From the years that preceded the great mutiny of 1857 to the unsettling times after the First World War, Umi Sinha’s debut novel Belonging is a complex, intricately embroidered narrative of lives caught in the vortex of history. Spanning across almost a century, the novel tells the umbilically connected stories of three generations of British expatriates.
Indian writers in English have claimed the language with forceful confidence, and have been unrelenting in their engagement with colonialism and are self-reflexive of their own voices as postcolonial writers. But not all writers in English are frightfully original. Often one encounters a familiar whining about colonial legacies, immigrant disaffection or nostalgia, that too in tiresome prose. Sinha’s book is a delight because it deviates from the predictable anti-colonial narrative and instead portrays the intimate lives of the colonials and not the natives. Also, the writing is both gripping and well-researched. She gets the history right.
The novel starts in the year 1907 when Henry, an official in the British Administration in India, dies leaving a traumatised 12-year-old daughter Lila Langdon who is soon sent off to England to live with her great aunt Wilhelmia. From here, the novel moves back and forth in time as it reveals the secrets, tragedies, longings and silences of three generations of a family. Lila tries to make sense of her alienation in England, unable to come to terms with her father’s demise and her great aunt’s cold supervision. As she sifts through her grandmother Cicely’s bewildered response to India in her letters to Lila and her father Henry’s lonely life inscribed in his dairies, Lila begins to understand her inheritance and the burdened pasts of those who were unwilling agents in the colonial enterprise.
The novel moves between England and India, and does not follow a predictable chronology. The past and the present are juxtaposed exposing the inescapable relationship between the two. Lila’s two companions through her growing years in England are Simon and Jagjit, and with them Lila discovers her desires and apprehensions. The epic begins with Cicely coming to India wide-eyed and innocent, and it ends with Lila coming back to that beginning, with knowledge and reconciliation.
Belonging is about race, history, colonial relationships, war-time camaraderie, and its betrayals and love. But beneath all this is a history of violence and a reminder that not all ghosts can be exorcised.