times, they seemed a little patronising and preachy to me.
Towards the end, the story revolves around Auroville and it got a little tiring for me. I preferred the first half of the book/ story where we get to meet Oriane and her family. We get acquainted with her many quirks. But she was never satisfied in life. She was miserable and angry at what happened with Auroville, what it became eventually. But may she was and I am looking at this too critically.
Given all this, the book fell flat for me.
I am taking part in Blogchatter’s #MyFriendAlexa campaign for a month starting September 15. I will be tweeting my posts and sharing others under the hashtags #BetweenPages and #RumReads, respectively.
Header image: Karthik Murali on Unsplash