Clearly targeting a female audience, this epic of love and sedition nevertheless offers far more than the average chick-lit romance with its carefully investigated and balanced view of the struggle for Indian independence in the years before and during World War II.
The story begins in Delhi in 1919 where Isabel Winthorpe is growing up in a typically colonial household of British masters and Indian servants. As a child, however, Isabel sees no difference between the races, happy to play with Rahul, the cook’s son, and eat with his family. All progresses happily until the day when a misunderstanding forces her parents to fire the (innocent) sweeper-wallah for theft. This simple mistake triggers a lifetime’s campaign by his daughter, Asha, to wreak revenge on the Winthorpes in particular and “Britishers” in general.
Jill McGivering brings a fresh perspective by choosing not to show the colonized as mere victims.
After a fast-forward to 1933, the action moves between the entwined stories of the two women. Isabel marries a civil servant, Jonathan Whyte, and moves with him to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. The relationship fails and she falls in love with a missionary, Edward Johnston, passing a few months with him in a native village in the remote Car Nicobar. Meanwhile, Asha has arrived in town to visit her father who, having become a revolutionary, has been sent to Port Blair’s notorious Cellular Jail. In time, she becomes a maid in Isabel’s house where she concocts a plot to frame Isabel for her husband Jonathan’s murder: a strategy which very nearly succeeds.
After a stretch in Cellular Jail herself, Isabel returns to Delhi where she alternately helps and hinders her father in his work to impose order on the restless population. Asha follows, ready to carry out further operations for the cause, egged by Anil, a charismatic but savage insurgent. The factions collide in the figure of the unfortunate Rahul who, torn between his childhood loyalty to Isabel and his allegiance to Asha, his countrymen and their mission, pays the ultimate price for not choosing sides.
Much has been written about this period of history but author Jill McGivering brings a fresh perspective by choosing not to show the colonized as mere victims. Instead they are revealed to be as arbitrarily brutal as the colonizers, particularly when Anil and his gang burn down a settlement of silk-weavers with little justification. McGivering appears keen to reinforce the message that bloodshed is never the solution, allowing even Asha to realise that “violence knew only violence”.
In the main, the novel appears impeccably researched and completely credible—as expected from a respected journalist (McGivering is the BBC’s South Asia editor). But the fact that Isabel leaves her husband temporarily to chase after a missionary does seem somewhat far-fetched even if she is unconventional: in those times it would’ve created the most damaging scandal.
In addition, some characters are less than nuanced. Jonathan Whyte, for example, is a distillation of evil (a child abuser to boot) while Anil is just plain nasty. Another gripe is the decision to allow the Indian characters to speak to each other in Anglo-Indian English at times when they would most likely be using the local language of the period, Hindustani. The phrase “how well are you knowing him?” which Anil asks Asha about Rahul particularly jars as the conversation is conspiratorial and no Anglophones are present.
But the grand scheme of the work presents a well-covered era from the less-explored female perspective. Above all, it’s an absorbing yarn which finishes on an optimistic note: Isabel is left to foster Rupa, Rahul’s daughter, in a sort of resolution of the East versus West divide. She says: