Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Far Pavilions

There are some books I just get a craving to read, and The Far Pavilions is one of them. I’m not sure if it’s specifically the characters I love, or the way India is described, or just the intricate plot, but there’s something about the way M.M. Kaye mixes all those elements together to create a story that is at once a romance and an adventure that just pulls me back in.

The story is set in India and begins just before the 1857 Sepoy uprising (during which time almost all the English colonizers in India were killed) and follows the life of Ashton Akbar Hillary Pelham-Martin, which is shortened nicely to Ash.

Ash is born to English parents, but after their deaths and the surging anti-English feeling in India after the uprising, he is raised as an Indian by his former-nurse Sita, who he believes to be his mother. After years of insecurity and fear, Ash and Sita eventually stumble upon the hill kingdom of Gulkote, and by luck Ash saves the prince’s life and he and Sita end up in service to the royal family.

Of course, with royalty comes intrigue and Kaye’s description of palace life is certainly enthralling. Equally important, though, is the way she weaves details about Hinduism and Indian customs through the story without making any explicit points about either. She allows you fall into Ash’s story, which is one of the reasons her very long novel is actually rereadable. Anyhow, Ash makes some friends in the palace, including the prince’s little sister Juli and Koda Dad Khan, the master of the horse, and his son Zarin.

But despite having some allies, eventually life in the palace is no longer safe for Ash. After foiling several assassination attempts on the prince’s life, he becomes the target of attempts on his own life. So he and Sita flee and eventually, on the banks of a river, Sita tells Ash who he really is and gives him the money and documents to prove it. Ash is, of course, horrified to discover that his mother isn’t actually his mother, but when Sita dies he has no choice but to head to the re-established English military encampment and seek his family.

In a short form, that is the first major part of the book (which is really three stories in one, I think). The second part begins with a very brief account of Ash’s return to England and his education there. He then returns to India when he is 18 as an officer in the Guides, gets himself involved in a relationship with a young woman (who, incidentally, has biased me forever against the name Belinda) and eventually is sent to escort a large wedding party from one kingdom to another.

Because this is not just an adventure story but also a love story, and one with a fairly elegant plot at that, Ash inevitably falls in love with one of the princesses he is escorting to the wedding. And, because no good details should ever go to waste, the princess he falls in love with is none other than Juli (now called by her full name, Anjuli), the little girl he was friends with when he worked in the palace at Gulkote all those years ago.

A great deal of drama then ensues (and by drama I don’t mean soapy drama, I mean edge-of-your seat, oh-my-goodness drama, which is the best sort) and eventually they arrive in Bhithor, where Anjuli and her younger sister Sushila are to be married. But the man they are to marry is old and unhealthy, and because his kingdom is so far north of the more colonized south, the illegal practice of sutee (wherein a bride burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre) is still practiced.

But Anjuli won’t abandon her sister and, much to Ash’s chagrin, goes through with the wedding. Ash is of course beside himself, a condition that doesn’t improve after the husband dies and Shushila decides to become a sutee. Naturally, Ash can’t allow this to happen to the woman he loves, so he saves Anjuli and they flee.

Even though the second part starts off kind of slowly, it certainly picks up the pace toward the end and then catapults you into the third part of the book, in which Ash works as a sort of undercover agent for the Guides and Anjuli still has to hide for fear of being discovered.

There is adventure throughout this novel, but in the third part it really takes precedence. Ash makes numerous undercover trips into Afghanistan to spy for the British, another rebellion is around the corner, and he and Juli are in constant danger of being discovered. Really, once you make it this far, there’s no going back.

The story itself is mostly fictional, although there are some parts that are based on biographical information Kaye got from her grandfather (including a story about rifles, which I haven’t described here). Kaye also spent her childhood in India, something that comes through very clearly in her descriptions of the sounds and smells of the marketplaces and the mountains. It’s clear that Kaye has a genuine interest, not only in telling a good and compelling story, but of portraying India as accurately as she knows how, an agenda that only adds to the story.

The Far Pavilions
By M.M. Kaye
First published in 1978 (cover image shown from St. Martin’s Griffin edition)

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