Of politics and passion
Kulwant Singh

The Splendour of Silence by Indu Sundaresan. Penguin Books. Pages 399. Rs 350.

The book provides an imaginative insight into the expression of passion born of love at first sight and its consummation between a thoroughbred Indian girl and a virile US army officer in an environment of racial and cultural dichotomy that existed between the East and the West in the pre-independence era in India. It is this ecstasy and agony arising out of a dialectical clash between passion and conservative cultural values that forms the main body of the novel.

Set in the imaginary north-western desert state of Rudrakot in the Sukh desert (Thar), ruled by a young Rajput prince under the British empire, in 1942, the novel narrates the saga of love between Mila, the vivacious daughter of a powerful south Indian Brahmin ICS officer, Raman, and a visiting US army officer from the Third Burma Rangers, Sam Hawthorne. Sam comes on a clandestine four-day visit to Rudrakot in search of his younger brother, 2nd Lt Michael Riddley, who has suddenly gone missing from his unit, Rudrakot Rifles. Sam succeeds in freeing his brother from the field punishment centre by bribing British and Indian guards with the help of an Indian revolutionary, Vimal.

During his stay at Rudrakot, he and Mila fall passionately in love and consummate their love twice, once at Chetaksí tomb in the heart of the Sukh desert and then in Samís room in Ramanís villa. A daughter, Olivia, is born eight months later. Mila enters into wedlock with Jai, Rudrakotís young ruler, six days after Samís departure from Rudrakot, partly for the sake of her fatherís prestige and his wish to see his daughter in the royal house and partly for the love between Jai and Mila before Samís appearance.

But despite this perfect mental and socio-cultural compatibility between the two, Mila and Sam had succumbed to their passion for each other at first sight. Soon after Oliviaís birth, Mila dies. Three month later, Olivia is sent to her real father at Seattle in the USA under the custody of a war-time Christian missionary, Marianne Westwood.

The main narrator in the novel is Jai, the Rudrakot ruler, who sends a trunk, containing all belongings of Mila, along with a sealed letter to Olivia, at Samís address at Seattle. The trunk is delivered on the 21st birthday of Olivia. Before it is opened after the birthday party, Sam dies in a road accident. Olivia is left alone to open the trunk and read Jaiís letter. The letter, which lays bare the contents of the novel in a flashback technique, forms the introductory and concluding chapters, both titled "Somewhere near Seattle, April 1963", of this 33-chapter-long chronologically written narrative.

The Mila-Sam love affair narrative is interspersed with the account of the complex political, social and cultural milieu that existed in this desert Indian state and the rest of India during the Raj days. The British racial prejudice and abhorrence against the Indians was at its extreme. For instance, Jai, the commanding officer of the Rudrakot Lancers, a regiment of mixed British and Indian troops, was the only Indian officer who could enter the British Riflesí mess. While Indian commissioned officers were given Viceroyís commission, British commissioned officers were conferred with the Kingís commission. The unspoken fiction was that all ranks were equal.

During a summer vacation at Mussourie, even Jai and Raman cannot enter a hotel where Indians and dogs are not allowed. At the Victoria club in Rudrakot, Indians and British remain segregated even during social functions. On the political front, discontent against the British rule has run out of patience. Vimal plants a bomb in the car of Colonel Pankhurst, the district collector.

The novelís title is a rare summation of its authorís insight into the innermost recesses of the human mind. The author delineates many shades of silence, which makes silence a loaded and splendid metaphor. The novel, with its well-knit plot, rich literary expression of human passion and the history capsule of Indiaís socio-cultural situation during the British Raj, is a significant addition to Indian writings in English. It holds great promise for its author to be counted among the first category of serious fiction writers in English.