Saturday, 16 February 2019

The monkey's benison: Rumer Godden and imperial India

Rumer Godden was one of the most successful writers of her lifetime. Several of her novels, including Black Narcissus and The River, became successful films. But her best work is not fiction. Her memoirs of India are drenched with light and colour

Godden in 1970 (Godfrey Argent/National Portrait Gallery)
One day in the mid-1920s, in the cool season, a British shooting-party went to hunt in the country outside Delhi. They left at dawn, killed things, then lunched with the ladies, who had driven out from Delhi to meet them. The ladies dressed well. One, in her late teens, wore “a pale pink dress and a hat to match that I thought pretty, white, straw-brimmed with a chiffon crown patterned in pale colours.” They ate curry puffs and game pie. As they did so, monkeys “peered down at us from the branches. Suddenly, one of them let fall a stream of shit on my precious hat.” Now she would be lucky all her life, a friend told her. It is not clear why he thought being shat on by a monkey would mean luck, good or bad; but in fact her life would bring her plenty of both, as she would recall over 60 years later:

As if the monkey had given me a benison, shaming and stinking as it was – and ruining my hat – I have had extraordinarily good luck and extraordinarily bad ...I sense now that it is not luck or in our stars but the working of a pattern we cannot see yet have to trust, a providence, in my case bringing ups and downs so unusual it has often been difficult to believe they were happening.

Rumer Godden would indeed have both good luck and bad, and would have trouble in her personal life, with an unsatisfactory marriage, a child who died in infancy, a miscarriage, and wartime destitution. And yet she would also become one of the most successful novelists of her lifetime, and her books would be filmed by, among others, Powell and Pressburger, and Jean Renoir. But it is her life in India, and her recounting of it, that has drawn me.


Rumer Godden was born in December 1907; as it happens in Eastbourne, but her family was in India, where her sister had been born a year or so earlier. Her parents were part of that large long-gone white tribe of India that ran what we now call the Raj, although they would not have called it that; they would have called it the Indian Empire. (They would not have called it British India, either; that then meant the two-thirds or so of it that was under direct British rule, as opposed to the Princely States.)

This tribe was not homogenous. At its apex was the Indian Civil Service – the so-called “heaven-born”. The military came second. Those engaged in business or industry, known as the “box-wallahs”, came next. One wonders if this caste system afforded the Indians a little ironic amusement. Godden’s father was, one supposes, a box-wallah, but he was one of some importance, managing the river steamer services. He was stationed in Assam at the time of Godden’s birth but later in the Bengali town of Narayangunj (Godden’s spelling; it is now known as Narayanganj). The city lies on the Shitalakshaya River, which is part of the same river system as the Brahmaputra; it is only a few miles from Dacca. Today the district has a population of about three million. A century ago it would have been a sleepier place. But then, as now, it was an important centre for jute.

But when the family moved from Assam to Bengal, neither Rumer nor her older sister Jon went with them. In 1913 both had been exiled to England, at age six and seven respectively. It was then the custom to send the children “home”, to a country that often felt like anything but home. The two girls found themselves in a large gloomy aunt-filled house in Maida Vale. In 1966, in a memoir written jointly with Jon, Two Under the Indian Sun, Godden would write:

In India children are largely left to grow ...we had not really been “brought up” before. It was a painful process, for us and the Aunts. ...The Aunts were so truly noble and good, so noble and so dedicated, but never, in all that tall dark house, was there a gleam of laughter or enterprise or fun…

Rescue came in the unlikely form of the First World War. The Goddens, afraid that their daughters would be at risk from Zeppelin raids, decided to recall them to India, and their paternal aunt Mary arrived to take them there on the P&O liner Persia. In retrospect it seems an odd decision. Although the Germans did mount air raids with both Zeppelins and conventional aircraft and did kill about 1,400 civilians in Britain, largely in London, the U-boats were a much bigger menace. Maybe that was not yet clear. The Goddens do not mention that the Persia herself would be sent to the bottom with great loss of life while sailing the same route a year later. For the young Goddens, however, the voyage was a liberation. Their Aunt Mary took one look at their heavy, unattractive clothes and as the ship began to move, she snatched the ugly straw hats from their heads and tossed them through the porthole. The young Goddens watched them sink slowly amongst the bits of box and orange-peel as the Persia was swung out into the Thames. “They were the last sight we had of England,” they later recalled. “We were reprieved – for five years.”


