Rescue from ivory tower
Rajdeep Bains
The India House
by William Palmer. Jonathan Cape, Random House. Pages 249. £ 11

"THE past is another country: they do things differently there." So says William Palmer in an article describing one of his early novels, The Good Republic. He could well be talking about his latest, The India House, as well.

Thinking of or connecting with the past usually happens only in fleeting moments, with an occasional glimpse of the people who reside there—in old photographs and black-and-white films or in dusty, unread books. Yet here are three women, their lives so enmeshed in the past that their minds are unable to comprehend the present or accept it.

Having returned to England from India after Independence, the Covington family—grandmother, mother and daughter—set up home in the West Midlands, sharing what is known by the locals as "The India House", so called because of its collection of Indian artefacts. To them, India and their stay there is linked with the glory of the Raj. In their minds, the British Empire still reigns.

In their effort to preserve the purity of Julia’s mind from the "perils of socialism" that have arisen from the fall of the Empire, or rather have been the cause of it, Evelyn and her mother prescribe a unique method of home tutoring to keep the young lady’s innocence intact.

Mr Henry, a retired schoolmaster, is hired to deliver a modified version of the world that preserves the bubble of the decaying Empire. He also has the job of reading out the day’s news to the ladies at mealtimes. He does so admirably, protecting the delicate sensibilities of Julia’s widowed mother and rich grandmother, shielding them from the unpleasant by editing the day’s paper before it is read out.

Julia’s curriculum is limited to classical mythology, romantic poetry, the dangers of socialism and a selective history of England—omitting that of the long-lost provinces, Scotland and Wales. Her family of diehard Imperialists, yearning for the days of the Raj, teach her reverence for the Empire.

Julia, a princess in an ivory tower, has never gone out alone, or spoken to a stranger. Deprived of radio or television, her stimulations come from an old gramophone of Mr Henry’s and his ancient selection of records`85 she has never used a telephone or ridden a bus. The yearning to break the monotony is there, but it achieves little, for she knows not what to wish for.

In the Garden of Eden arrives the Serpent, the first normal human being that Julia has ever encountered—her uncle Ronald, a conman who, too, is at the end of his rope having been thrown out by wife and friends, and his son, James, a naive schoolboy with dreams of serving his country and doing good to all.

The rather unlikely knights rescue the princess and manage to drag her to the present, just in time for the Suez crisis and the Hungarian rebellion. The sweet taste of first love in her mouth, Julia steels herself to face a new world for which she is otherwise ill-prepared.

Though Julia’s isolation might be unbelievably archaic for any period, nevertheless, it is easy to be drawn into the illusory world of the book and feel the tragic overtones.

Reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the pathos it inspires, the book questions many of the power structures that exist in today’s world. Here’s a simple story put fluidly, but the subtle advocacy of world peace is noticeable.