What to read when you can’t decide whether you want a romance between two star crossed fated lovers but aren’t up to Shakespeare, military strategy, political intrigue/maneuvering and Honor On the Battlefield without resorting to Herodotus or Kipling’s Kim, or a travelogue about exotic climes1? Try M.M Kaye’s The Far Pavilions for a thousand pages of epic just about everything mentioned above.
The book begins with Our Protagonist, Ashton Pelham-Martin orphaned at a young age in the mountainous backwoods of India as a result of a cholera epidemic just as the great Mutiny of 1857 breaks out. His beloved and adoring nanny, an Indian servant of his father, whisks him away to safety in the tumult of a small hill country, Gulkote, where they masquerade as mother and son in order to conceal Ash’s true race from the mutineers.They become employed by the Rajah’s household only to have Ash prevent one too many attempts on the heir’s life, and are forced to flee the princedom before Ash turns twelve. On her death bed, Sita reveals Ash’s true parentage and sends him off to his uncle’s military base, and Ash is promptly packed off to England to be properly acculturated. It doesn’t take very well, but he does come back to India as a subaltern in the exalted Guides…but behaves too impulsively for his superior officers’ taste which lands him in the (in their eyes) unenviable position of escorting a pair of princesses across India from their home state to that of their future betrothed, a Rana away down south in Rajasthan.
Pause: remember I said there was a pair of star crossed lovers whose relationship was Fated To Be From The Very Beginning? yep, here they are: Ash and the older of the two princesses, who is (drumroll please) the little girl who tagged along after her bracelet brother back years ago in the hill princedom where Ash grew up. No, they don’t run off together quite yet. The weight of their combined cultures keeps them apart for now and Juli marries the Dissolute Rajah, despite being the unwanted part-ferenghi older sister, too tall and casteless for the Indians, too dark for the Europeans, but just right for Ash.
Rajah dies. Ash rescues Juli.
Ash gets taken back by the Guides, despite having an Indian mistress/wife, just in time to get sent to Afghanistan, over which England and Russia were wrangling just then, as he can pass for a native. In the end, Juli insists on coming with him on his second expedition into Afghanistan; having lost her parents, her sister and brother, Lawfully Wedded Husband #1 (not that she was too terribly heartbroken about THAT!) and pretty much any chance of returning to her own world as the princess she was raised, she wishes only to stay with her own true love, even if that means getting caught up in and killed as “collateral damage” in any military action in which he becomes involved. There is nothing left for her other than him, and after the disastrous military action which concludes the book, correspondingly nothing left for Ash but Juli. In the end, having both lost everything they regarded as their own culture, they ride off into the hills in search of their own kingdom, absent the cultural biases preventing two lovers from joining. Maybe they did find it. We’ll never know, as that’s where the book ends…but the more romantically mooshbrained among us can always hope, can’t we?
Well, I did say it was a sweeping epic…oh, gosh, just a lot of things crammed into one book, now didn’t I? IIRC, Kaye read an account of an English officer in India escorting a cavalcade of Indian courtiers across India to the marriage of the princess(es) at the heart of this group, only to fall in love with that self same princess and elope with her. She elaborated on the theme and came up with The Far Pavilions.
M.M. Kaye is an Englishwoman who2 grew up in India in the first half of the twentieth century and who loved the country dearly; that said, as with Andrew McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe “#1 Ladies Detective Agency” series, I can see that there would be any number of people mumbling about cultural appropriation by someone not belonging to the culture in question…to which I’d respond “No, but she’s a member of ONE Of the cultures in question.” Some people take mind candy and literary fluffitude far too seriously. This is the kind of book that you have to let yourself get swept up into and not think too terribly hard about it. It’s a romance, in several senses of the word. Don’t analyze it too hard or the whole thing collapses.
What to read next? This is another one of those books for which there is no followup book to read after finishing the first. If you’re interested in the Great Game, there’s always Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. If you’re interested in other sweeping epics about India, there’s M.M. Kaye’s own Shadows of the Moon which has all the convoluted romance and misguided relationships of The Far Pavilions without the cultural complications of an interracial, cross-religions marriage.
1assuming you’re a Northern European/American who hasn’t traveled much.
2so far as I know, anyway