Rumer Godden's sister Jon was also a successful novelist, though never as well-known or as prolific as her sister. Two Under the Indian Sun was a collaboration. How much of each woman is in the book is hard to tell, but the writing style does feel similar to Rumer’s own later memoirs. In the second volume of her autobiography, A House With Four Rooms, she mentions the book but says little about its creation. Two Under the Indian Sun is now out of print in both the UK and the US, but is available from an enterprising Indian publisher, Speaking Tiger. The book is one of the best memoirs of childhood I have ever read. Thanks to the Zeppelins, it records a childhood in India with their family instead of exile in a draughty English boarding school smelling vaguely of cabbage, being bullied for one’s accent and wearing a prickly, uncomfortable uniform while dreaming of one’s parents and the warm, bright colours of India. Arriving at Narayanganj:

We saw roses and sweet peas, and flowers we had forgotten, hibiscus and oleanders. Magenta bougainvilleas climbed to the top of tall trees. Here was a new world of scent and colour, warm in the sunlight … “Is this our garden?” asked Jon, dazzled.

It was not just a garden. The household was a huge establishment of gardeners, grooms, dining-room attendants, sweeps, bearers and more. According to the Goddens, this was not so much something the family wanted, as a reflection of Indian perceptions of what was fitting – and of what a given servant might nor might not do. A bearer’s caste allowed him to serve drinks, but not to wait at table because he could not touch food cooked by those of other castes. Only the sweeper could empty chamber-pots – but if a pet guinea-pig died, he could not dispose of the corpse (“a boy of a special sect had to be called in from the bazaar; he put on his best shirt of marigold-coloured silk to do this grisly work”). How much of this was true, it is hard to know – but the Goddens state that their father was responsible for meeting the cost of this household himself, although the Company paid for the house. So it is hard to see why he would have had such a large household had he not been constrained by custom to do so. It may however explain some British expatriates in the Empire, who, in time, grew to know no better:

Primrose ideas take root with frightening ease; ...the big house and garden, the ponies, the muslin dresses we changed into every afternoon, the way [the staff] attended us everywhere we went, the difference between us and the milling thousands of Indians all around us, all added up to a princess quality that would have dismayed Mam if she had ever seen it; but Mam, in her simplicity, did not see it; in fact all our elders seemed curiously blind – even more blind in the way, five years later, they expected us to immediately adjust when we went back to England.

It would be a rude awakening.

Yet the children also faced dangers that would, in their words, “have horrified parents living in England or America.” Malaria, dysentery and dengue fever featured, as did having one’s tonsils taken out on the dining-room table by a Welsh doctor who seems to have taken it all in his stride, as did their parents. Neither were they really shielded from the harshest aspects of life in India. In one powerful chapter, titled simply Cain, the sisters describe how they became exposed to the harshness of the world: the beggar-boy in the bazaar who has been deliberately deformed, so that he can beg; the endless lawsuits that drain the servants of their wealth; the accidents in the jute mills and the fires in the bazaar; and their household sweeper, who fathered a child on his own daughter then beat her to death when she sought solace with a kinder man. One year when they are in a hill station to avoid the hot weather, trouble flares between Hindus and Muslims back in Narayanganj. Their father meets one of his steamers arriving there with Hindu pilgrims returning home; he warns them there is trouble and they should not disembark, but they disregard his advice. They do not reach their homes; passing through an apparently deserted street, they are ambushed and knifed to death.

This last incident is a reminder that Partition lay years in the future. Naranganj was to become part of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is a Muslim country. But in 1914 millions of Hindus and Muslims alike lived in places where they are no longer to be seen. Moreover the vast Indian Empire stretched from the Khyber Pass to the borders of Thailand (Burma was part of it until 1937, when it became a separate territory). Within this huge area people could move freely, and did, the more so as the railway network grew. One night in the bazaar:

A couple of tall Kabulis, holding their long staffs, pushed contemptuously through the crowd, which parted uneasily in front of them; we knew that they were moneylenders, hated and feared, come from the mountains of Afghanistan to collect the exorbitant interest on their loans, but we could not help admiring their height and swagger, their hooked noses and blue-black bobbed hair under the huge floppy turbans, their loose white trousers and dark embroidered waistcoats; among the slim white-clad Bengalis they looked as decorative and as arrogant as a pair of peacocks among a flock of sparrows.

I wonder how many people know that Afghan moneylenders ventured as far as Bangladesh a century ago. There is a sense in which our globalised world has become smaller even as it has, for some, been knitted together.


