Red silk threaded with gold

Shusha Guppy on a delightful new novel set in India and studded with Proustian moments; A House in Pondicherry by Lee Langley Heinemann, pounds 12.99

The inspiring genius of Lee Langley's new novel is Proust. He appears in the first page and sets the tone: His A la recherche du temps perdu is the sole representative of the 20th-century literature in the little library of the Grand Hotel de France in Pondicherry - a run-down establishment whose elderly French owner, Oriane de l'Esprit, mentions proudly to the guests that she bears the same Christian name as the Duchesse de Guermentes. Time and its all-devouring corrosion, the search for truth, the redeeming power of memory, the imponderables of love are the golden threads that shine through this bitter-sweet novel.

Lee Langley has borrowed some characters from history and invented others, but such is her imaginative power that the latter are often more alive than the former, and linger in the mind long after the "real" figures have returned to the pages of encyclopaedias. Two discoveries provide her with the historical basis on which she builds her handsome edifice: the extraordinary diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai, written between 1736- 1761 in Tamil, and the biography of Sri Aurobindu (1872-1959), one of India's most revered thinkers and sages.

The diaries chronicle the reign of the Marquis de Dupleix, who secured a vast empire for France in southern India in the 18th century. He and his wife - a greedy, jewellery-crazy Imelda Marcos type - held court in Pondicherry, a miniature "Tropical Paris". The life of the French was a series of "balls, boat trips, moonlit expeditions to a nearby lake ... where servants lit torches that shimmered like underwater flames". Later, abandoned by Louis XV, Dupleix lost India to England. Napoleon dreamt of recapturing it, and sent an emissary to assess the situation: Thierry de l'Esprit - the imaginary ancestor of Langley's Oriane.

Oriane is nearly 90 when we first meet her, and her story runs parallel to the turbulent history of India, through the two world wars, the 1948 Independence, and the Merger in 1954 which finally incorporated French Pondicherry to the rest of India, with Nehru's vain promise that "it would keep its distinctive character". "Napoleon could have been the Emperor of India", Oriane muses nostalgically.

In 1909, Oriane aged six, witnesses the trial for sedition of Aurobindu Gosh, then a beautiful young man recently returned from England and a fervent Nationalist. As she watches him, she sees the bars of his cage melt away - a free spirit cannot be chained. Later, he is acquitted for lack of evidence, "and the small movements of history shift another notch". Decades pass. The nationalist firebrand becomes a world-renowned author and spiritual master - it is not with politics that the human soul can be healed. Aurobindu founds an Ashram in Pondicherry, where his followers decide to build Auroville - Dawn City - a new town "that would rival Le Corbusier's Chandigarh", and live in harmony.

Meanwhile Oriane's own life has been shaped by events. Idealistic and uncompromising, she refuses the suitable young men her mother lures into her orbit - she wants "to be of use ... change the world. Be changed". She falls in love with Guruvappa, an attractive English-educated Tamil, who is trapped in an arranged marriage. He teaches her English, they read poetry together, and argue about colonialism: surely the answer is a synthesis of East and West?

Oriane perceives this ideal in the Auroville project, and finds an outlet for her energy in its construction. Among the architects working on the new town is Raymond, a gentle French philanderer who "is kind to all his women ... loves them all ...", inadvertently causing havoc and heart-break. His English "wife" Judy finally gives up and returns to England pregnant in 1969.

Twenty years later Judy's daughter, Charlotte, comes to Pondicherry looking for her father. The Grand Hotel de France, now seedier than ever, pervaded with "the smell of garlic, and drains", is run by Oriane and her life- long lover Guruvappa, at last together. Though she looks "like a scarecrow wrapped in Christmas decorations", she can still cut a figure, appearing on the veranda, "magnificent in a floor-length red silk gown threaded with gold". "Like Proust's Oriane!", remarks her visitor. "Ah, no longer ... but when I was younger I too wore stars in my hair and shoes that matched my gown" she replies.

Three generations represented by three women, connected through love across continents and decades. Charlotte becomes involved in Auroville - and here the narrative sags a little - "a mishmash of South-Indian styles with a bit of Modernism" that is already showing signs of decay. Oriane (like her inventor?) sees the influx of Westerners in search of enlightenment as a new form of colonialism, a cultural gold-rush following the plunder of India's natural resources.

Langley, born and raised in India, has a deep feeling for the country, its grandeur and wisdom, its silence and its mystery, its crowds and varieties. Her poetic descriptions convey a sense of place and time worthy of her delightful novel's grand progenitor, its absent central character - Marcel Proust.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick