The Far PavillionsThou art everywhere, but I worship thee here;
Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer these prayers and salutations.

[Ash’s prayer. Might have got it a bit wrong as I am going from memory!]

The first thing that strikes you about The Far Pavillions is how thick it is. It is 950 pages long, and it has taken me ages to read.

I made it! But was it worth the effort?

It is an epic novel set in nineteenth century India and follows the life of Ashton Pelham-Martyn, who is born to an English family shortly before the Indian Mutiny. He is orphaned and, escaping with his foster mother Sita, ends up being raised as a Hindu in a Rajah’s palace until he returns to his own family at the age of about eleven. Ash’s life, though, is never settled as he escapes from one problem to another, caught between two cultures and never fitting into either of them. Meanwhile, great things are happening in India, and Ash is caught up in all of them. He ends up working as a spy and takes part in the second Afghanistan war, the novel ending once the fate of the British residency in Kabul is decided.

Although Ash’s adventures are very masculine and involve a lot of fighting and political intriguing, Kaye also manages to bring out something of what life was like in India for a Hindu woman or, to a lesser degree, for a Muslim woman.

The most obvious of these are the descriptions of polygamy, purdah and suttee – for Ash falls in love with the princess Anjuli, despite the restrictions of purdah, and subsequently rescues her when the old rajah to whom she and her younger half-sister were married off dies and he fears that she will be forced to become suttee along with her sister. But there are more subtle points made too. For example, when Sita is trying to find a place to settle with Ash, she dare not admit that she is a widow because this would be shameful and instead concocts a story about her husband running off with another woman, which is received much more sympathetically.

As I’ve mentioned before, I do have a weakness for “Indian” novels. This is also a piece of historical fiction that seems to be fairly true to the records – the author herself lived in India for many years and many of her relatives served the Raj. I’m still not sure it was worth 950 pages, but this was indeed a grand, romantic adventure story.

Here is an Amazon link.
I borrowed my copy from the library.