It was usual for British families to decamp to the hills in the hot weather, heading for hill stations such as Ootacamund, Darjeeling and Simla. Every few years, of course, a man would have home leave, but the First World War prevented this. One summer – it seems to have been 1917 or 1918 – the Godden’s father took a long leave in Kashmir instead, hoping to hunt. The family took a houseboat at Srinagar and later, when the weather was hotter, embarked on a trek into the mountains, where their father fished for mahseer and hunted bears. The children were left largely to their own devices. They were told not to go too far away, but of course they did. “We went deep into the sweet-smelling woods, following woodcutters’ paths or paths made by animals, losing ourselves and knowing a few moments’ panic… Once we saw what we thought was a huge grey dog slipping away from us between the trees…”

Darjeeling in the 1990s (M.Robbins)
Their father confirmed that it must have been a wolf. Today they have been hunted to extinction and when I lived in the Himalayas in the 1990s, I was told that an epidemic of destructive wild boars then troubling the country was a consequence. The boars now had no natural predators. A century ago wolves would have been quite usual in the Himalayas. The bears, however, are still there. That summer, the Goddens’ father shot three. It is a cruel pursuit perhaps, but no-one would have objected to it at the time. “Each dead bear, its feet tied to a pole, its huge head lolling, was carried back to camp by rejoicing villagers whose crops it had often raided,” the Goddens wrote.

These summer retreats involved long journeys; it is a long way from Narayanganj to Kashmir, and indeed to other hill stations, and the family would spend days in a compartment on a train, washing and cooking as best they could. The vastness of the country affects them:

...In the brief Indian twilight ...a curious sadness would fall on us, when we all ...grew still. Then the compartment seemed suddenly small, the train infinitesimal as it travelled over the vast Indian plain. ...A palm tree stood out against the sky where one star, the evening star, showed. A fire flickered in a lonely village that, in a moment or two, was lost to sight…

Reading this, I was reminded of a bus journey I took from Siliguri to the Bhutanese border at Jaigaon many years ago. It was a cool afternoon in November. As the countryside slipped by, the sun began to sink, and the landscape was transformed. I enjoyed everything: the long grass catching the light and the shadow, the quiet shacks by the roadside, sleepy village shops, sparkling village ponds, lush bright fields, palm fronds, boys playing cricket and laughing. A man wheeling his bicycle slowly back from the fields. A path winding away from the road and disappearing, between trees, to nowhere. Orange lorries, white cars, a thin young man with glasses riding on top of a truck’s green tarpaulin, a train standing in the middle of the fields, birds by the Brahmaputra. Then dusk, a round red sun above green-yellow fields, and darkness, and Jaigaon with flickering lights in the main street, food stalls, rickshaws, chaos, slowly ambling crowds with white shirts that shone in the darkness. In India you can lose yourself in a journey.


Two Under the Indian Sun is an outstanding memoir of childhood. But as the First World War ended, the sisters were entering their teens; stresses and strains developed between them, not least because Jon was the glamorous one and got all the male attention. (This rivalry would be the theme of Rumer Godden’s later novel The River, which would be filmed with great success by Jean Renoir.) In any case, the war had given them a reprieve; now, in 1920, they would be returned to England to be educated, as was the normal way. “It was a grey chill rainy spring morning when the ship berthed at Plymouth. Everything was grey, wet, colourless ...We travelled third on the train to London. “Then in England do we travel third-class?”

Two Under the Indian Sun ends there. But Rumer Godden’s strange and brilliant life was just beginning. For five years she attended schools and college in England, not always with happy results, but was lucky enough to meet a teacher who recognised her writing ability and urged her to develop it. She also acquired an interest in dance and took classes, but her progress was slowed by a childhood injury. She recounts this period in the first volume or her autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (the words are adapted from a passage in Ecclesiastes). It includes an account of a sojourn in France that would give rise, years later, to one of Godden’s most successful novels, The Greengage Summer – which also became a film; it was, it turns out, barely fiction at all.

In October 1925 Godden’s older sister Jon returned to India and, overcome with nostalgia, she decided to go too. But she had changed; Naranganj seemed dull and ugly, and the garden and busy river that had fascinated her as a child no longer did. Unsettled, perhaps, she embarked on an abortive engagement that she quickly broke, leaving her guilty and restless. Now 19, she began for the first time to question the British presence on the subcontinent. She had read A Passage to India and it shocked her. “Were we, the English in India, really like ...those righteous, insensitive characters?” Godden blamed her father for telling them nothing of India, or Indian life, in their youth. In A Time to Dance, written decades later in old age, she acknowledged that this was unjust. Her father was well-liked by his large staff and his boat captains, and spoke Hindi and Bengali, and some Assamese.

He found her work in an agricultural research establishment in Dacca, but not long afterwards most of the family, including Godden herself, returned to England and remained there until the autumn of 1929. During this period she trained as a dance teacher, and on her return to India set up a small dance school in Calcutta. The British community did not approve (“In Calcutta’s then almost closed society, ‘nice girls’ did not work or try to earn their living. There were women doctors, school inspectors, matrons of hospitals, missionaries, but they did not rank as ‘society’…”). Worse, dance schools had a reputation because they were run by Eurasians – people of mixed race who found themselves in a difficult position in India. A British man who married one would be asked to resign from the civil service or his company. Godden worked with and taught Eurasians and also employed a troupe of dancers from that background; she found herself ostracised as a result. “I quickly learned who my real friends were,” she wrote nearly 60 years later. This anti-Eurasian prejudice was to figure in one of her earliest books, The Lady and the Unicorn, and in a much later one, The Dark Horse.

