From India to London and back again: The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin and Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari (plus stunning images from The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge)

Map of India taken from We Live in India by Philippe Godard

Our journey starts in the Punjab, north-west India, around the time of the Second World War.  Tensions between the different religious communities in India have been rising, fuelled by Britain’s declaration of war on India’s behalf and nearly a century of British control of the Indian sub-continent.

The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin     Born into this fragile land are siblings, Mavinder and Jaspal, children of Jhoti, who is really just a child herself, a bride at just thirteen.   Jhoti’s own journey had begun a little earlier on a long, white road – taken from her parent’s home just six miles away (it might as well have been a world away) in a “village so simple, that a casual eye would barely have distinguished it from the well ploughed earth and the dappled shade of the eucalyptus trees.”   Sitting on a cart pulled by pure white bullocks richly decorated for her wedding day, Jhoti was sensing the growing physical and emotional separation from her home, from her family, from her previous self.   She was to often look back, wonderingly, down the “straight-as-a-die, long white road.”

Dora Chadwick’s journey, although in terms of distance much longer (England to India), is not that dissimilar.  She too had journeyed to her husband’s home direct from her parents.  It wasn’t what she had planned – she had imagined she would study, be financially independent and then settle quietly into small-town life and marry respectfully.   But Dora followed her heart and her husband Harold, a young  idealist teacher, all the way to a small village in the Punjab, India.

The Death of Ranjit Singh, Lahore, The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge

And this is where Dora’s and Jhoti’s lives become intertwined.  They bear children together, who then play together; Jhoti goes to work for Harold and Dora; and Harold has big plans for Jhoti’s husband, Govind.  “Govind is just the son of an illiterate peasant farmer, but he is one of the most intelligent boys I’ve ever come across anywhere.  I’m sure I can help him go far.”   And all this takes place against a darkening backcloth of war in Europe and civil war at home - India’s difficult road towards independence.  More and more Jaspal is seeing that things aren’t right with the world.

“Jaspal had noticed that men who used to be friends with each other, who used to sit in the tea shops gossiping or playing cards, now argued and thumped the tables.  Strangers came into the village to march, wave banners and make speeches.  There should be a homeland for the Muslims, a homeland for the Sikhs.  They drew maps and created boundaries and forced people to be enemies…. There was death in the wind.”

And death does indeed come one night, forcing Marvinder, Jaspal and their mother Jhoti to flee.   In the confusion and terror that follows, the children are separated from their mother and so begins their epic journey across India, across half the world, to England, in search of a father they hardly know.

“Their lives could have ended then and there, and who would have known or cared?  Jaspal and Marvinder were two infinitesimal drops in a deluge of humanity fleeing this way and that across the country, looking for a homeland, while politicians in Delhi poured over ancient grubby maps and drew lines which would decide the life and death of millions.”

 

Guru Har Rai by Guler c.1815. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge

The Wheel of Surya is an epic tale of an epic journey, of the courage of children and of their incredible resourcefulness and adaptability.

The Wheel of Surya contains one of the most heartbreaking and touching scenes of a mother’s grief.   It is really beautifully done.   Also, the historial and political landscape against which the story is set is informative and thoroughly absorbing.   It has really inspired me to read more about this period in Indian history.   The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin, recommended for readers aged 12+

Guru Nanak as a young man, disputing with Hindu holy men, illustration from a prayer book of Rani Jindan (the mother of Maharaja Dalip Singh), The Arts of the Sikh Kindoms, edited by Susan Stronge

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari    Moving sixty or so years on and Mira Levenson is embarking on a journey to India – her first trip there but she is in fact reconnecting two parts of her wider family: her immediate family (her Mum, Dad, her brother Krish and sister Laila) in London and her Aunt Anjali and Cousin Priya in Kolkata, India.   And the India that she finds, post partition, post year 2000, is very different from that described in The Wheel of Surya.  It is an emerging India, a newly confident India in many ways but also one struggling with the burden of feeding its tremendous number of citizens.   With a rapidly increasing population, one-half of all Indians are less than eighteen years old (reference: We Live in India by Philippe Godard).   During the journey from the airport to her aunt’s flat, in the sweltering, hairdryer heat, she sees, through a taxi window, a disjointed landscape.

“When I look out of the window at the land around the airport I get the same feeling of things not being joined up, like one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles my brother Krish insists on buying from jumble sales.   He spends hours making them, only to find that there’re always swathes of the jigsaw missing – whole chunks that don’t piece together.  This landscape is like that too.  There are no proper pathways or pavements leading from the road to the grand entrances of the high-rise blocks.  I wonder how people actually get into work.  They must have to walk across the scrubland, past all the slum dwellings that line the roads, to get to their brand-new sparkly offices.  To me, the new buildings are like giant glass flowers and the slum dwellings look like weeds, with heads of blue tarpaulin… but they’re both growing out of the same scrubland.”

An image of Kolkata (Calcutta) taken from We Live in India by Philippe Godard

Mira’s journey to India also involves uncovering a secret.  Hidden in her hand luggage is an album of letters – correspondence, postcards, notes – between Mira’s mother, Uma, and Mira’s aunt, Anjali.   They tell of lives separated by distance but together in the sharing of stories, the sharing of interests, passions, of hopes for the future, visits made.  But, all of a sudden, the letters between Uma and Anjali stop.  No explanation.  Mira is determined to uncover what happened over thirty years earlier.

But actually, Mira, uncovers a whole lot more on her trip to India – important lessons for life: that sometimes memories are just for those who experienced them first hand and are not for sharing; that it is not always possible to fix all the problems in the world, just maybe one small problem at a time; and that the course of young love is not always easy or straightforward.

I loved sharing Mira’s first trip to India with her.  Seeing Kolkata through her young and enquiring eyes was thrilling – her idealism, her youth and her passion are charming and engaging.  Young readers will easily relate to Mira and to the new, emerging India where classical art forms sit comfortably, more or less, with new forms of music such as dubstep.  Priya, Mira’s cousin, for example, loves classical Indian dancing. “The hours of training I could do without, but when I’m performing, I love it!”   But Priya is also into modern Indian music.  When Mira open a wardrobe in Priya’s bedroom, “it’s like discovering a whole new Priya.   There’s a flash-looking music deck, earphones and hundreds of CDs all stacked in alphabetical order….I slowly walk along the only free wall in the room where Priya’s stuck CD covers and bits torn from magazines, mostly stuff about bands I’ve never heard of, but mixed in with all this are photos of her dancing, holding the most amazing poses.   I hardly recognise her.  She looks so classical and … like she could be out of any period in time”.  

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brachmachari, recommended for readers aged 12+

Guru Nanak with Followers. Detail. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge

 

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