I was mesmerized. I didn’t want this book to end. I wanted to write my own letters and hide them in a box so I could place them somewhere special. I felt a quiet sense of pride when I was done, although it had nothing whatsoever to do with me. I have grown up with various bits of media extolling the virtues of Mahatma Gandhi’s famously passive ‘Quit India’ campaign. Yet, for all of that, I never really read a piece of fiction that made me think so much of the past. I have long admired Gandhi and Nelson Mandela along with the Dalai Lama whom I believe to be extraordinary beings, impossibly placed, in dire situations and incredibly filled with light. Their perseverance alone has inspired me.
With the aptly titled Sandalwood Tree, I slipped very quietly into a time before me. The air stilled, as the ghosts of colonial past flitted around my quiet space. I immersed myself in this story with gratitude for the subtle reminder, lest it be forgotten, that this particular past, was hard-won.
The author writes with marvelous respect and honor, remarking on the courage and will of the Indian people. She notes how colonial manipulation struck them down, but is quick at the same time, to mention that all is not what it seems. Only one who has traveled so far and reached into the depths and heart of a nation, would know the harsh consequences and intricacies of an unthinkable interracial relationship between a Victorian woman and an Indian man. Only methodical research could juxtapose heartbreaking poverty and slavery -due to conditions beyond control – with exotic smells( um, and some not so exotic) and flavorful spices. It is a tale of breathtaking colors, weaving patterns between two cultures, It is about a symbolic tree known for its calming fragrance, healing properties and cooling balm that is essential and central to the main story line. I loved the unforced references throughout the book to the all important partition, which had violent repercussions for both Hindus and Muslims. It is simply explained without drama, but gently implied, that today, it is still a volatile climate in the Sub Continent. Only a lover of history would include special details pointing to the irreversible scars that stemmed from the intrusion of British Colonialism. My heart hurt for some of the characters I didn’t know by name; the simple servant who could not touch the hand of an English Lady when helping her down from her Palanquin – a covered chair used by Colonial ladies to travel to the city or the cooler climates in the Sub -Continent – because of the color of his skin, which was considered too dirty. The Ayahs who took care of the wealthy and expatriate children and the cooks in the kitchen who thought they were exerting a bit of their own revenge by secretly pouring human ash into soups to spite their superior European owners. When I finally met Evie, Martin and little Billy, on their journey, I was relieved. I shook their hands and thanked Evie for finding a way to surprise me, for keeping me interested and for allowing me that much-needed glimpse into their lives. They brought such strength and wonder to a story that already promised a beautiful and poignant end.
The story takes place in India, in the 1940s and in the 1800s. The climate is not so great for Colonial residents as Gandhi’s campaign for peace picks up some pace. At the same time in the 1800s two children, one distinctly British, properly raised by nannies, is schooled in etiquette, while the other, also British, is brought up by ayah’s in India, with a better view of the world and the glory it offers. She is sent back to England to live with a family who thinks she is utterly vulgar and primitive. Together, united by an unerring instinct for adventure, they grow up inseparable. Heartrendingly separated, as Adela is confronted by feelings she never imagined would overcome her, Felicity returns to India, her place, her land. She lives as a native would, shunning her family who highly disapprove of her respect towards the locals. When Adela joins her, she is surprised by Felicity’s attitude and her native attire. Clearly, she has much to learn about this colorful culture and its breath-taking scenery in the lush, green and cool climate of Simla.
As Evie settles in, and deals with her demons, her losses, her expectations or lack thereof, She discovers with absolute wonder, letters hidden in her house. The story from there on is a swirl of words; woven to entice, to scream with frustration and ignite a volume of tears. I can say no more, because to say, would be to take away from the story. I am tempted; it is a wonderfully written, simple, yet effective story. I carried Felicity and Adela and Evie’s sweet family with me, going back to read some of the excerpts over and over. I will hold on to the story for many years.