Godden had other problems besides ostracism. She became pregnant by a British stockbroker in Calcutta, Laurence Foster, and they married – there were few alternatives in 1934. The child, a boy, was born prematurely and died four days later. Meanwhile the marriage proved unfortunate. They were not always unhappy and had two other children, both daughters. But Foster proved feckless. Quite early on they had to leave a pleasant apartment in Calcutta because he had simply not bothered to pay the rent. A keen sportsman, he spent heavily on playing golf when on leave in England, although their finances were stretched. Then the second daughter proved delicate at birth and had to be nursed carefully for some months at a family home in Cornwall. It did not help that Godden still felt uneasy about the British in India, about the worsening political situation and the poverty that she saw all around her in Calcutta; and unlike her father, who at least genuinely liked and understood India and its people and spoke two of their languages, Foster and his friends cared little for such matters:

...The fight for independence was growing and, with it, terrorism especially among the young. ...A young polceman friend was stabbed in the back by students as he was playing rugger with them; a girl at University going up to get her prize – ironically for English – from the Governor tried to shoot him in the face. Yet I could not help sympathising with them. Who would not want, I thought, to be free? “Idiots. They’re far better off under the British,” said Laurence and his friends.

This alienation, for Godden, went deeper. She talks, in A Time to Dance, of the concept of darshan - the travelling to, and contemplation of, a holy or miraculous place or person – she cites Gandhi or Kanchenjunga – not to photograph or physically record, but simply to let it seep into one’s soul. Foster lacked this side to his nature and so did his companions. “It slowly dawned on me that not only did they not know, they seemed unable to feel any sense of wonder, ecstasy or awe,” she wrote. That Godden was different – that darshan did exist for her – would later become clear in one of the strangest and least-known books she ever wrote. But that lay several years in the future.


Meanwhile the monkey-shit seesaw also went the other way. Godden’s career as a writer was beginning.

Shortly after the marriage to Foster, Godden had had a novel accepted for the first time (it was Chinese Puzzle). In 1938, on her way home to deliver her second daughter, and not feeling social, she decided to turn in at the same time as her older daughter, Jane, which was six o’clock; and, while Jane slept, her mother wrote. On arrival at Tilbury 18 days later she had the draft of a novel. Her father was sceptical.

Fa, I’m writing a book about nuns.”
Don’t,” said Fa. “No-one will read it.”

But Black Narcissus has never been out of print.

According to Godden’s own account in A Time to Dance, the book’s genesis went back to when she was 18 and visiting Shillong, a then fairly remote town at over 5,000ft (about 1,500m) that was then in Assam (the state’s borders have since changed). The story took root on a picnic to a deserted cantonment in the mountains:

I wandered away from the others and going down a steep little path came upon a grave; it was marked only by a small headstone in the shape of a cross with a name, ‘Sister...’ and two dates; she had died when she was only 23. No-one could tell me anything about her; no other graves were near, no sign of any mission, but the villagers had made her grave a shrine…

Although far from the only novel Godden would write set in India, it is still much her best-known. Published in January 1939, it passed largely unnoticed at first but as the weeks went by it attracted increasing critical attention. In 1946 it was to be filmed by Powell and Pressburger, no less, starring Deborah Kerr. Godden did not like the film version but viewers disagreed, and still do; it has become something of a classic period piece, with its seething sexual tensions in an isolated community of Anglican nuns, high in the Himalayas. The book also remains popular. But in 1939 its success took its author by surprise. Godden, who by some oversight had not even been told it was published, wandered into Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road to find a table piled high with copies.

But the monkey was about to shit again.


Godden had planned to fly back to India in the autumn of 1939 but the flight was cancelled. But as the war situation worsened, it became clear that the children would be safer in India, where her husband still was. “If you are to go at all, you must go now,” Godden’s father told her. In June 1940 she embarked on the Strathallan with her two infant daughters and a much-loved Swiss-Italian nanny. As with so much in A Time to Dance, the voyage is made wonderfully vivid, although Godden was writing nearly half a century later. There is a knack here for resurrecting those details that bring her memories alive, and discarding those that do not. This time, everyone was very conscious of the danger the ship was in, and Godden recalls that the passengers – mostly women, often with children – were frightened and frequently sought solace in the bar, or with one of the stewards. They were not wrong; like the Persia, the Strathallan would also be sunk some time later (again, Godden does not mention this). They spend “an uneasy week” in Mombasa; “There are two cruisers and other battleships in the harbour and the Italian planes come over every night, attacked fiercely by ack-ack fire.” Yet as always she is conscious of beauty, sneaking on deck at night when she can to see the phosphorescence in the water as she stands in the bow.

