Themes Explored: cultural identity, family, faith, friendship, love, Indian politics, repercussions of colonialism, cultural respect, loneliness, identity crisis
Synopsis: Ashton, also known as Ashok and Ash, is born in India to an aristocratic English couple. His mother dies in childbirth and his father seems to forget his existence. Around his sixth birthday, a cholera breakout occurs and kills everyone except for Ash and his Hindu nurse. Ash’s nurse raises him as her own; he is unusually swarthy for an English child. His skin is dark enough to pass for someone from the Northern parts of India where people are paler. Ash identifies himself as Indian, and when he is told his actual heritage, he struggles with his identity.
Growing up, Ash worked as a servant at the palace in the small kingdom of Gulkote. While there, he befriends Anjuli, a princess, with a similar identity crisis: her mother was half-Indian and half-Russian. Hence, Anjuli is not a full Indian and is not properly accepted. The two lonely children form a strong friendship. One day this friendship endangers Ashton’s life: the princess’ enemies attempt to murder him. Ash is smuggled out of India and sent to England.
A decade Or so later, he returns a British army officer, still torn apart between the two cultures. His childhood experiences will not allow him to fully accept his English heritage. Ash eventually reunites with Anjuli. She managed to survive the intrigues court. However, India is on the brink of civil war and the two reunited friends find themselves in the middle of the fighting.
Review: M. M. Kaye (Mary Margaret) was born in India and spent her early childhood there. Her grandfather, father, brother and husband served the British Raj. After India achieved independence, her husband, Major-General Goff Hamilton of Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides, joined the British Army and was stationed in Kenya, Zanzibar, Egypt, Cyprus and Germany. MM Kaye achieved global recognition for The Far Pavilions, which became an international best-seller in 1978. This was followed by Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind. Unfortunately, her books have fallen into obscurity in recent decades. I did not know about The Far Pavilions until my mother recommended it when I was at a loss for reading material. After the third reading, this became one of my favorite books. It is tied for first place with The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Far Pavilions contains everything needed for an epic adventure: romance, adventure, action, moments of sheer terror, suspense, political intrigue, and a journey of self-discovery. Ashton is a complex and conflicted character. Imagine spending your childhood being told your one thing and then finding out your actually something completely different. His English family will not accept him because of his “uncultured” upbringing. And his Indian friends no longer accept him when he returns as a British Officer. Ash is a man without a culture, clan, or identity. As a result, most of the narrative explores Ash’s struggle with self-identity and self-hatred. The result is one of the most enigmatic and dynamic literary heroes. Everyone struggles with self-identity at some point in life and this makes Ash extremely relatable.
The supporting characters help to paint a vivid picture of a people struggling to rise above British rule. MM Kaye perfectly captures the unrest and resentment bubbling beneath the surface of India during the British Raj. The romance between Ashton and Anjuli mirrors Romeo & Juliet. A romance between a British Office and an Indian Princess is frowned upon and forbidden. However, this story has a happier ending. The one drawback is the length, a little under 1000 pages. However, the narrative is face paced and highly engaging. If you ever crave an epic adventure, this is the novel for you.
HBO adapted the novel for a TV mini-series in 1984. However, I have not seen this adaption and am therefore withholding judgment.
The Far Pavilions, St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint, 1997, ISBN: 9780312151256