A cultural intimacy

I’ve fallen back into reading Historical fiction again. Went to a bookstore near work and bought Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Linda Holeman’s In a Far Country. I’ve read Memoirs before – it’s a really good one! Very well researched and well written, I learned a lot about the Egyptian history and culture and fed my obsession about Cleopatra.

Anyway, this post will be about Linda Holeman’s In a Far Country which I thoroughly enjoyed! I first came across Linda Holeman’s work in Promise Song, a story about “home girls”. I read it when I was still in elementary school and I loved it so much that when I found it again, a few years later, I just had to have my own copy!Promise Song was one of the books that colored my childhood readings. I used to have a huge HUGE obsession with historical fiction, especially about the pioneering times. Probably because the books I read with such subject matter were so well written! Linda Holeman, so far, has not disappointed me! Her writing style perfectly mixes fact and fiction so intricately together that you feel like you’re being taken care of when you read her books. You’re allowed to enjoy yourself and not be so critical of whether or not the historical components of the story are true because you’re swept up in the story itself anyway. Her website has a list of other books she has written.

I was very delighted when, last year, I came across Linda Holeman again in The Linnet Bird and The Moonlit Cage. I actually bought those books for my mother to read, but I ended up reading them first because she was so busy (I actually still think she hasn’t read them because I hogged them for so long…). When I was done those two books, I loved them so much, and I was waiting for this third book to come out. I sort of forgot about it, then, this weekend, I went to the bookstore and I saw it and snapped it up! And now, I’ve been reading every spare chance I’ve got (I’ve been lying to my roommates and telling them I’m doing coursework when they ask me to come out :)).

You know when you start a book and you can’t stop? The story hangs around in your mind all day as you’re doing something else? Well, if I like a story, I always say that I can’t stop reading a book, but I do exaggerate occasionally. In this case, the story really did linger in my mind. I was constantly looking at the clock and mentally calculating how much time I could devote to reading the book. I’ve been staying up until 2 AM just trying to finish it! And every day, I think, “Well, I can always take a nap the next day to make up for my exhaustion”, but I always ended up thinking about the story and reading it during my “naptime”.

In a Far Country is the third, and apparently, last book of Linda Holeman’s tentative trilogy based in India and Afghanistan. Like the other two books before it, this book is set during India’s colonial age.  You really get an intimate glimpse into the lives of the English living in India, and their struggle to preserve their own culture and some of their arrogant, imperialist thinking.

More brillantly, every page is rife with vivid descriptions of the colorful culture of India, especially the interesting interactions between the different peoples. It felt like everyone was in India at that time: the English, the Americans, the Pushtuns, the Rajasthani, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras, the Tajiks and so many more. And each is described in detail: their culture, their appearance, their clothing, their food… you really get a sense of the individuality of the cultures yet also how they dynamically interact and regard one another, and ultimately make up the distinct culture of India at the time.

In Contemplation by Raja Ravi Varma
"In Contemplation" by Raja Ravi Varma

In the midst of this is Pree Fincastle, who is really a great representation of this cultural diversity. She speaks Hindi, Urdu, English and Pasto.  She is so much a part of the English culture, yet she is also deeply immersed in the Indian one. She is raised by Christians, but does not embrace God wholeheartedly as her parents wish her to. This story is about her search for her own identity: is she English like her missionary parents, or is she Indian, as she feels at heart? Ultimately, does it really matter? In this sense this story resonates with me, because I often feel like I’m split into several cultures myself. When I was younger I used to be very confused and frustrated with this, but now, as I grow older, I understand and cherish this diversity in me. Being not truly part of one culture, or part of another culture in my heritage is sometimes very lonely because you don’t feel like you belong with any group in particular. Actually, though, you are like a bridge between cultures, having an intimate glimpse of different worlds and that’s something special.

I had to read this with the Google window open, because there was so much I wanted to learn about. Especially the different Indian foods. I love Indian food, but there were things described that I’ve never tasted before. And, I had to look up a map of India to find out where some of the places described were. Linda Holeman must have done so much research to write so seamlessly about this historical time period. Not only does she have to know about the Victorian Age and notions of that time (science, politics etc.) but also about India itself. The writing was very true and natural, as if someone who had experienced such a story had really sat down and decided to write about it. As I was reading, I became Pree and could imagine the emotions and thoughts she was going through, her search for somewhere to belong, her identity, the injustices, her love for Kai, and just the simple every day sensations of India: the sweltering heat, the smells of the spices, the starched white panjammahs. It all adds to a very well-stitched tapestry of a story. The book can sometimes be very dark yet it also has its very liberating moments.

The novel may look very thick and dauting to some of you, who don’t normally read historical fiction, but it truly reads lightning fast. Even now, with the cold, damp rain splattering my window, changing the world to a grey landscape, and the fog settling over the horizon, my mind is In a Far Country where the sun is beating down languidly on a hot afternoon…

Rating: 4.5/5 Children with a hidden past

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2 comments

  1. Good to know that there are people interested in the rich culture of my country, and working hard to bring it on the world view. Cheers for your wonderful blog. Even I’m a published poet. You can catch glimpse of some of my works here- http://souravroy.com/poems/

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