The journey ended with an apparently happy reunion in Calcutta. Over the next few months Godden’s husband seemed more settled than he had been, and harder-working. Then one night in June 1941 he came home and announced that he was in the army; asked whether by choice, he did not say. Somewhat surprised, Godden saw him off to training camp at Bangalore, only to return to the house and find lines of tradesmen waiting with bills and writs. Foster, left in charge of the family finances, had not paid the bills. Instead he had gambled on the Stock Exchange, had lost, and had used the firm’s money to recoup his losses and had lost that too. Godden resolved to pay off his debts. The earnings from Black Narcissus were gone, and so was her husband.

As luck would have it, Godden had already arranged to borrow an isolated bungalow in the Himalayas for the hot weather. A few weeks later she, her children and the few remaining staff headed for the hills, and instead of returning for the cool weather, she remained there. The result was a strange and little-known book, Rungli-Rungliot.


One December day in 1993 a friend and I travelled by bus from Jaigaon on the Bengal plain to Kalimpong in the mountains and then across to Darjeeling. It is never cool on the plain, even in winter, and besides the bus had a quite enormous stereo. In that year the big Bollywood hit was Khal Nayak (The Villain), a melodrama that included a dance number, Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, noted for its suggestive lyrics. (The title, roughly translated, means “What’s beneath my blouse.” There was dancing to match.) I rather liked it but found it palled somewhat when heard for the tenth time in one day. As the driver fiddled with the volume control, my friend suggested we go on the roof. We scrambled up the ladder at the back of the bus and perched on the rack with the luggage; it is a good way to travel in hot climates.

The bus wound its way past Siliguri and into the mountains towards Kalimpong. We climbed; the air grew cooler, the country around us greener; and after some time we crossed the Coronation Bridge, a large prewar single-span bridge across the powerful River Teesta, which lay many hundreds of feet below us in a gorge. At this time of year, it was a startling bright cobalt blue. The river was visible for less than a minute, but the sight was not one to forget. Later the bus wound its way along the narrow road that clings to the contours between Kalimpong and Darjeeling, passing close to Tiger Hill, the vantage point from which one admires sunrise on distant Kanchenjunga – again, not something one forgets if one has seen it, which to my delight I have.

Somewhere between Kalimpong and Tiger Hill, we will have passed a small village with a police post. This was Rangli-Rangliot.

Rungli-Rungliot, as Godden spells it, means “Thus far and no farther”, and was the phrase spoken – she says – by a Buddhist monk at some point in the past to stop the flooded waters of the Teesta reaching the hilltops and drowning all and sundry. (Godden states that the words are in Paharia, but it is not clear which language she meant by that word; it can refer to several dialects and even to Nepali.) She arrived there in the summer of 1941, broke, without her husband but with two children, the Italian-Swiss nanny, her husband’s Sikkimese bearer and his family and one or two servants, for all of whom she was responsible.

Later in the war she would publish her short book, Rungli-Rungliot, based on the diaries she kept, and it was republished shortly after the war, but then forgotten until, like Two Under the Indian Sun, it was put out in a new edition in India by Speaking Tiger. The book includes charming illustrations by Tontyn Hopman, a Dutch artist stranded in India by the war who became a friend of Godden’s a year or two later (and who died as recently as 2016, at the age of 102).

Rungli-Rungliot is a curious book. Godden’s other autobiographical work is marked by its clear, straightforward prose; it dazzles by the clarity and quality of her memories, not by tricks of presentation, and seems effortless although there is, in fact, not a word out of place. Rungli-Rungliot, written much earlier, has a less sure touch and can even seem overwritten. It is still memorable. Climbing slowly northward into the mountains on the narrow-gauge railway that runs to Darjeeling:

We crept along at the edge of the Teesta River, up the valley, and the river looked as if it might flood again; it was wide and deep and incredibly swift, neither green nor grey in the rain swell but celadon, between low banks of grey-white stones all made smooth by the water. After the rains, in the winter, the river would be blue; first a chalky blue and then a blue with a grape-green tinge from the ice water. It is a dangerous cruel river, as cruel as it is beautiful, and the hill people say it has to take a life a year.

