Tuesday, January 05, 2016

the last book I read

A New Dominion by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Ah, India. Land of contrasts, contradictions and a chicken tikka masala for the lady. And don't forget the pickles. Into this enticing place, in some slightly indeterminate time probably in the 1960s, come Raymond, a Cambridge-educated English "aesthete" much given to travelling with his mother (so yes, yes, obviously a repressed homosexual) and Lee, a young English woman on a sort of spiritual quest to "find" herself - and where better to do that than India, especially in the 1960s. I mean, if it was good enough for the Beatles...

Raymond hangs out a lot with Gopi, a young Indian student, for reasons that are beyond his capacity to admit to himself (but plainly obvious to the reader), while Gopi's reasons for indulging Raymond are clear enough - free bed & board, being generally indulged and, at least as yet, not being made any unpalatable demands of. Meanwhile Lee has become acquainted with Asha, an Indian princess, widow and general sybaritic layabout much given to unsuitable liaisons with much younger men. So when Gopi is introduced to her, her eyes light up.

Lee and a couple of other Western women, Margaret and Evie, find their way to a spiritual retreat at an ashram run by a charismatic guru, Swamiji, who seems to have a way of making na├»ve tourists fall under his spell, even when, as Margaret does, they contract some health problems that (as all health problems would) would be better dealt with by modern medical attention than by a herbal poultice, some chanting, and a nice saag aloo.

Raymond becomes concerned for Margaret's health and tries to persuade the community that she would be better off seeing a doctor. Meanwhile Lee has first-hand experience of the reasons for Swamiji's interest in young Western women when he rapes her in his hut at the ashram. Gopi is dismayed to find that his family have arranged a marriage for him to a woman he has never met as part of some complex part-exchange arrangement involving his sister marrying his bride-to-be's brother.

Lee escapes from the ashram and she, Raymond and the reunited Gopi and Asha set up a retreat of their own (but with rather more self-indulgence and booze) at an abandoned mansion owned by Asha's family. But the modern world is starting to encroach on India and the mansion is under threat from big business interests who want the land to set up a factory. Meanwhile Margaret's health problems finally become serious enough for her to leave the ashram (with Evie's help) and seek out Lee and Raymond. Unfortunately by the time proper medical assistance is provided, the hepatitis Margaret has been incubating for a while has pretty much devoured her liver, and she dies. Gopi decides to flout his family's wishes and stay with Asha, Raymond decides to return to England and see his mother, and Lee, having not conclusively found herself yet, sets off on further travels to who knows where.

Like most people who'd heard of her at all I'd assumed RPJ, as I like to call her, was Indian - not so, in fact, as she was German by birth, educated in Britain and emigrated to India in her twenties upon marrying an Indian architect. She's best known for her screenwriting activities, principally during her long association with Merchant Ivory Productions which saw her win Oscars for A Room With A View in 1987 and Howard's End in 1992. She also won the Booker Prize in 1975 for her most famous novel Heat And Dust (also filmed), which, according to Wikipedia at least, makes her the only person to win an Oscar and the Booker. A New Dominion is the novel which immediately precedes Heat And Dust in her output, published in 1972.

Anyway, as you might expect, this is very sly and well-observed; you might say that maybe RPJ is a sort of expatriate member of the group of ladies mentioned here - female writers of similar age (RPJ - who died in 2013 - was around five years older than Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis and Penelope Lively, and around ten years younger than Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald) who wrote smart, dryly humorous, shortish novels. My reservations with this one mirror my reservations with some of the ones by the other authors (Winter Palace and the Ballad Of Peckham Rye, for instance): the author's expert skewering of everyone's shortcomings (or, I suppose, to put it another way, the author's populating the book exclusively with people with obvious and easily-skewerable shortcomings) means that it's hard to find a character in the book whose fate you really care much about. I suppose there's some point being made about Western tourists' unrealistic quasi-mystical expectations of India, a country after all populated like any other by regular people just trying to make a living, and that some of the country's traditions are (or were at the time of writing) about to be swept away by the relentless tide of progress, or, depending on your perspective, "progress". It's fine, but I can't honestly say I was bowled over by it.

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