Books: A room with a view

To novelists, hotels mean the world in miniature - and Shusha Guppy enjoys her stay in the Himalayan heartlands
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The Everest Hotel

by Allan Sealy

Doubleday, pounds 12.99

Allan Sealy's dazzling first novel, The Trotter-Nama, chronicled the history of the British Raj through the story of an Anglo-Indian family over 200 years. The present book, no less rich and evocative, takes place in the early 1990s, when the Raj is only a lingering shadow in decaying buildings and the memories of the old.

Like ships, hotels are often used by novelists as a metaphor for the world - an enclosed space where a variety of characters are thrown together. The Everest stands in a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Once grand, it is now a crumbling refuge for a motley crowd of eccentrics, displaced persons raging from irascible geriatrics to retarded orphans, marooned after the shipwreck of their lives.

Sister Ritu, an attractive young nun, arrives and is given a conducted tour. The 69-year- old Miss Chatterjee believes she is pregnant and never leaves her room; Miss Sampson, ex-housekeeper, knew Nehru well and has named her pet mongoose after him; Major Bakhshi "drinks like a fish" and his former batman, now gardener and night watchman, keeps a tame buffalo in his room. "All misses at the Everest. Near misses, maybe, but misses all the same. Misters included."

Ritu paints botanical pictures and believes in the saving power of charity. Her task is to nurse the bedridden owner, Emmanuel Jed, a lecherous 90- year old ex-mountaineer, flower collector and lady-killer, now consigned to a small room opening on to the roof. From the roof, we glimpse snow-clad Everest "through a gap in the high blue wall of the first range". The run-down garden reflects the seasons, lush after the Monsoon, parched in the dry season, always alive with birds and insects and grass snakes. Down in the plain are the rice-fields, and set apart from the town the lepers' colony, whose deformed but plucky inmates Ritu befriends.

Jed oscillates between senile dementia and periods of lucidity. His desperation is relieved by the visits of a young neighbour, Brij, an activist fighting the despoliation of the land by timber companies and the building of a dam which will drown the villages. He teaches yoga, flies his kites from the hotel roof, and falls for Ritu. Guiltily she reciprocates his feelings, but represses them.

The arrival of a newcomer changes life at the Everest. Inge is a red- haired sculptor from Berlin, who has come to find out about her great- uncle who died here during the war. She stays to sculpt a grand stone for his grave, and starts an affair with Brij.

Her murder in mysterious circumstances breaks the equilibrium of the community. Brij tries to win Ritu, but fate is against them - he is killed in an attempt to blow up the dam. Ritu is converted to his ecological concerns. When the loggers come with their huge trucks and electric saws, she and the lepers thwart them by tying themselves to the trees. Later, when she is ambushed by the loggers' chief, the sudden shattering scream of a monkey from a tree she has saved frightens away her attacker and saves her.

Redemption arrives in the form of a sweet three-year-old girl, whom the gardener finds among the overgrown vegetation. Ritu insists on looking after her. They call her Masha - courtesy of Chekhov? - and cherish her. At first mute, Masha gradually finds her speech, and becomes a breath of life. When the time comes to send her to an orphanage, Ritu decides to leave Everest and the Order, take her back to town and adopt her.

The narrative covers a year, and follows the ancient division of seasons in Ritusamhar ("The Garland of Seasons"). But "the story of blighted love owes less to classical Sanskrit poetry than to the old Baramasih ('Twelvemonth') tradition of folksong, where the lamenting voice is always that of a woman", says the author in his Afterword. Sealy relieves the sadness of this story with comic moments. Folk tales abound. Poetic descriptions bring to life the landscape of India: you can see the lush vegetation, smell the rice-fields and fruit, hear the birdsongs and the "forest's murmurous silence". The great Indian author Raja Rao once said that "India begins beyond despair". After reading , you know what he means.

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