A Tontyn Hopman illustration for Rungli-Rungliot
Godden’s retreat is not at Rangli-Rangliot itself but in a so-called “out-bungalow” some miles away, where one of the tea-planters would be stationed and would live when, as she put it, not drinking or hunting. She refers to the place as Chinglam. Like Rangli-Rangliot, this is a real place, eccentrically spelled; in A Time to Dance she uses the correct spelling, Jinglam. It is isolated; it can be reached by car but via a vertiginous road on which one had to strain in first gear. An expedition to Darjeeling, for mail or shopping, is an undertaking. Yet Jinglam is, it seems, its own reward – a place of staggering beauty, with the valley falling away steeply thousands of feet in front. The Swiss nanny, Giovanna, takes to yodelling; the sound “rings right across the valley” and before long the workers in the tea-plantation start to do it too. Behind the house there is a high saddle behind from which Godden and her children could see the eternal snows of Kanchenjunga. When tiring of this they could come back to a warm and welcoming bungalow. “The oil lamps I bought from the Thieves Bazaar in Calcutta are a success. ...The lamps are Victorian and they are beautifully shaped, gilt, and they give a soft adequate light.” The planters are mostly gone to war, but the head planter remains and is kind and popular. A keen naturalist, he “has shot everything [but] is as avid to shoot everything again …I went to tea with him and he had a python in his chicken-run. It was a full-sized python but there was no need to be afraid ...because it was anchored in the middle by a deer that it had eaten, which was progressing, by degrees of slow digestion, towards its tail.”

There are few other Europeans around, but there are of course her staff. (“The cook was very turbulent, and left partly because he was turbulent and partly because he had foot-rot.”) And there are plenty of visitors; pedlars, wandering Lepchas from Sikkim and people from the plains and two Bhutias (Bhutan is quite close by). She presents the latter as wild and savage people. I wonder if they were; the Bhutanese are rather civilised. But in 1941 they would have had little contact with outsiders. In fact Rungli-Rungliot, brief though it is, is a haunting snapshot of a quite recent past. But it is also the account of an idyll, in one of the most beautiful places on earth, suspended between the bright blue of the Teesta river and the eternal snows of Kanchenjunga, bathed in the soft light of a Victorian oil lamp or the sparkling air of a crystal winter’s morning.

Rungli-Rungliot drips with darshan. Yet it is leavened with wit and it never cloys. It is mostly forgotten now, but Godden would write over 40 years later that this book had brought her more letters than anything else she had written.


Jinglam was an idyll, but early in 1942 Godden left. She doesn’t say why in either book, but implies that she had to. According to her biographer, Anne Chisholm (Rumer Godden: A Storyteller's Life), this was not the case; it was her own decision, but the reasons for it are not quite clear. At any rate, Godden now found she headed what was described, in wartime India, as an ‘abandoned family’. This was less dramatic than it seemed, meaning simply the dependants of someone who was normally based in India and was serving for now in the Army, which had thus become responsible for her. She was told to choose somewhere in the Indian Empire to which she would be relocated, and would remain for the duration under the protection of the Provost Marshall (the head of the military police). She chose Kashmir, thinking it to have a good climate; clearly the long summer in the mountains described in Two Under the Indian Sun was not forgotten. She also felt that its location in the far west of the Empire would be safer. This was not fanciful. The Japanese would soon overrun Burma and would push west into India proper, and would eventually be only a few hundred miles from Jinglam. They would not be repulsed until 1944.

Kanchenjunga at dawn; Darjeeling below (M. Robbins)
In March 1942 Godden arrived in Kashmir with her children – a move recorded in A Time to Dance as one she and the children made on their own; in fact, Chisholm says that Laurence Foster was with her and took leave to try and settle the family. (In general, the marriage does not seem to have broken up quite so finally and quickly as Godden would later suggest.) In any case, Godden was reminded that she had not been to Kashmir in winter:

Surely it is as Russia must once have been, coming across frozen marshlands into this land of winter, such winter, strangling the country with ice, snow, frost and mist ...The road runs straight, through avenues of tall bare poplar trees; along it peasants shuffle in rags, thin shawls and straw sandals and the light tongas move as silently as sleighs, except for the horses’ bells.

Srinagar is a ten-hour drive from Rawalpindi:

We arrived in Srinagar itself at last daylight, driving past handsome carved fronts of rich men’s houses rising out of the rottenness of the lanes around them; beside the Jhelum river is the huge palace of the Maharajah, built of white stone in that city of wood, with fluted pillars, columns and long glassed windows; on the few occasions the Maharajah visits his State, the people float roses down the river to greet him. ...The women’s cotton robes are filthy but the colours are blended by the very filth, dull blue and muted green, a prune colour or purple; they wear white veils and not one silver earring but bunches of them hanging either side of the face.

