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
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London