The Twain Shall Meet

Rediscovering Rumer Godden's Indian novels

01 August, 2013

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO THINK of Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus (1939) without remembering Sabu’s jovial face and Jean Simmons’ sultry charm in the 1947 film, against a backdrop of Darjeeling’s painted skies and clouds of gauze, and somewhere, on the margins of all the lush exotica, Deborah Kerr and David Farrar as the nun and the bad boy, attempting to live out their platonic love affair. Godden herself thought the film was tacky and inauthentic, but felt that other filmed scenes from her novels had overlaid her own memories of lives and landscapes.

So when I try to recall that London day in the late 1970s when my sister Shahrukh announced she was going to be researcher for a novelist called Rumer Godden, who was working on a biography of the Mughal princess Gulbadan, I see myself crying out: “Black Narcissus”. That was the book that had ensured her fame, thanks in great part to the film version. It was her third published novel, but the two that came before had been entirely forgotten. Godden would go on to write the screenplay for Jean Renoir’s celebration of Bengal, The River (1951), based on her novel of the same name, while the film The Greengage Summer (1961), that delicate account of adolescent desire set in France, was based on her 1958 novel.

And then there were the novels themselves, which appeared before the films were made and continued to be produced long after. Godden, a contemporary of novelists of the Raj such as Paul Scott, was a British writer whose 60 works of fiction and nonfiction reflect her personal experiences in colonial India and England. This year Virago has released new editions of seven of her novels under their Modern Classics imprint, and Macmillan, which has kept her in print over the years, has reprinted many of the rest.

I’d first read Godden’s books in the 1970s, in my teens, and the last one I remember reading in that period was The Peacock Spring (1975). It was a melodramatic story of two English girls visiting their father in postcolonial New Delhi. One of them runs away with her gardener, who is really a Brahmin poet in disguise; but he is still an Indian. Meanwhile, their father is having an affair with his daughters’ Eurasian governess. At just about the time I read the novel, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had finally removed the last taboo about the Indo-British affair in literary fiction with her prizewinning Heat and Dust (1975), but Godden, too, had done it, and without fanfare. Her book ended with young Una’s hopes trickling away in a stream of blood, and at that age I wondered whether she had really lost a baby or merely imagined a pregnancy because of a missed period.

Reading the novel as a teenager had been a guilty pleasure because I could tell that Godden, in her 60s when she wrote it, had her best work behind her and was revisiting themes she’d handled better in earlier fictions. But time had finally caught up with her daring vision of desire across the colour bar and she was writing with an open sensuality she hadn’t permitted herself before. It remains surprising that very shortly after it was first published, the book was issued in an edition for young adults, as its vision of desire—an underage heroine sleeping with a young Indian, who, though only slightly older than her, is nevertheless over the age of consent—was hardly conventional fare for adolescents.

But to return to the original story, the writer my sister was going to meet was a grande dame: A Personality, as one of Godden’s own adolescent characters might say. And I certainly knew of her as a prolific storyteller whose books filled the shelves of London’s local libraries, from where they were borrowed and reborrowed. I also knew of her legend: a child of British parents who’d grown up a bit wild in the early decades of the century in Narayanganj, a small town in what later became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. She moved to England as an adolescent, returned to India after her education to teach dance in Calcutta, and after Independence and decolonisation settled in Sussex, but always longed for her other homeland. So it was obviously her Indian books that had drawn me. I met her with alacrity every time my sister asked me to, and I always had something cheerful to say about her books.

Godden herself was unpretentious. She continually described herself, in conversation and in her writings, as a storyteller, and averred that were she forced to choose between Proust and RL Stevenson, she would choose the latter. Storyteller, yes. Middlebrow, probably—but not a populist writer a la Catherine Cookson or Daphne du Maurier. She complained that her best work, such as Breakfast with the Nikolides (1942), had been ignored when it first appeared. “My books don’t sweep, they seep,” she told my sister, whose close friend, and the godmother of whose son, she became. But they lasted, and outlasted those of more critically lauded writers among her contemporaries, such as Pamela Hansford-Johnson and Pamela Frankau. It’s only today, as I reread her Indian novels, that I realise quite how much she wrote, and how Godden doesn’t necessarily mean India to all her readers. There are books for children (that’s how my niece knows her) and more books about nuns (many of which I haven’t read).