These quotes are from letters that Godden wrote at the time and later included in the later parts of A Time to Dance; often they were to her sisters. However, it is not just these snapshots from the time that are vivid; the book lacks the strangeness of Rungli-Rungliot and the prose is straightforward and undramatic, and yet its author, in her 80s when it was published, seems to be sitting with you, not writing but speaking, a little steam rising from her tea, her eyes on you one minute and then focused elsewhere as some long-ago joy or misery comes to her. One wonders why she took so long to write A Time to Dance, but perhaps she did not want to recall everything yet felt unable to write it without doing so. Her wartime life was very harsh. In Srinagar she, her children and their adored Swiss-Italian nanny, Giovanna, were quartered in two rooms in a bad hotel, surrounded by other wives of officers who had formed a small world to which Godden could not adjust. Worse, the hotel was insanitary and the entire family got dysentery, one child got typhoid and the youngest and weakest had a contagious disease that forced them all to move out. At length Godden herself contracted jaundice. She had little money but knew that somehow she had to find somewhere. Then she remembered a house she had seen from a great distance, across the lake, lost among the trees high on a mountainside.

It was built of pink-grey stone with a wooden verandah and a roof of wooden shingles. ...I stood and looked. ...I was taking ‘darshan’ except that I knew at once I would not, simply, look and go away. ...I have had several cherished houses; always, by circumstance not by desire, I have had to leave them but never have I loved a house as I loved Dove House.

Godden moved in with her daughters as soon as she could. She writes in A Time to Dance that she should have liked to stay there for ever. It seems to have been a place of astonishing beauty. In a letter at the end of May 1943 she describes dusk in the mountains, the lights slowly appearing around the lake below, and from the garden comes “a gust of sweetness, the scent of flowers. Tonight I am grateful from my head to the soles of my feet ...for living here, for being allowed to live here.”

But Godden was to stay there for less than two years. The monkey curse struck again in June 1944, when a servant poisoned her and the children in an apparent murder attempt. Exactly what happened is not clear. In A Time to Dance Godden states that she met an accomplished British woman, a painter, by the name of Olwen, and eventually agreed that they would share Dove Cottage and the cost of running it; Godden was as short of money as ever. Bit by bit Olwen’s servants displaced her own and Olwen’s bearer recruited a new cook, Salim, a man who, Godden wrote, never seemed quite as he should be. Both Godden and Olwen became very unwell, and it was clear that Godden, at least, was being fed drugs of some sort; she was to remember walking around the grounds wearing a Norman Hartnell ballgown. At length the Provost Marshall appeared at the house, removed both women, forbad them to return and arrested Salim who, unbeknownst to either woman, had a past record of making himself indispensable to English ladies and relieving them of their belongings. Charges were brought against Salim but it became plain that the court would not convict, and that the women might face counter-charges for slander. Advised to leave Kashmir, Godden slipped away, leaving Olwen to face the music – something of which she admitted she was not proud; Olwen, she said, did not forgive her.

That last part, it seems, was true; according to Chisholm, Olwen – whose real name was Helen Arberry – did feel that she had been treated badly. They never met again. Other parts of the incident may not have been quite as Godden wrote them. In particular, Chisholm’s account, which draws on Godden’s own letters from the time, suggests that the cook Godden calls Salim (his real name was Siddika) had not been recruited by Arberry’s bearer as Godden wrote later, but had been employed by Godden herself before Arberry moved in.

In the early 1950s Godden wrote a fictionalised account, a novel called Kingfishers Catch Fire, in which some at least of the episode is very true to life; a headstrong young widow and mother, Sophie, becomes badly ill in Srinagar and is cared for with her children by the Mission next to the graveyard, and then, in spring, largely recovered, she insists against local advice on taking a hillside cottage away from the town. This is very much what Godden did. Once in the cottage, Sophie fails to understand the dynamics of the nearby village, and causes trouble between the local peasants. She also wilfully refuses to understand her young daughter’s fear of the local children, which turn out to be all too well-founded. Her life in the cottage ends badly, as she is poisoned by her cook.

Is this how Godden herself saw this episode? Probably not. Neither her own books nor Chisholm’s fine biography suggest that Godden was prone to self-criticism of this sort. One could ask why she wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire if not in expiation; but that one is easy to answer – writers never waste good material. What Kingfishers is, though, is a good novel. Chisholm rates it very high, suggesting that, as a portrait of the British in India, it ranks alongside A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown. This is high praise, and is based in part on the way Chisholm feels the book respects the locals themselves. In fact, I am not sure it does; I thought Godden’s depiction of the villagers had quite dated and imperial overtones. 

