Tossed into colonial nostalgia

Tossed into colonial nostalgia

East of the sun
Julia Gregson,
Orion Books, 2008,
pp 458, Rs 295

It is only on delving further that one becomes aware that the book was completed just a year ago by someone who was fascinated by tales from the Raj.

The author, Julia Gregson, begins her narrative from London where a young, poverty-stricken, Viva, plots to chaperon three young people to Bombay on a ship by feigning knowledge of India from her childhood stay there. She needs both the money and the paid-for passage to India to confront ghosts from the past. The two other young women comprise, Rose, who is setting out to meet a man she has pledged to marry without much knowledge about him, and her friend, the outspoken Victoria (called Tor) who besides playing bridesmaid, is hoping to find a match and never have to return to Britain.
The last of the trio whom Viva offers to chaperon is the enigmatic Guy Glover who, with his strange behaviour bordering on mental illness, causes no end of trouble for her, both on and off the ship.

Once the ship sets sail, events move fast and it is at this juncture that the book, which initially read like chicklit, becomes interesting. From then on, there is no looking back as each character in the book is tossed into an adventure, even as their lives keep converging throughout the length of the story, Gregson adopts an enjoyable writing style in her first Raj novel, and though the friendship between the three girls stays at a superficial level, Julia reveals sensitivity in exploring the nuances of love and marriage, including physical resolutions, as when she writes about, “some animal comforts being given and received, something better than words.” 

Of course, there are the stereotypes that the Indian reader may baulk at like, “India, full of pagan gods and nothing like Hampshire,” which is a comment made by Ci Ci, the most shallow character in the book, but probably put in there to give Raj nostalgia lovers a glimpse of the high-flying lifestyle of British Memsahibs in India. There is mention of visits to the sophisticated Bombay Yacht Club and swanky parties at Ci Ci’s residence. But Gregson is quick to provide a foil to the mercurial Ci Ci by bringing in Daisy who is running a school for homeless orphans in India and whose compassion knows no bounds. Viva is offered a job in this school and learns a lot about contentment from children who have so little in material terms. There is also a mention of ‘Mr Gandhi’ and his increasing influence on the masses which since it is written from the other perspective, seems to have a sense of foreboding of things to come.

But it does not quite happen in the way that an Indian reader might expect it to.  Where the story seems to fail is in the kidnap and adventure section, which appears ham-handed, to say the least. The attempt to link this up with the Guy Glover incident on board the ship is unconvincing and could have been handled differently, though it might pass muster with a Western readership. Overall, a good read.

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