Ever watched a puppet show in which the puppeteer makes the cloth dolls tied with strings perform complicated dance movements and manoeuvres, making one wonder how he can do it without tangling the different strings? As nimble fingers crisscross the strings deftly to create an enchanting dance, the puppets move without any jerks or awkward tripping. This is the feeling that one gets while turning the pages of this story spread across three generations, told in three different timelines and through three different characters simultaneously. Much like the seasoned puppeteer, Umi Sinha makes three stories flow so seamlessly that never once does one feel having lost the grip on any one of her characters or situations.
The timelines vary from 1857 Mutiny, to the late 19th century British India to the early 20th century England caught in the strife and chaos of the First World War. All these represent the turmoil that troubled times put people through on physical as well as personal levels. Nowhere does the story lose its high emotional charge as one moves through the lives of three characters from three different generations, each looking for an anchor, roots and his/her own true identity.
Young and naïve Cecily battling with the mysteries of India as well as new life with a man much older than her is the first dimension of the story. Her son Henry, lost in the fog surrounding his birth and a love-hate relationship with his father, is the second dimension, while his daughter Lilian alias Lila, forms the third dimension of the narrative.
These three stories move simultaneously as the author takes readers from one to the other at a breathtaking pace chapter after chapter. There are times when one actually gets breathless while trying to keep pace with the fast-moving narrative on three different tracks. You wonder what terrible sight 12-year-old Lila has seen in her father’s room and get engulfed in the grief of a child sent to live thousands of miles away in an unfamiliar setting. You are also serenaded with the starry-eyed expectations of a teenaged Cecily, who is travelling across the continents to marry a much older British army man in India. In between these two, like a solid solemn bridge is Henry, Cecily’s son and Lila’s father, an unconventional sahib of the British Raj who is carrying the burden of unanswered questions about his birth.
Though from different generations, each one of the protagonists is on a quest to find his/her roots and struggling to get a foothold in order to truly belong — whether it is to a culture or country or to a person. The strife and uncertainty of the physical world and historical events unfolding around them, be it the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny or the First World War, form a perfect backdrop to depict the inner turmoil of the characters. The beginning of course is a bit overwhelming as it takes some effort to get the family tree and relationships of different protagonists right. So jogging to and fro across chapters is a sort of warm up that you need in order to get accustomed to the pace and style of Umi, but in the end, it is worth the effort. Belonging is one of the rare books in which as a reader you are in love with all the three characters simultaneously. The narrative is like an exquisite tapestry woven with Cecily’s letters from India to her sister in England, Henry’s diaries and Lila’s story told in first person. There are plenty of secrets and layers of mystery which one keeps peeling off, like onion skin, chapter after chapter till the core of each character is unravelled ultimately. There are perfectly crafted glimpses of violence perpetrated by the natives against the British in 1857, loyalty of Indian soldiers, the insensitivity of the British army towards Indian soldiers in the First World War. The author remarkably paints the societal system where sahibs and their bibis, paedophily, incest, cheating wives and friends are juxtaposed with loyalty, honour, valour, sensitivity and true love.
Shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award 2016, Belonging, will make you return to page one after reading the last page to dive once again into the intense story by Umi to experience a different shade the second time. A must read if you love the Raj nostalgia and a good mystery book in which you can’t read the last chapter to ‘who did it’. Umi doesn’t give that that freedom — an achievement indeed. And to think that this is her debut work!