Sunset over the Brahmaputra River of India and Bangladesh.
Rumer Godden's The River explores the yearnings of a young girl, who seems to be about 11 years old, in Bengal in the early years of the 20th century. Her father manages a jute factory and her family lives in a big house on the river. The River is broadly autobiographical, since Godden spent the first half of her long life in India, and her father was the manager of a steamship company on the great Brahmaputra River of Bengal. This novel swirls with three themes: the aspirations of Harriet to become a writer, the love of Harriet for her family—her sister, her brother, her parents, and their assorted Indian servants, all of whom have different religions; and her love of India.
The children kept Diwali because it is an irresistible festival and no one could live in the country in which it is held and not be touched by it. Tonight when it is dark, though Harriet, her eyes anywhere but on her work, Ram Prasad will have brought for us a hundred or two hundred lamps. They are made of earthenware, shaped like hearts or tarts or leaves, and they cost two pice each, and in each we shall pour oil and float a wick; then we shall set them all along the roof and at the windows and in rows on the steps and at the gate and over the gate, and we shall light them. Everywhere, on our house, there will be lights, and on the river the boats will have them burning and we shall see them go past, and other lights on rafts will be floated down and the rich Hindus will give feasts and feed the poor and let off fireworks and we shall stay up to dinner to see.
And Harriet luxuriates in the wonderful year-round vegetation India offers. So rich is the variety of flowers and plants that Godden is able to devote two full pages to a description of the family’s garden and its assorted flora and fauna. Later in the book, Godden describes the family home room by room. But the preface to this passage points to the role of the house in our memory of “home:”
“Every family has something, when it has left home, that is for it a symbol of home, that, for it, for ever afterwards, brings home back. It may be a glimpse of the dappled flank of a rocking horse, a certain pattern of curtain, of firelight shining on a brass fender, of light on the rim of a plate; it may be a saying, sweet or sharp, like ‘It will only end in tears,” “Do you think I am made of money?’ “It is six of one and half a dozen of the other,” it may be a song or a sound; the sound of a lawn mower or the swish of water, or of birds singing at dawn; it may be a custom (every family has different customs), or a taste: a special pudding or burnt treacle tart or dripping toast; or it may be scent or a smell: of flowers, or furniture polish or cooking, toffee or sausages, or saffron bread or onions or boiling jam. These symbols are all that are left of that lost world in our new one. There was no knowing what would remain afterwards of hers for Harriet.”
Sunset over Back Street of Old Delhi by Seth Lazar.
In The Far Cry, we are confronted with a far sadder proposition: a child that knows no home, who appears truly alone and at odds with and terrified of the adults around her, beginning with her father, who is referred to throughout the book as “Mr. Digby.” Rejected by her mother, she lives in England with her aunt until her father arrives to take her to her sister’s, who lives with her husband on a tea plantation in Assam. The first two parts of the book explore the rather hateful mindset of this child, as she travels by boat to India, a dreariness of spirit interrupted by Teresa’s keen observations of the sky and sea around her and an English spinster named Miss Spooner. When Teresa first arrives in Bombay, she is so terrified of her new environs that she can hardly speak, and she retreats to her room in the hotel in panic. Then,
Someone tapped at Teresa’s door, a tap so light it was more like a scratch, and a voice cried out: “Oh Missie, Master says, tea is in his room, come quickly. Missie, here is Sam.”
It was on account of these last four words that Teresa opened her door and looked out at the shoddy little figure who said his name was Sam. The moment she saw that confidently grinning face, the wide mouth, the flap ears, the bulging eyes, Teresa’s panic over India was at an end. For Sam was not an enemy, though an Indian. His brown skin added nothing but further comedy to his face. He demanded nothing from Teresa except that she should be affable. This was enough for him to spring inside her room and switch on the fans that she had overlooked. To fetch his friend, dhobie [laundry man]: “Missie, here is dhobie-man.” To bring photographs of himself out from a greasy inner pocket: “I have worked many times for Americans.” To writhe his body about in boneless contortions for her amusement—“I dance for ladies”—and break off his exhibition in a fit of giggles. He became immediately her attendant, admirer, entertainer, bodyguard, and because he was all these things and friendly as well, her friend. Teresa emerged from behind her barricades and proceeded to look about her.
When she and Sam are charged by Mr. Digby with going to market to buy a thermos for their long train ride to Assam, she falls in love with her new country:
“Never had she seen so many people. Never had she dreamed so many people existed. They were everywhere, lying asleep on walls, stretched on the pavements, crouching, walking, dawdling, in topees, in fez, in turbans, … The pavements were loaded with an intricately interwoven mob on foot, as the road was interwoven as intricately with a mob on wheels….
With wide eyes and open mouth Teresa drank in the confusion as though she tasted a new wine and could have enough of it. .. She longed to be occupied by this anonymous turmoil in which she felt to be so safe, for in all these crowds not a single face looked at her threateningly, not a hand touched her except by accident, not a soul knew who she was or cared. And Sam guided her swiftly and surely. She followed him with elation and no alarm.
Emma Smith photographed by Robert Doisneau for Paris Match (see Persephone Books).
The Far Cry is not autobiographical, but based on Smith’s trip to India as part of a filming crew for a documentary on tea-growing in Assam. She says in an interview that she ravaged her diary for the book’s descriptions of Bombay and Assam. She captures the comic of India’s surprises and idiosyncracies. I find it apt that she presents India to us through the eyes of a young person, for to get the most from India, it is best to make yourself young first.
Both these young girls are sorely tested in their respective stories, both experience their first friendships with an adult, and both begin to get a grip on how they might shape their own lives. Although Smith draws the relationships of adults with more subtlety and nuance than Godden, Godden’s prose is perfect, every word saturated with her deep knowledge and love of her subject matter. The River was turned into a film by Jean Renoir, but The Far Cry was rescued from obscurity by Persephone Books. Both books are a sparkling glimpse into the riches of India.