Kashmir is the setting for this messy first novel by a British nonfiction author (Bollywood Boy, 2003, etc.).
It’s October 1999. A coup in Pakistan rattles nerves in Indian Controlled Kashmir. The majority of the population is Muslim, and Muslim guerillas have been fighting the army for ten years. Even the unabashedly secular Gracie Singh feels the ripples as she totters around her houseboat on idyllic Nagin Lake, across from the summer capital of Srinagar. English Gracie, pushing 80, is the widow of an Indian aristocrat; her beloved son Hari died young in a car accident. A feisty eccentric, well-lubricated by gin, Gracie is the default protagonist, cared for by a mute, Suriya Abdullah, and her beautiful daughter, Lila. The Abdullahs are a powerful local clan; their effective head, Masood, is Gracie’s landlord and erstwhile drinking companion. Now Muslims are under pressure to be devout, and Masood has fallen into line, though he’s distraught when his nephew Irfan disappears, fearing (correctly) that he has joined the guerillas. Indian soldiers come looking for Irfan, treating the Abdullahs with contempt; the Major, a disciplined bully, hints at ethnic cleansing. It’s the novel’s most powerful scene; Hardy’s grasp of her material is less sure when it comes to personal relationships. An unconvincing young journalist, Hal Copeman, arrives from England to interview Gracie, though she’s not part of his assignment. He becomes her houseguest and falls in love with Lila, a woman half in shadow. The mystery of her paternity, her mother’s mute condition and their loss of status, from rich Abdullahs to lowly servants, will not be revealed until the epilogue. Hal and Lila will make love twice, and Gracie will have a lovely 80th birthday party before the lurking violence closes in.
Hardy’s lack of novelistic skill hobbles her attempt to pull together the personal and the political, the past and the present.