But India and writing were closely linked in Godden’s own mind. The autobiography she released on her 80th birthday, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987), revisited the Indian landscapes of all her most successful novels, and revived public interest in a long and productive career. Even for readers like me, who as adults had given up her works as only a little better than dated relics of the Raj and were busy writing our own versions of South Asia, they were a reminder that when we hadn’t had the Desais, the Rushdies and the Sidhwas to read, there was Rumer Godden to turn to for a bit of local colour which we needed the way we at times needed chillies in our food.

More seriously, as discussions of hybridity began to take over the academy on the one hand and on the other a deep nostalgia for the Raj beset filmmakers and script writers—does anyone remember the ghastly Far Pavilions television series of 1984, with Amy Irving playing an Indian princess in blackface?—here was a writer who, long before it was fashionable, had acknowledged being caught between two worlds, had shuttled between them for nearly 40 years, and ultimately felt at home in neither. She had written about it, in different genres, over and over, and often very well, as she did in the autobiography and a second volume that followed two years later.

In her expression of this postcolonial dilemma, she reminds us of her French contemporary Marguerite Duras, who also returned, at 70, to examine the memory and legacy of her Vietnamese youth, which she had never managed to escape. History and postcolonial literary theory have all too often been more interested in the ex-colonial subject working through layers of linguistic memory to reach a deeper level and divest himself—and I use the masculine pronoun consciously—of accumulated levels of prejudice. Concurrently, the fate of the European subject who is suddenly made aware of her in-between status in the newly liberated colony is often ignored. Duras and Godden address this by locating their trajectory in the lives of women, very often very young women, and in their late works by staging a consummation of desire between the (female) coloniser and the (male) subject in a reversal of the original trope of white (male) rescuer and native (female) beauty waiting to be rescued by him.

In her memoir, Godden mentioned that reading EM Forster on India as a young woman had made her aware of her own realities. Like his characters, she had lived in India and yet knew little about it; she was going, like her father who spoke Indian languages and knew their classic texts well, to remedy this. At her best, she relives India (usually Bengal, but also Kashmir, Delhi and later the South) in her novels, and can portray the inner lives of her Indian characters with a sensitivity that belies the stereotypes of race and Raj that continue to pursue her. At her most worthy and didactic, as she carried on writing about an India she had effectively left behind a very long time ago, she reels off historical, mythological and geographical information that positions her as part native informant and part sympathetic anthropologist.

Her memoir also casts light on a dark shadow in her life, her interlude in Kashmir, a time that had led her to write one of the last and also the worst novels of her earlier, Indian phase. Though she seemed determined, in her fiction, to redeem Adela Quested’s sins of commission—the Englishwoman in Forster’s A Passage to India who wrongly accuses Aziz, an Indian doctor, of molesting her—Godden makes a botched job of it in Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953). A young widow, Sophie, comes to live in Kashmir with her children. From among her menagerie of native servants and attendants, one begins to drug her food and feed her broken glass. She accuses a trusted servant, only to find that she has accused the wrong man, and that she’s actually been a victim of a love potion gone wrong. The entire incident ricochets both on Sophie as heroine and on Rumer Godden as novelist, because the former doesn’t seem to be able to redeem herself and the latter can’t extricate Sophie from her dilemma without bringing in a somewhat blimpish suitor to rescue her. To her credit, Sophie dumps the man in Kashmir and makes her escape, with the friendly feelings of the Kashmiris towards her revived, and her own emotions in a jumble.

