A long….. and when I say long, I so do mean lengthy …. epic historical novel of British and Indian relations, set in the late 1800s in India (and incidentally, Afghanistan). It is the story of the life of one man who eventually ended up in the British army stationed in India.
It was written in 1978. Did you ever read Anthony Adverse? That long, rambling adventure story set in 1800 and written in 1933? I think that one was about 1100 pages, while The Far Pavilions clocks in at something a bit over 700 pages, and I read EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM. I also read every single page of Anthony Adverse, too, back in my thirties, and if you think I am going to tell you when that was, you can just boogie on down the road, Bub, because that is a secret that only my hairdresser knows for sure, and I lied to her.
Ashton Pelham-Martin (gotta love those British names) was the only son of a British couple who are doing some trekking up in the mountains, going pretty primitive with only about 10 people accompanying them as porters, cooks, etc. Really roughing it, you know. Mrs. British Person gets pregnant, dies two days later of some unnamed cause, and fortunately for the dad, who really was not interested in the child, the Hindu wife of one of the camp helpers had lost a child and could act as its nanny and wet nurse. The father put all the documents about the boy into a large envelope with money. At about age 4, cholera hit the camp, everyone died except Sita, (his nanny) and Ashton, and she took him off to find the General that the father told her about to deliver the child to him to be sent back to his father’s family in England, taking as her sacred charge the envelope with the documents and funds.
They start off, and find themselves in what would turn out to be the Sepoy uprising of 1857, where danger lurked everywhere. She finally finds the house of the general only to discover all had been massacred. What to do? She sets off to find a quiet area of the country where the uprising was little known. She tells the boy his name is now Ashok, and that she is his mother.
This is one of those ‘and then’ stories. And then they eventually find refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote where Ashton, now going by the name Ashok, forgets his English parentage and grows up as a native Indian boy. And then, while working as a servant for crown prince of Gulkote, Ashton befriends the neglected princess Anjuli, in addition to the master of stables, Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. And then, at the age of 11, Ashton uncovers a murderous conspiracy against the young prince and learns he himself will be killed for interfering with the plot. Promising Anjuli he will return for her one-day, he and Sita escape the palace with assistance from friends Sita and Ashok have made within the palace over the years, and flee from Gulkote.
And then, the ailing Sita dies en route, but not before revealing to Ash his true parentage and entrusting him with the letters and money his father gave her before his death.
And then, Ashok makes his way to the military division Sita instructed him about, and they recognize him; And then, now known by his English name, Ashton is turned over to English authorities and sent to England for a formal education and military training. And then, at age 19, Ashton returns to India as an officer in the Corps of Guides with Zarin on the Northern Frontier. He quickly finds that his sense of place is torn between his new-found status as Ashton, an English “sahib”, and Ashok, the native Indian boy he once believed he was.
And then, and then, and then, and then. It goes on and on, and really, if you want to know all that happens, read the book. (Or watch the movie). It is a compelling story line, and honest to pete, you really do get wrapped up in it.
There is a lot in the book about injustice, both personal and political, about the British Raj and the harsh realities of India, about the injustice of the British in wanting to take over Afghanistan as a buff against Russia, about the injustice of the Indian tradition of suttee, when the widow dies on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, many times not at all willingly, about the caste system, about the division of the religions. It is wonderfully written, compelling in its detail. Go read it.