Thursday, 8 March 2012
Book Review: The World Beyond by Sangeeta Bhargava
I am a die-hard fan of historical novels, especially when the history involves war. In fact, I like novels with a realistic war setting so much that I don’t mind even if some romance is introduced into the story, though I would normally be happier without such complications. Gone with the Wind is one of my all-time favourites, and I really enjoyed M. M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon which is a historical romance set during the time of the 1857 revolt. Given this, I did not hesitate to order a copy of Sangeeta Bhargava’s The World Beyond, a historical romance which is also set in the time of the 1857 War of Independence, as soon as I heard of it.
The story of an English girl’s love for Salim, the son of the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, The World Beyond has a simple story line, functional prose, authentic settings and suspense. Until I reached the last chapter of the novel which runs to over 350 pages, I did not know if the ending would be a la Romeo and Juliet or the Merchant of Venice.
Bhargava’s strength lies in the fact that she is at home in Lucknow, with its nawabs and zenanas and architecture and Mughalai cuisine and culture and its British residents. Events such as the those leading to the 1857 uprising and policies such as Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse are seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. Bhargava does not hesitate to utilise her fiction writer’s licence to the fullest extreme. There are tiger hunts (with Salim hunting and killing a man-eater) and an elephant fight held to honour Salim, which Salim calls to an abrupt halt because Rachael doesn’t like the idea of killing animals.
There are a few cons to this novel. At times I found myself wishing that Bhargava would use more flowery prose for a novel of this nature, which is as much if not more romantic, as it is historical. Also, I thought that The World Beyond was a wee bit too one-sided in its description of atrocities during the fighting that took place. Almost all the despicable acts are committed by the British, though Bhargava does admire them for withstanding the siege of the Residency. Except for Rachel, all the Brits in the story are cruel and nasty and racist.
The various characters in the story, ranging from Rachel’s father to Salim’s wet nurse don’t have any trouble communicating with each other. I guess, this is essentially because Salim has learned his English in Calcutta and Rachel has lived in India all her life. I did once in a while, such as when Salim’s wet nurse goes to meet Rachel’s father with a formal marriage proposal, expect an interpreter to pop up and translate or have someone or the other throw up his hands in exasperation at his inability to get what the other is saying. However, nothing of this sort happens. Everyone understands everyone else and towards the end I reconciled myself to such a blissful state of affairs.
As I have mentioned above, the best thing about The World Beyond is that Bhargava keeps one guessing till the end whether Salim will survive the fighting and marry Rachel. The reader’s agony intensifies when Salim is taken prisoner and is punished very harshly. I will not divulge more and play spoilsport. Please do read this book to find out how it all ends.