Godden herself lived in Kashmir during the war years and had a run-in with one of her Kashmiri servants. Many years later, in the account she wrote of the incident in her memoir, she dismisses her adversary as a madman who probably ended up in an asylum. She depicts herself escaping in fear of the retribution she might suffer for taking on a native in a princely state. But the novel leaves us wondering whether Sophie’s desires had perhaps been awakened by one of her Kashmiri domestics, just as Forster, while openly disavowing the possibility of Adela’s sexual attraction to Aziz, nevertheless scatters clues of her acute awareness of his ‘oriental’ masculinity. Godden’s fictional trajectory in Kingfishers Catch Fire is, however, more honourable—she extols the values of friendship and even equality between a semi-colonial memsahib and her loyal servant, all the while leaving open the possibility of a deeper dimension to their relationship.

Why, then, is the novel a failure? Is it because it does what Godden had, in earlier works, so carefully set out to undo: it paints a canvas of the guileless Western woman deceived, exploited and betrayed by a dark, mysterious and hostile contingent of natives? Perhaps. But ultimately it’s a cluttered narrative that has neither the Gothic, carnivalesque vitality of Black Narcissus, nor the delicate water-colour realism of The River.

WHEN I READ GODDEN’S MEMOIRS in those years between The Satanic Verses and A Suitable Boy, I probably knew that at some later stage I’d return to her books with new theoretical tools. An opportunity to take a fresh look at her version of India came when, in 1991, she published a late work, Coromandel Sea Change.

It reworked a very conventional novelistic trope. A young couple travel to India. Their marriage is in trouble; both have interracial affairs—the wife’s is coyly left unconsummated, while the husband’s leads to the birth of a child. There’s a tragedy at sea, but for one of the protagonists there is a hint of multicultural happiness to come. Godden gives us a good dose of nationalist politics; as in much of her work, there is a sense of India as an autonomous entity, not a satellite of the West or a reflection of its colonial self. Only in the presence of its Eurasian populace and their hybrid ways, and in the continuing attraction of young Britons to the mysterious country they had once possessed, does the story of the Raj live on. Though there is a degree of timelessness in the narration, we realise the contemporaneity of the story when the young couple discusses European women who come to India in search of sex with young Indians.

Along with its satirical set pieces, the story is embellished by the heavily signalled inclusion of a classic Indian erotic motif, that of Krishna and his love for the married Radha, which is relived here by the married heroine and a charismatic Indian lover politician in a very symbolic tableau. In this last trope, as well as in other aspects, the novel is reminiscent of The Mountain is Young (1958), a much earlier, and for its time much bolder, work by the maverick Chinese-Eurasian Han Suyin, in which a Western woman finds physical and emotional fulfilment in the arms of a swarthy South Indian god against the setting of an Asia in sociopolitical flux. Both novelists were equally intrigued by the meeting of a new breed of Westerner with the children of a reborn South Asia, especially when the Westerners chose, or were sometimes forced, to accept equality as a prerequisite for such encounters.

Godden in Kashmir in 1941. Her experiences here formed the basis of the novel Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953). COURTESY JANE MURAY FLUTER

Increasingly unselfconscious now about what I chose to read for pleasure, I can’t deny enjoying parts of Coromandel Sea Change, but there was a level of embarrassment I am still subject to when writers get names and details wrong. What sort of name is Padmina Retty, I asked myself? Padmini Reddy? Why did writers, even those who’d grown up in our countries, make such mistakes? Could I even read Godden as a writer who had lived in and written about India, or was it best to place her, as some young reviewers did, in the company of those redoubtable storytellers—her close contemporary du Maurier, who was to have a similar revival, comes to mind—who’d managed to outlive more critically acclaimed writers and eliminate the boundary between the popular and the serious by including lavish elements of both?

