Book Review


Belonging: Umi Sinha

--Sushmita Sridhar

Publsiher: Speaking Tiger

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 320pp

Price: Rs 399

This is a novel about memory and forgetting. It is both a piecing together and a letting go of the past.

Set in the tumultuous period that led up to the Revolt of 1857 and its aftermath, it tells the story of the horror and violence of that historical moment, exploring its consequences for both the Indians and the British. It is a retelling of the insane violence of the Massacre of Cawnpore and its consequences, the multiple deceptions and betrayals that resulted in the cleaving of the English and the Indian, with historic consequences. To do this, Sinha uses the form of the eighteenth century journal to weave together the memories and recollections of three generations of an Anglo Indian family caught in this conflict. But what the reader is presented is far more complicated than any eighteenth century Anglo-Indian journal, though the author draws fully on the experience of looking through these journals and recreating them for her reader. The form is kept loose and one has the distinct feeling of looking through a diary, where the pages are interspersed with letters and mementos of another time.

The novel is made up of parts of diaries kept by Lila and Henry, two of the three narrative voices that Sinha creates for us. This loose diary is interspersed with letters Lila’s grandmother Cecelia wrote to her sister about her passage to India in search of a husband and her life as memsahib in India. It is also includes Henry’s journey back to India to seek out his father and piece together the story of his birth.

The experience of India from which they cannot extricate themselves with tragic consequences for everyone involved is something Sinha manages to capture with finesse. The unimaginable brutality and horror of the incidents that constituted what came to be known as the Revolt of 1857 are drawn for us in horrifying detail. The diaries themselves capture the personal consequences for the women and children caught up in this moment and consequently the insanity, depression and the stifling of human possibility.

India is the site of the playing out of these lunacies of race and caste and the narrative, like its characters, compulsively returns to this. The characters travel in memory and in reality between England and India, trying to make sense of their lives. However, the overwhelming realization that the novel draws us to is the need to let go, a need to forget – so as to be able to carry on. In that sense this novel self-reflexively questions the veracity of the historical forms it draws on, to give us a life-affirming message of the need to be free of the past in order to continue to exist. It makes a compelling case of looking back in order to forget, with a quiet sophistication.

..........................................................................................................................

Sushmita Sridhar is a writer and book reviewer based in Bangalore.