Finding universals in the particulars of a father’s short dalliance with a married woman, framed within the context of late-colonial India.
At the beginning of this 11th and concluding volume in his Continents of Exile series (All for Love, 2001, etc.), the India-born, blind author Mehta recounts an incident that occurred when he was a young man living in New York. The neighborhood cobbler addresses him as “Mr. Mehta” and tells him how much he liked his recent book. Mehta’s appalled reaction (“How dare he be so familiar with me?”) suggests the burden laid on him by his sense of propriety. And propriety will be sorely tested when his father suggests that Mehta help him with a novel he’s writing, the story of an idealistic young doctor working in the hill country who falls in love with a shepherd girl and rails against the abuse she suffers at the hands of the local Nawat: The tale’s verisimilitude ignites in Mehta a suspicion that this may be creative nonfiction, but he can only approach the subject gingerly: “In the balance were my lifelong glowing notions of his rectitude and the purity and stability of his forty-nine-year-long marriage to my mother.” Mehta cultivates the ground of his father’s affair with great sensitivity, painting the peerless backdrop of the Simla hill station and explaining the norms at play. (“Nothing was more important than to keep the reputation of the family pure and unbesmirched.”) His mother handled the situation “with good humor and good cheer,” observing of the lover, who was also her close friend: “She came like a butterfly and went away like a butterfly.” At the heart of the story are the pair’s love letters, each of which Mehta displays to best advantage in all their fragility, expressing wonder at their survival in a world of rapid transformation.
A story of enough provocative, sensual grace to have fueled Scheherazade for a 1,002nd night.