I cannot wait to travel to India at some point in the next few years, and was thus very much looking forward to deciding on my Indian book choice for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. There were so many intriguing and tantalising-looking works of fiction which I could have chosen, but I decided to go with something a little more unusual, and picked up Two Under the Indian Sun by sisters Jon and Rumer Godden.
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.
The girls had both lived in India as very small children, along with their two younger sisters, Nancy and Rose, but, as was the custom at the time, were sent to live with their grandmother and maiden aunts in London. In the meantime, their family, whose father works in India, had moved from their old home in Assam to the town of Narayangunj. When they arrived back in India, they realised that they had been homesick all along.
The girls’ observations of the world around them are sometimes contrasted with their experiences of India as adults, and everything is consistently captured using the most beautiful prose: ‘Early mornings seem more precious in India than anywhere else; it is not only the freshness before the heat, the colours muted by the light, the sparkle of dew; it is the time for cleansing and for prayer.’ Highly vivid and sensual descriptions are given throughout of the girls’ surroundings: ‘Perhaps the thing we had missed more than anything else was the dust: the feel of the sunbaked Indian dust between sandals and bare toes; that and the smell. It was the honey smell of the fuzz-buzz flowers of thorn trees in the sun, and the smell of open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair, of mustard cooking oil and the blue smoke from cowdung used as fuel; it was a smell redolent of the sun, more alive and vivid than anything in the West, to us the smell of India.’
The preface of Two Under the Indian Sun begins: ‘This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone, a few years that will always be timeless for us; an evocation that we hope is as truthful as memory can ever be.’ Interestingly, although published several decades earlier, Jon and Rumer address many similar questions to those which Penelope Lively explores in her memoir of life in 1930s and 1940s Egypt, Oleander, Jacaranda. All three authors write about the reliability of memory, particularly those made in childhood.
Spreads of rather charming photographs have been included in Two Under the Indian Sun, and these complement the memoir wonderfully. The girls’ relationship with one another is beautifully evoked; whilst they fight from time to time, they write that they ‘were so close that between them was a passing of thought, of feeling, of knowing without any need for words.’ The girls feel an overarching affinity for life in India, something else which is shared between them: ‘Our house was English streaked with Indian, or Indian streaked with English. It might have been an uneasy hybrid but we were completely and happily at home.’
The voice which Jon and Rumer have created together feel fluid, and I loved the shifts between describing themselves as ‘Jon and Rumer’ and then ‘we’. Whilst it can occasionally be described as dark, Two Under the Indian Sun is largely a charming memoir, filled with all kinds of quaint details, and told with a light and often funny collaborative voice. Their portrayal, despite those nods to the darkness which they know exists in their adoptive country, is largely an idyllic one. They enjoy having personal freedom in India, which is markedly different to the rather strict and proper conditions which they lived under in London: ‘We were free of everyone and everything and, as hares take on the colour of their surroundings, we disappeared, each going our separate ways except during the period of Nana, when we were taken for a walk every morning.’ Two Under the Indian Sun is a lovely and joyful book to read, offering a multilayered portrait of India at the beginning of the twentieth century.