In the mid 1850s India had just about had enough of its colonial masters. Temperatures outside are matched by those within as injustices and violence are meted out on a daily basis against the men and women of India. Rank is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prince, queen or one of the many servants, any Indian is a native wretch to the ruling English. A prince who is worshipped by his subjects and has untold wealth in his palaces must bow down to his bureaucratic masters from across the world.
The World Beyond is the debut novel by Sangeeta Bhargava who grew up in this remote region of India, Lucknow, where her novel is set. It effectively tells two stories, from two worlds. When these worlds clash, the consequences are enormous and, as this book shows, bloody.
Prince Salim of Avadh encounters a girl with blue eyes disguised by robes in the market. He shortly afterwards sees her playing piano outside the house of one of Lucknow’s imperial rulers and her beauty captivates him. While determined that he will have nothing to do with the ferengi that threaten the authority and possessions of his father the king, he finds himself unable to resist the English girl who, as it turns out, has so little in common with England.
Rachael has grown up in India and knows nothing different. With aloof parents, she is closest to her Indian wetnurse and servants. Through music, she falls in love with Salim, with his beautiful eyes, and is prepared to damn the consequences.
The Other World appeared to me as a series of paintings. The beauty and vitality of the Indian scenes, with the extended royal family, feasting after religious fasts, hunting a maneating tigress, gold jewels, the market with its colourful silks and its fragrant spices. Meanwhile, we have the other portrait of Rachael, surrounded by her staid family, in her elaborate skirts, wanting to don trousers and ride a horse fast like a man.
As Salim and Rachael fall in love, the world around them falls apart into violence and those dearest to them on both sides are in the greatest peril. The Indian Mutiny takes on a personal, bitter edge as Rachael’s father swears vengeance on the Indian wretch who has stolen her from him and the future he had in store for her.
I read The World Beyond in a single day. I was captivated by the story of these two lovers and wanted to know their fate.But it wasn’t just about them, this book is rich in its treatment of the couple’s friends and their extended family, in the details of their lives.
This is a time of complete change – Indian society with its rituals, such as seti (burning alive the widow along with the corpse of her husband), and its own injustices is ripe for change, just as the British elite must make amends for its treatment of India. My only wish for this novel is that it had allowed me to look beneath the painting. The descriptions of Lucknow are beautiful and evocative, and Salim and Rachael are also well drawn, but I never quite felt the passion and the fear. I always felt like an interested observer, wanting to get closer to the action but kept at a safe distance. I wasn’t moved as much as fascinated by this portrayal of an unfamiliar and exotic world.