A decade or so went by before I returned to Godden. The literary climate had changed by then—a new generation of writers from South Asia were winning major international accolades and labels like ‘postcolonial’ and ‘third world’ had been replaced by ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘transnational’. Godden died in the late 1990s and, while her most famous books stayed quietly in print, she started to be more widely read when a new genre of women’s publishing began around the same time, with Persephone Books bringing back into print the kind of small-scale, middlebrow fiction by women that had been the staple of libraries for decades, but had been considered below par in the heady moment of feminist publishing and the glory days of Virago. Godden’s contribution was ripe for reassessment and there wasn’t—isn’t—any doubt that some of her best work (The River and Greengage Summer, for example) passed the test. They’re very good books about childhood and adolescence, and the former, actually a novella, is also a luminous portrayal of the colours and textures of a rural lifestyle in East Bengal. Like much of her work, these novels are very finely structured; Godden has the art of making a fairly intricate weave of multiple perspectives, interior monologues and straightforward narration look easy and even artless.

The recent reprints of her fiction remind us that Godden was more prolific than even her fans realised. A selection of her best work reveals her to be an uneven writer, at her best interesting, unusual and technically assured, and at her weakest prone to melodrama and cliché. However, her place among the storytellers is assured, as she joins Barbara Pym and Angela Thirkell, as well as du Maurier, on the Virago list of writers whose reputations have been remade within a newly-defined canon of women’s writing, with her major Indian fictions prominently included.

I’ve already discussed the disappointing Kingfishers. But the perennially successful Black Narcissus is, in the new vocabulary of book clubs and internet blogs, a ‘great read’, and every bit as entertaining as the film it inspired. Its portrayal of nuns battling an alien and occasionally hostile landscape, and its depiction of a youthful and entirely hedonistic love affair between two young ‘natives’—the sly and seductive Kanchi and the princeling Dilip Rai—while the General, a benignly sexless Nepalese elder, watches and philosophises, makes for a dazzling fairy tale for readers of all ages, one which rarely tries to be more than that, but also manages, quite deftly, to rework orientalist tropes of mistrust. Godden’s Indian years had given her a genuine sense of the picturesque which her more monocultural and rooted contemporaries lacked.

What, then, of Breakfast with the Nikolides, her own avowed favourite, which, as she complained in her autobiography, had been ignored at the time of publication—and yet survived for decades as a popular classic? On its own terms, it is a fine book and arguably the best of her Indian period. Recent reviewers have seen it as a portrait of a family in the classic Godden mode. Here we have a husband, Charles, who seems devoted to India, albeit in a somewhat paternalistic way, and his wife, Louise, who can’t stand it and is there only under duress. Among their children is Emily, the familiar Godden surrogate, the girl who loves and identifies with India at a visceral level while she knows little about its culture and its ways. There is a mighty conflict between the mother and the daughter about the death of a dog, and between the husband and wife over an instance of marital rape in their past which led to the birth of a child.

But in addressing these elements of the novel—the stuff of domestic fiction in an exotic setting—reviewers of Godden’s work have ignored its specifically Indian elements. Written in 1942, only a few years before Independence, the novel seems to be aware of imminent social changes and intercultural tensions and deals with them in a way few if any works of the time have done. These are enacted by Indian characters who are given as much space and interiority as any of the British protagonists. There is the progressive vet, Narayan, and his conservative young wife, Shila, who is given some of the novel’s longest Woolfian soliloquies; because of Shila’s domestic expectations, their marriage isn’t quite what it should be. She could have been a clichéd Indian housewife, but Godden explores her simple aspirations with rare sensitivity.

Then there’s the radical young student Anil, the prototype of the poet Ravi in The Peacock Spring, a poet, who draws Narayan to him with his charismatic and unfettered personality. This, too, could have become a clichéd sub-Forsterian portrayal of an ebullient Indian, but Godden deftly introduces a twist when Anil brings a distraught Emily home in the dark and Louise accuses him of the unspeakable. But in a reworking of the Forsterian mode Godden favours, it’s the Indians who rise in defence of one of their own while the English are prepared to bury the accusation.

That the drama all comes to nothing because death is almost, in Godden’s world, a coincidence, does not preclude the fact that India is in revolt, and as we see the mob take to the street in Anil’s defence we know that the days of the British on its soil are numbered. The novel ends with Emily staging a little private puja and setting a little lamp to float away on the water, in a ritual of farewell and a gesture of homage to the traditions of her adopted country.