Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sunlight on a Broken Column

London : Virago, 1989, c1961.

I had this novel in the house, sitting on a bookshelf, waiting to be read, because it was a Virago and it looked intriguing when I picked it up via Bookmooch some long time ago now. Thanks to Annie's Challenge, I finally had a reason to push it to the top of the TBR list, and I'm glad I had that push, because after all that, I found this book fascinating. (Does this paragraph sound like German is my first language??)

I've been sick with a nasty flu for the last couple of weeks, but the good news is that (after the first 2 days of complete whining inaction) I actually got quite a bit read. This one was first. It was a good choice, because although not exactly a plot driven page turner, it was a look at a completely unknown-to-me culture, that of an upper class Muslim family in India just before Partition. The main character, Laila, is an orphan who is living with her grandfather, along with the rest of the female 'loose ends' in the family; a female cousin, a couple of aunts, and also the 2 sons of one of the aunts. The women are in purdah, meaning they have their own quarters and they don't see men other than their relatives and a couple of servants. Even when they go out, they have curtains covering the windows of their car. The grandfather dies and the household is broken up, with Laila going to live with her liberal, British educated uncle and his family. The story follows her through her schooling, her friendships and her first romance, with a young man of no means for whom she ends up defying her family to marry. The final part of the book is Laila's return from England years later, to see her now abandoned family home before her cousin sells it. The two brothers have been separated by Partition; the elder stayed in India, trying to represent Muslims and his family rights, while the younger moved his family to the new country of Pakistan. In all the political upheaval, they have been effectively isolated from one another for many years, being unable to cross the border back and forth between the two countries. Laila looks back on what their life was like then; a privileged and very different world, though at the cusp of change both politically and socially, especially in terms of women's lives. It is poignant and breathes nostalgia for a lost world.

Though this plot summary is rather perfunctory, the book itself is full of fascinating social commentary, of descriptions of the absolute gorgeousness of the land, of the cultural milieu Laila existed within, of the vastly differing lives of servants vs. Laila's family and also vs. her Hindu friends. It's an absorbing story of a life in 1930's India, which I found utterly irresistible.

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