When I agreed to read Cauvery Madhavan’s book for this blog tour it was a bit of a gamble. I’d never read the author before and although I read some historical fiction, I recognised I might be reading outside my comfort zone. This novel proves it’s good to do that once in a while. This is clearly a labour of love for the author. An epic story spanning sixty years of 20th Century India, the book is painstakingly researched and through the story of two central characters shows a complex web of tension between the British occupiers, Anglo-Indians (Eurasian), and the native Indian population. Underneath this, tensions also arise between English and Irish regiments of the British Army, over heavy handed English governance of Ireland. The book is situated at a point of great change, so the central love story is at the mercy of local attitudes and prejudices, but also international events beyond the couple’s control, with potentially tragic consequences.
Nandagiri, 1920. Michael Flaherty is posted to India with his regiment the Kildare Rangers. In his first day, the Regimental Chaplain Father Jerome ropes him into volunteering in the church. On Sunday, before Mass he will prepare the altar cloths and candles while Father Jerome prays. It is here he first meets Rose Twomey; he is mesmerised by her eyes which appear green in some lights but in others flecked with brown and amber. Her father is known as the ‘Bacon-wallah’ in Nandagiri. An Irishman who has settled in India, he supplies bacon and sausages to the regiment and their families. Michael is soon taken aside and warned about any association with Rose. Father Jerome explains that, although Rose looks like a fair-skinned Irish girl she is in fact Anglo-Indian. He has been asked to find Rose a position with the commanding officers family, The Aylmers, although he doubts he will be successful with Mrs Aylmer:
‘Like every self-respecting Mem in India, she would rather have a native ayah than a chee-chee girl’.
Rose is simply too high born to be a servant but probably wouldn’t be accepted by the Indian staff. She is too low born to ever be a lady in the eyes of the British settlers. She belongs nowhere and unless Michael wants to suffer the same fate he should steer clear. However, as Rose takes on a job with Aylmer’s children she is often in the same household as Michael, who is Aylmer’s Batman. They fall into a habit of sitting on the verandah in the evenings and talk soon turns towards Rose’s dream of going to Ireland and settling there. As love blossoms Michael confides in his friend Tom Nolan about his feelings for Rose and the regret that he is not free to marry her for seven years. Nolan is quite clear on the obstacles to their union:
‘Think of it man – your children could turn out to be darkies. When bloods diluted the colour will always come through. It wouldn’t be fair on the poor things- what would they do back in Ardclough? You’ll have to pick the ones to take and the ones to leave behind. Ask Rose why her mother was in an orphanage: I’ll bet you she wasn’t white enough to take back home’.
The only real respite the young couple have is on a visit to Rose’s aunt and uncle in Madras. They accept the couple, possibly because her aunt is also mixed race and from the same orphanage as Rose’s mother. However, on a day trip Michael and Rose are caught up in a riot and because it’s safer than travelling home, have to spend the night together. A kind doctor loans them his room and here passion spills over, with Michael telling himself he will overcome the obstacles and marry her. Unfortunately, events thousands of miles away now control their fate. At the barracks, mail arrives from Ireland detailing the atrocities of the Black and Tans regiment against the Irish people. Huddled together the men read of their sisters having their heads shaved by soldiers. Brothers and fathers humiliated and beaten. Animals killed and whole livelihoods burned to the ground. All in the name of the very same King the Kildare Rangers are serving in India. The group discuss mutiny on Michael’s return, but the penalty for mutiny is execution by firing squad. Soon, Rose realises she is pregnant and is sure Michael will do the right thing, but he is away, carrying out the wishes of his fellow soldiers. Will he return and if he does will he face the ultimate penalty?
