An epic tale of doomed love and family secrets, set against the stunning exotic backdrop of 1940s Kashmir.
Within one exotic land lie the secrets of a lifetime…
Newlywed Nerys Watkins leaves rural Wales for the first time to accompany her husband on a missionary posting to India. Deep in the exquisite heart of Kashmir lies the lakeside city of Srinagar, where the British live on carved wooden houseboats and dance, flirt and gossip as if there is no war.
But the battles draw closer, and life in Srinagar becomes less frivolous when the men are sent away to fight. Nerys is caught up in a dangerous friendship, and by the time she is reunited with her husband, the innocent Welsh bride has become a different woman.
Years later, when Mair Ellis clears out her father’s house, she finds an exquisite antique shawl, a lock of child’s hair wrapped within its folds. Tracing her grandparents’ roots back to Kashmir, Mair embarks on a quest that will change her life forever.
Review: I read my first Rosie Thomas novel THE WHITE DOVE more than two decades ago. I found it to be a memorable read, an historical novel set in the early years of the 20th century. Twenty five years later, it’s delightful to see Ms. Thomas is still penning historical works of the same, noteworthy quality. She still has that quality of producing spellbinding dialogue and even more memorable characters not to mention compulsive story lines which literally drag you in.
THE KASHMIR SHAWL is both historical and contemporary. It’s the story of Mair (pron. Mayar, Welsh for Mary) Ellis, a young woman who comes to India to discover something of the unknown history of her grandmother, Nerys Watkins, the wife of a nonconformist missionary pastor. At the same time, it’s Nerys’ story too. Nerys, the eager young pastor’s wife, who took up life in the mission field some seventy years previously. Side by side, Mair and Nerys’ stories unfold. Nerys had married straight out of teacher training college. At a somewhat more mature age, Mair still hasn’t settled down although we see her sharing drinks, a long chat and an obvious attraction with Bruno, the father of a young family, the Beckers, which she meets on her travels. We sense her dismay at the growing attraction and her eagerness to put a lid on it. Mair isn’t the sort of girl who would just go after another woman’s man.
The story of Nerys is visible to the reader, but not to Mair. She has to be content with some cryptic clues her grandmother has bequeathed from the past. A beautiful Kashmir shawl in a now obsolete style of work known as ‘kani’ and a lock of hair.
As readers we see Nerys in the Srinagar club with her friends, fellow British Raj wives Myrtle McMinn and Caroline Bowen. Caroline’s marriage to a rough army officer is a most disappointing union, leading the vulnerable young woman to seek the love that eludes her in an affair with a young Indian man from a princely family, who is most certainly using her. It’s actually use verging on abuse, albeit of a mental kind. British but Indian born Myrtle, with her incessant cigarette smoking, her dry sense of humour and non-judgmental stance in matters of the heart, is one of the more memorable characters in the story. And dear, lovely Nerys, the ever practical pastor’s wife. Her idealistic and shy husband prays for more converts to his church while Nerys feels, without saying it out, that India has more than enough religions to keep it going and that it would be rather more practical to offer it’s teeming masses some practical way to exit from the hopeless cycle of poverty. Yet Nerys’s devotion to duty Is severely tested when she indulges in a short, discreet affair in her husband’s absence, with a Swiss mountaineer, Rainer Stamm. With Rainer, she touches the heights of passion such as she’s never experienced with her shy pastor husband, which has never amounted to more than a frantic fumble and a shy goodnight. Yet unlike her immature friend Caroline, who dreams that her Indian lover will try to claim her for his own, Nerys is adamant that she will never leave her husband. She is careful enough to employ contraception and lets her lover know that this can never be more than temporary. She, like the British of her time, knows her duty. As Myrtle puts it quite succinctly, ‘we’re wives of the Raj’, which to put it another way, means, ‘we know our role.’
Mair’s association with the Becker family ends tragically early in the narrative, after a fatal incident in Leh, in northern India. She meets Bruno Becker again towards the end of the story, and by then a lot of the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. She’s acquired the acquaintance of the nonagenarian Caroline Bowen along with some letters and a powerful photograph. She’s guessing about Nerys’s attraction to Rainer Stamm in the way one feels something inwardly. Returning to India with Becker about a year after leaving, there is a sense of completion and that sense that a new chapter is about to start.
As I live in the Gangetic Plain of north India and have visited Srinagar in the Jammu and Kashmir State, I can vouch for the authenticity of the narrative. Thomas’s descriptive prose brings north India alive. She mentions the warm ‘pheron’ coats of Kashmir. These coats are often acquired by foreigners and while most of them are made from traditional woolen cloth, I noticed that pherons are also available in a British looking tweed fabric and wondered how that could be. But now, from reading this story, I realize that the tweed pheron came into use during the British rule in India. The British had a tendency to Anglicize a lot of things and the pheron is one of them.
As an historical novel, it’s painstakingly well researched. As a contemporary novel it also comes up to the mark, although I would have liked to know more about Mair as a person in her own right and not just as someone investigating her grandmother. Yes, Mair’s interesting life is also recorded, but where she goes from here intrigues me a lot. I guess I’m just hungry for more of her story. Humorous and sometimes tragic but never ever dull, this story from the times the British ruled in India held my attention until the very end.
Favorite Quote: From Tibet there were trays of silver, coral and turquoise jewellery, from China painted Thermos flasks and furry nylon blankets in electric hues.