Book Review: Belonging by Umi Sinha

BELONGING-cover-697x1024The opening page of Umi Sinha’s ‘Belonging’ shows a family tree, its lines extending and branching out in such a familiar way that you don’t notice it at first – the branch which stops so abruptly, one family member merely listed as ‘baby’.

Something has clearly happened, something so terrible and sudden there was not even time to name a child. This is a family which has tragedy at the heart of its story; a story that can only be fully understood if it is told across three generations.

And so Lila and Henry and Cecily guide us back through the lives of a family caught up in the tumultuous events of war and empire, their traumatic family story shaped and formed by the history of India and Britain.

As the title suggests, it is also a story about belonging and the many factors which shape who we are.

It’s not something we tend to analyse or contemplate so often, belonging, perhaps because it is something we instinctively understand, something we take for granted.

Everyone belongs.

But stop to think about it, and the layers and complications soon become apparent.

I belong. What does that entail exactly?

A nation, a city, a street, a home? A family, a religion, a language, a job? An era?

No doubt it is all these things. But how do you define yourself when you cannot categorically say: ‘This is where I belong, this is who I am ’?

For Lila Langdon, the central character in ‘Belonging’, her attempts to answer this question and her search to discover who she is and where she comes from, is coloured by a fascinating comment she makes early on in the book:

“Hindus believe that when you cross the ocean … you lose your caste, and your caste defines your place in the world, where you belong, and, ultimately, who you are. My own experience … tells me that this is true.”

I was taken aback by this statement, because, in my mind I had already began to form a picture of this English girl, born into the Raj in India. A confident child, of privilege and power, and all that entails.

But when I read this statement, I realised that this was a girl whose Englishness is defined by far more than the easy stereotypes my imagination throws up. The story of ‘Belonging’ is clearly going to be revelatory for a reader such as myself, who is not well versed in the history of the British Raj.

“…My own experience … tells me that this is true.”

That’s the voice of an English girl at the start of the twentieth century. An English girl born at the height of the British Empire. A girl, you would imagine, who must surely be confident of who she is, because that era, that empire, resonated such power and certainty. And yet here she is, explaining something to us about that empire, about the surprising way it affected people’s lives and made them question who they were and where they belonged, her statement hinting at an intermingling of ideas and cultures which makes defining who we are through the rigid strictures of nationality alone, almost impossible.

And yet a place, a nation, a home has to define us in some way. So how?

The question of belonging is of personal interest to me. As a child my family moved constantly and being rooted to one particular place – even now – is not something I am familiar with. That deep sense of belonging which seems to stem from knowing a place from childhood, will always remain elusive, for me.

But I do remember my parents’ dislocation when we lived in Zimbabwe. Of all the memories my parents hold over from that time, one thing still stands out for them as peculiar and unforgettable. There was no dusk. The sun set quickly and day and night were not separated by a long, discernible twilight interval.

For some reason this, and the lack of four seasons, seemed to disconcert my parents. They never really got used to it and can still marvel at it to this day.

Home, it seems, is something we carry inside us, it exists there, no matter how far we may travel, no matter how certain we are we will never return.

It’s simply a piece of us, and sometimes it’s the small, seemingly banal differences that make us understand we will never belong to a new place, another place, in quite the same way. We’ll find ourselves missing things we failed to notice while we were at home – sunsets and seasons. It’s the small things that can tie us to a place and the small things which can take us back home.

In Belonging Lila and her grandmother Cecily experience similar dislocations on a similarly small scale.

For Lila it is England which is the strange and uncomfortable place:

“In India, my window had always stood open at night, and the voices of the servants, their laughter and quarrels, and the smell of their cooking, drifted in on the warm night air… Here, my room was on the first floor (and)… at night no sounds came up from below and the silence was so profound that I imagined that everyone had died and that I would awake in the morning ad find myself alone.”

For Cecily, it is India which proves elusive. When she tries to sit and paint the Indian landscape she discovers she can’t. The scene she has transferred to canvas is the landscape of home.

“This morning I decided to take my sketchpad and watercolours with me when I went for my ride, thinking I would paint the view … Yet, when I sat down and looked over the lush green landscape (for the rains have started and the parched dusty plains and hills have turned to jungle almost overnight), what came to my mind’s eye was the countryside at Home as it would be now, on one of those soft June mornings when everything seems to waver on the edge of solidity.”

 It’s such small, personal moments which give this book it’s power. The main protagonists live out their lives against the backdrop of social upheaval and political change – the Indian Uprising of 1857 and the First World War- tumultuous events which can be difficult to imagine because they seem so overwhelming and so distant. It is really only through such intimate analysis we can really begin to grasp what it must have been like to have lived through those days.

What ‘Belonging’ also succeeds in showing us is that our personal histories are deeply intertwined not only with the era in which we live and the events we experience, but also those experiences our families have endured and survived in the past. We are shaped as much by their history as our own. History, it seems is a collective as well as an individual experience.

For those of us born into an era of globalisation and a uniform consumerist culture, it can be difficult to understand the national pride and civic duty which informed the identities of people living at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Certainly the British sense of cultural superiority that was formed by empire can seem very alien and uncomfortable when viewed from the vantage point of the twenty first century.

And I suppose it’s easy to laugh at those British subjects who found themselves transplanted so far from home and insisted on upholding the mores and values of their homeland while in India.

