The lure of the gothic

The lure of the gothic

Godden’s sensual prose and breathtaking evocation of the Himalayan terrain demands you give in to the charms of this immersive novel.

Black Narcissus

The Black Narcissus in the title of Rumer Godden’s third novel doesn’t refer to a flower — rather, it’s the name of the perfume worn by the heir to a nobleman in the Himalayas above Darjeeling. “Do you like it?” The heir asks a passing nun. She is scornful in her reply.

That nun, Sister Ruth, is part of a convent set up in a palace belonging to the nobleman, who is referred to as the General (his heir, his nephew, also inherits the title leading another character to ask how one can possibly inherit a Generalship). The little Anglican order to which the nuns belong — the Sisters of Mary — has been given the responsibility by the General to set up a school for the locals in the village (called Mopu) and also run a clinic. The isolation of the convent from which one can see Kanchenjunga, the combustible mix of poor weather conditions and the need to depend heavily on local labour to get their work done, and the increasing mental stresses among the nuns eventually lead to predictably tragic outcomes.

Rumer Godden grew up in pre-independence India — the North East was where she spent most of her childhood as her father ran a steamship company. Allowed to run wild with her sisters in the town of Narayanganj, she developed a lifelong love for storytelling and Indian landscapes that were to influence her fiction as an adult. She was sent off to boarding school in England as a teenager and later on trained as a dancer but couldn’t get India out of her system. She ran a dancing school in Kolkata, married, had two daughters in England, and in 1939, Black Narcissus was published to critical acclaim. After separating from her husband just before the second World War broke out, she made an attempt to homestead on the banks of Dal Lake in Kashmir with her two daughters, living off the produce from their garden and in near poverty like much of the locals. She returned to England in 1947 and through her lifetime wrote more than 60 books.

Psychological thriller

Black Narcissus, while showcasing the folly of colonising do-gooders in places that don’t necessarily need their “civilising missions”, is also an excellent gothic psychological thriller. The leader of this little group of nuns, the Irish Sister Clodagh, is, at first glance, the most sensible of the lot. Certainly she seems more in control than Sister Ruth who is already fraying at the edges when she’s first introduced. But Sister Clodagh, who clashes with the only person seemingly able to help the hapless nuns — Mr Dean, the local agent of the Raj — soon realises the enormity of the task that the nuns have taken on. Spiritual crises, the wild beauty of the landscape, the erotic atmosphere of the palace they live in (which was the General’s harem at one point) are enough to make even the most stalwart soldier of God waver.

Halfway through the book, one of the nuns who is the first to realise the effect the place is having on her vocation, Sister Philippa, reflects that there are only two ways to live there: either as the dissolute Mr Dean or the ascetic hermit the villagers revere. To “…either ignore it completely or give yourself up to it.” Black Narcissus, which would be made into one of the great classics of British cinema by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, can’t be ignored. Godden’s sensual prose and breathtaking evocation of the unforgiving Himalayan terrain demands you give in and you’ll be glad you did.

The author is a Bengaluru-based writer and communications professional with many published short stories and essays to her credit.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great. Come, raid the bookshelves with us.

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