Where Kingfishers Catch Fire is an undoubted success, however, is in its vivid portrait of a woman who has misunderstood her Indian neighbours in a hundred different ways, while also offending against the conventions of her own community; the latter is fiercely critical of her decision to move to an isolated location amongst people she does not understand. In this sense, the book is true to life. Mollie Kaye – better known as M.M. Kaye, the author of The Far Pavilions – was in Kashmir herself at the time; they do not seem to have known each other well, though they did become friends in later life. Kaye was later to remember that the British community had thought the move was unwise and that no-one was very surprised that Godden had had trouble. It was even suggested that no-one had really tried to poison Godden and Arberry at all though on that score, at least, Godden – and the Provost Marshal, and the Kashmiri police – seem to have had no doubts.

Whatever really happened at Dove Cottage, it cast a long shadow over Godden, and she was still nervous of entering Kashmir when she returned with the BBC Bookmark crew in the 1990s, not long before she died. According to Chisholm (who accompanied her to India), Godden demanded assurances from the Kashmiri authorities that she would not be subject to any proceedings if she returned, and she was not willing to revisit Dove Cottage. Yet her description of her life there in A Time to Dance suggests a beauty so profound that it seems to have transfixed her even as she wrote of it 40 years later.


That beauty must have sustained Godden as she left India via a stinking, diseased transit camp near Bombay in the summer of 1945 – a difficult time that she describes in her second volume of autobiography, A House With Four Rooms. She was not finished with India; her sisters were still there, and she would return soon after independence, in November 1949, with the distinguished French film director Jean Renoir, to make his much-loved film of her novel The River, for which she wrote the screenplay. Her last visit to India was with the Bookmark team in 1994 at the age of 86. But she was not to live there again. She spent the rest of her life in Britain, in Sussex and later in Dumfriesshire, producing more than 60 books, including some highly successful ones  for children. A number of her novels were filmed, and several, notably Coromandel Sea Change and In This House of Brede, were highly successful. She continued to write until the end of her life and her last novel – Cromartie vs. the God Shiva – was published as late as 1997.

Rumer Godden died in November 1998 at the age of 90. One of Britain’s most successful ever novelists, she is probably less read now, but still has a following and in time, like J.B. Priestley, she will be rediscovered as a quintessential English writer. In fact the rediscovery is under way; a number of her novels have now been republished by Virago. For me, however, it always will be her vision of India that astonishes and delights; the clear-eyed but loving childhood memoir in Two Under the Indian Sun, and the thoughtful beauty of A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep. The latter is written with the clarity of old age and filled with people who were already long dead but to her very much alive. It is a book that sometimes comes quite close to perfection.

The train to Darjeeling (M.Robbins)
And there is the mystical, forgotten Rungli-Rungliot. I read it a year ago, in December 2017. I took it with me when I reported to a hospital in New York for a heart procedure that I knew might not work. (It did.) As I left the house in the early hours, I remembered that I should take a book; there is a lot of waiting to do in hospitals. Rungli-Rungliot had just arrived, and I slipped it into my bag and felt it bumping against my hip as I walked through the pre-dawn streets. Later that morning, checked in, monitored and waiting in my cubicle, I reached for the book. I came to Godden’s description of her climb to Darjeeling on the narrow-gauge railway from Siliguri on the Bengal plain. Sitting in a cubicle in a New York hospital, frightened of what lay ahead, I let my mind wander back to the journeys I had made to Darjeeling myself, over 20 years earlier. There was the one via Kalimpong and past Rangli-Rangliot itself, across the Coronation Bridge, the Teesta river a glacial blue many hundreds of feet below. There was another when we climbed by road, slowly, in the wake of round, stately Hindustan Ambassador saloons in green and grey, packed with Indian families.

Once, we rode the train. The engine, painted bright blue, had a plate that proclaimed its date of birth in Britain: 1877. It may have hauled Godden and her family upwards, through Ghoom and Tung, past hamlets of clapboard and corrugated-iron roofs, just as it took me on a sunlit afternoon in 1992, the deep green of the Himalayan foothills all round us. An Indian guard clapped me on the shoulder. “Your great-grandfather built this,” he said. There was another passenger, an elderly Englishman in a sports-jacket. The late sunlight bounced around the carriage and lit his face, and he was smiling with what looked like wonder, and I knew that he had been here before, a long time ago.

Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other on-line retailers.


  1. Thank you for a lovely review of Godden's work. Growing up in rural India, much of what she writes resonates with me. I love her style. And, your very comprehensive post on her life and work.

  2. Simply wonderful post. Although I'm fond of the 'Indian' novels I think my favourite is In This House of Brede. She had a rare gift for storytelling.

  3. lovely. thank you for writing it.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed this. I found Godden with In THis House of Brede many long years ago, and went on to read Black Narcissus and see the film. I have wanted to read others of her works and you have re-inspired me to do so. I knew nothing about her life before this and it was a pleasure to read your account.