By Sue Goss
Beyond the Raj – the Search for Identity in an Anglo-Indian World: a review of Umi Sinha’s first novel, Belonging.
Longing to be; the longing, the yearning to become part of a definite place in time and knowing for certain that that is where you belong. Such a simple yet overwhelming desire is the essence of Umi Sinha’s first novel, Belonging, published by Myriad Editions, UK. And how elusive the search proves for this dynasty of Anglo-Indians caught between two cultures and belonging to neither. It is a breathtakingly complex book covering the intense journeyings of daughter, father and grandmother as they search back and forth, through the media of letter, diary, memoir, history and conversation, desperately trying to find each other, people they barely knew, and in the process, themselves.
What defines an Anglo-Indian? Who are they and where in the scheme of culture and education, ruler and servant, home and abroad, do they actually belong? Umi Sinha, herself born and raised in Mumbai had an English mother and Hindu father, the first a writer and the second a highly-educated naval officer. She was later educated in England, where she lives, but surely her heart and soul are in India. Her unusual background provides her with a profound understanding of the intricacies of Anglo-Indian culture and society from the Raj through to the First World War. She intersperses the horrors of the Cawnpore Massacre (1857) with an appalling vision of the trenches in France and the cruelty of Mesopotamia – where a million Indian soldiers died alongside the British but have never been acknowledged. Her meticulous research into every detail of the eras she covers makes for a fascinating read.
The author of Belonging has achieved admirably what many don’t even attempt, with her seamless changing of voice from a young girl to a small boy and a newly-wed woman. All are transformed with time and experience and other voices are successfully introduced as their stories unfold. Sinha convinces her reader of multiple settings: glittering dinner parties and class/caste distinctions during the Raj; the extreme heat of the Indian plains and the dreary wetness of an English winter; the battleground and final days of Cawnpore and the killing mud of Ypres. But more compelling are the internal landscapes and conflicts of the central characters as their own searches reveal their places of belonging within the worlds they thought they knew.
I love a book that I can’t put down. From the puzzling and shocking opening I have to read on and find out what lies behind it. Only towards the end is the rationale for all these complex struggles and secrets finally resolved. Umi Sinha comes from a distinguished literary family: her brother Indra’s novel, Animal’s People, was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. But Belonging is quite a different contribution to the literature and has just been short-listed for the British Author’s Club Best First Novel Award 2016.
Belonging by Umi Sinha was published by Myriad Editions UK in September 2015 as a paperback. It is available by special online order at approximately $25.00.
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