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
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The Independent Culture
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.