For the last few years, I've been participating in an on-line group of fellow readers of historical fiction. Every month a book is chosen as a topic, and the one for January 2009 is M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions, set in India during the time of British rule.
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When the novel was published more than thirty years ago, it was a sensation, becoming one of the best selling novels of all time, and earning quite a few accolades for the author. I was a teenager at the time, and gave reading it a try, but I just couldn't get into it, and after about two hundred pages, gave up -- it's nearly a thousand pages in length. But it also needs nearly every one of those pages to tell this broad sweeping tale of imperial rule, and two people that are from very different worlds, and can no more resist the attraction between them than to deny that the sun rises.
The novel opens when Ashton Hilary Akhbar Pelham-Martyn is born in the wilds of the Northwest Territories, in Britian's dominion of India. He's a sturdy, intelligent child, but having lost both of his parents, he is taken in hand by the sole survivor of his father's expedition, his milk-mother, Sita. Uneducated, Sita knows only that she is take Ash to the city of Delhi and return him to the English, to see that he is brought up as a proper sahib. But they arrive just as the Sepoy Rebellion is unfolding, with devastating consequences. Panicked, Sita decides to take her young charge somewhere far away, where they will both be safe.
That turns out to be the distant, rather poor, land of Gulkote, a petty state ruled by an indifferent, indolent Rajah. But it is peaceful, and for a time, Ash has the freedom to just be a child -- that is, until he has an encounter with the young heir, Lalji, and the prince takes an insterest in Ash, ordering that he becomes a servant. Life in a palace is hardly a paradise -- there's enough food to eat, but jealousies are running hard and deep, and Ash finds his life full of murderous plots. But there is also a bright spot -- Lalji's baby half-sister, Anjuli, who toddles after Ash, throughly enchanted with him. He in turn regards her with affection, but not even this childish bond can save Ash and his mother when it's clear that someone is trying to murder him.
Once again it is exile for Ash and Sita, but this time, Ash finds himself in England, learning the ways and education of a gentleman, always thinking of himself as an Indian, not as a sahib. When he does return to India, this time as a young officer in the army, he discovers that he can't quite slip into his old ways any more -- he has changed subtlely and neither the English nor the Indians seem to regard him as quite right. Too, he has fallen for a lovely young Englishwoman, come out to India to get herself a husband -- and Belinda isn't above being able to dangle several suitors at a time, with tragic results for everyone involved. For Ash, it's professional suicide, and one day he finds himself being sent off from the Guides, to lead a pair of princesses from some Maharajah to their marriage to some king. It's duty that he doesn't want at all, but it will have consequences that he can not begin to imagine.
For Ash isn't the only character who has grown up -- and the princess he once knew has become a beautiful woman....
Now that I have come back to this story, I have found myself enthralled by Kaye's descriptions of an India in the middle of change and where a variety of cultures are coming to clash. Whether the character is an English explorer, a princess, a poor servant, a hill tribesman -- everyone in this one has a story to tell, and all of them are intertwined with each other. Along the way, we get to know Ash very well, in all of his various guises as a child, a young man in England, his return to India, and especially the choices he chooses to make.
This is where the novel really shines. Ash may be a man of means, prideful, handsome, skilled at nearly everything he does, but he also makes some catastrophic mistakes -- and he pays for them, in very dear ways. In most writers' hands, he would remain rather boring, and the story just another one in the usual flood of average historical novels. But Ms. Kaye is wise enough to show the evolution of a callous, well-bred young idiot along the road to wisdom and maturity. We get to see him in quite a few ruminations. Along the way, we also get to learn a lot about India, the role of the British, the wide of divides of caste, class and some truly ruinous decisions. Along with all of the glamour that's associated with India, there are also looks at the poverty, ignorance and especially the barbaric custom of suttee, the Hindu custom of having a widow being burnt alive along with her husband's corpse.
Thirty years on, this is a novel worth reading for anyone who demands that their stories be packed full of adventure and sheer romance. Ash and Anjuli are lovers who not just have baggage, but are also believable -- their reunion is a lightening bolt for the reader, and in the hands of a lesser writer would have turned out soppy and trite, but here it's heartbreaking and sizzling. At that point I was truly hooked into the story, and knew I would keep going to end to find out what happens.
Mary Margaret Kaye (1908-2004) was born in India, and spent her childhood there. She went on to write quite a few novels, and also an autobiography, Share of Summer. She is an author that I intend to read more of in the future.
Highly recommended, and this is a classic. Recommended for anyone who wants a thrilling adventure and isn't scared off by the size of the story.
The Far Pavilions
1978, 2008; St. Martins/Griffin Press
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