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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
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
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
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    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?