But what else could they do? Britishness was what they knew and understood. It was something they brought along with them wherever they went because it was a logical extension of their being. It was the culture they belonged to, it was who they were. Those national values were also personal values.

So what is fascinating in Sinha’s fictionalised account of the British Empire in India is the way that steadfast Britishness is challenged through exposure to a different way of life.

Cecily is perhaps the most fascinating character in this regard.

Of all the characters in ‘Belonging’ it is perhaps Cecily who experiences one of the most interesting (and largely unspoken) cultural realities of Anglo Indian life.

In ‘Belonging’ her husband Arthur, has an Indian mistress, a Bibi, something which was common practice when the British first settled in India though it may surprise the reader today to read about it as it seems to have been airbrushed from our history.

William Dalrymple writing in The Guardian has some interesting facts to report on this forgotten phenomenon:

 

“…during the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs, and even the religions, of India, as the reverse. These White Mughals had responded to their travels in India by slowly shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, and adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philosophy, taking harems and adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they slowly came to replace….

Dalrymple has also suggested that this intermingled past may be a good moment in history for us to study and understand, rather than forget, as we struggle with the cultural antagonisms between ‘the West’ and Islam we witness today.

“… at a time when east and west, Islam and Christianity, are believed by some to be engaged in another major confrontation, these White Mughals provide a timely reminder that it is very possible – and has always been possible – to reconcile and build bridges across racial, religious and civilisational worlds. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again.”

In ‘Belonging’ we see even see this struggle played out in microcosm.

We see it as Henry tries to delve deeper into the secrets of his own past, to ‘remember Cawnpore’ and the relevance of this event to his own life, to uncover the truth of his own father’s ‘Bibi’. We see it in his struggles and that of his daughter Lila, when they are transported from India and a way of life they have grown accustomed to, back to England – a place that is in theory ‘home’ but which seems alien and forbidding.

We see, in them, the impact secrets can have when families try to suppress their personal histories – the damage this does, albeit unwittingly, albeit when those secrets are maintained through a sense of doing what is best. And perhaps it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to imagine that a nation which does something similar, which seeks to airbrush its own history can also be damaged by such an endeavour, because none of us can understand who we are if we do not understand our own past.

In an era in which globalisation, immigration and ever closer economic cooperation seem to question not only each nation’s place in the world, but also each individual’s identity within it, the experiences of those nineteenth century imperial citizens seem strangely pertinent to our current struggles to understand what it means today to belong to any nation.

 

One of the most fascinating questions which arose for me as I read ‘Belonging’, concerned the Indian experience of British rule.

What force or charm was it exactly that allowed this small island nation to rule over such a vast and culturally rich country such as India?

It seems improbable today to imagine such a thing ever having happened and even to young Henry in the novel, the source of that power seems mystifying.

When he asks his Indian teacher Mr Mukherjee how it is possible so few British can rule over so many Indians the answer is telling:

“ … he said it was like when the Romans ruled Britain. In those days Britain was made up of small, separate tribal kingdoms and the people were disunited, but the Romans were disciplined and had good government and administration and built roads, just like we built railways. He said that one day, Indians would want their country back and then we would have to go home.”

It sounds so benign – an administrative order which pulled a country together and made it governable, those delicate ladies such as Cecily, introducing their genteel parlours, scented gardens and polite mannerisms as some delightful cultural good.

The truth, of course, is far more bloody. The Romans had their legions and the British had their army. Empires do not thrive on tolerance and goodwill.

‘Remember Cawnpore’, the muttered warning which hints at the forces which kept India in check but which eventually tore the empire asunder and allowed Indians to take their country back.

And yet, the British army contained Indian soldiers. Men who signed up to protect and defend values they appear to have shared with their British rulers. Both Arthur and Henry in the novel, command troops made up of Indian soldiers, soldiers whose loyalty, in the end, is not recognised or returned. Even Lila, years after her grandfather and father, witnesses the apparent disregard the British army had for its Indian recruits during the First World War. Across the three generations within the novel we witness this conflict of loyalties time and again.

Interestingly, when Sinha was researching the sections of the novel which take place during the First World War she discovered there were:

“… surprisingly few books …about the First World War in which the contribution of the two million Indian soldiers is explored or even mentioned. In a surprising number of books about the war, the word ‘Indian’ does not even appear in the index.”

It’s in Lila that Sinha attempts to analyse this British attitude to its Indian troops and subjects. Of all the characters in the book, she is the one who seems to understand India the most instinctively, the one who loves India far more than she can ever hope to love England, the one who finally sees all the betrayals and secrets for what they are and makes the decision, once and for all, to belong to just one true home.

In the end, what ‘Belonging’ seeks to show us, is that we are all shaped and formed by many forces – the era we live in, the people we love, the place we call home. But we are also formed by the past, the experiences of our forefathers impacting our lives in ways that we may never realise.

And if we want to understand ourselves now, as individuals or even as nations, we need to know our past, we need to know the forces which shaped us and still guide the way we think about the world and how we decide the things which are important to us.

For anyone looking to understand a little more about British rule in India, ‘Belonging’ is a fascinating book, a book which provides us with intimate insights into an era we would do well to know better.

Belonging is published by Myriad Editions on September 17th. Find out more at www.myriadeditions.com

You can find out more about Umi Sinha via her website at http://www.umisinha.com/ and at The Writing Clinic or follow her on Twitter @belongingnovel

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