The second part of the novel jumps to 1980s India when Richard Aylmer visits Nandagiri, where his grandfather was stationed as Colonel. He is a photographer and would like to find the landscapes that inspired his grandfather’s paintings. He is keen to photograph the same areas and curate a joint exhibition. He is put in touch with Gerald Twomey, the District Forestry Officer and the best guide in the area. He will drive Richard out to different places where his grandfather painted, but he is warned that Gerry is an oddball. Described as brusque, and having a ‘big chip on his shoulder, even a whole tree’, Gerry is Anglo-Indian with a surname as Irish as they come. This visit brings together two men whose ancestors walked the land before them. Can what went wrong all those years ago, ever be put right?
This novel sits perfectly within the canon of post-colonial fiction. Through Rose and Michael’s story, the author shows the mistrust and prejudice of the British ruling class towards Indian people. Mrs Aylmer and her children accompany a tiger hunt when they come across a forest tribe. James asks his mother whether the savages are cannibals, and points in their direction. Mrs Aylmer reminds him not to point:
‘It’s our good manners that separate us from the natives – that and cleanliness and honesty of course (…) you’ve to be afraid of them too or you could get careless, and they love it when you’re careless. A little here and a little there, and before you know it you’ve been cheated.’
Yet 60 years later, the attitudes of that time still prevail to some extent. When describing Gerry Twomey as Anglo-Indian, Richard’s host Mohan Kumar explains their ‘otherness’ and status in society by asking ‘can you imagine what it’s like to have both a superiority and an inferiority complex on the go at the same time?’ In discussion with Mohan, Richard Aylmer uses his knowledge of English rule in Ireland to debunk some of the old myths about Indian people. Mohan talks about the days of loyal servants and enthuses about the Indian tendency to be ‘biddable and faithful’. Aylmer points out that they were not so biddable when finally breaking away from colonial rule. He points out that obedience is ‘what colonised people do, self- preservation it’s called’. Mohan argues that many Indians still haven’t moved past the ‘colonial mentality’ and still meekly accept higher authorities with deference.
The legacy of colonialism is stamped on the landscape even where the names of landmarks have reverted to their Indian origins. Lake Victoria is now named after a dead politician, but no one uses the new name. May Twomey explains that politicians seek to erase the past by changing a name or taking down statues, but it can’t change history or the mixed inheritance of who they are. In a 1920s scene of the novel, that manages to be both comical and horrifying at the same time, Tom Nolan takes Michael for his first visit to Mumtaz Bibi’s brothel situated in the Raj Bazaar. Here, Michael sits in a courtyard, overwhelmed by the heat, spices and a foul -mouthed parrot who shouts encouragement to the young soldiers getting their pleasure behind a series of curtains. Years later in the same building is an NGO funded health centre known for its efficiency and cleanliness, but still, everyone remembers the space as a thriving brothel. However, it is easy to see why the lush natural landscape inspired Richard’s grandfather to paint. Mohan’s bungalow is surrounded by beautiful grounds on a steep slope down to a stream where orchids grow between ancient trees. Even here though, we can see English touches like a well watered lawn and wide rose beds, both protected fiercely by the gardener.
The author made me feel fully immersed in India with all it’s beauty and controversial history. Some scenes are difficult to read, particularly the behaviour of Rose’s father and how he treats her when her condition becomes apparent. It seems that there is a hierarchy, not only of race and colour, but of gender; as an Anglo-Indian woman Rose appears to have less value than a man of similar background. I think the awkward position of the Irish soldiers as an occupying force abroad but an occupied country at home is depicted really well. This is a novel of the inbetween, for both people and places, and shows what happens when you don’t fit anywhere or challenge the status quo. The heartbreaking central love story, is a love out of time. The only place they can truly come together with no obstacles is a liminal space – the stranger’s flat as a riot forms outside. Michael and Rose’s love is also form of protest, showing that human connections can exist outside these boundaries, but it can’t survive. I’m taken back to that fateful night in Madras as the doctor gave them shelter. He comments on their present situation, but unknowingly and sadly speaks of their fate, when he says:
‘Sir, you and your good wife are most unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time’.