Letters from a colonial past that still resonate in the present day

Letters from a colonial past that still resonate in the present day

By Antonia Filmer | 12 August, 2017

Sylvia Howe’s life began in Assam.The daughter of a tea planter she was educated at home until the age of eight when she was sent to school in England; during her life she has met many others born in the Welsh Mission Hospital in Shillong.

Over the years the young Sylvia maintained a friendly correspondence with her Great Aunt Helen who had remained in Kanpur till she died; one day Sylvia’s father implied something intriguing about the relationship between her Great Aunt and her Grandfather. On the scent of a possible romance Howe delved into the letters between her grandmother and her sister, the Great Aunt, only to discover one sister had a suffocating ill-conceived marriage and the other had a secret love affair. Thus the plot for Howe’s first novel The Jacaranda Letters was revealed, the unravelling of a pre-Independence and post-Independence family saga. The episode set between the 1930s and 40s shows the Raj as a stuffy and difficult society; escaping from a dominant mother and a competitive sister the early heroine Helen, supportedby her Anglo Indian friends, has a relationship with a glamorous Indian poet. Helen’s mother and the British community have no idea but through the chicanery of the narrative a complex and emotional plot unfolds. In a parallel turn of events in 2005 Helen’s great niece Julia is divorcing a dreary Chelsea marriage and necessarily gets a job, working for Hari an Indian novelist in London; coincidentally at this time Julia finds the cache of very compelling letters from her Great Aunt Helen. Hari invites Julia to accompany him to a book festival in India; where they begin a loving relationship and discover ancestral ties in the fictitious town of Ranpur. Julia now has to decide whether to stay in India alone or follow Hari back to his spoilt comfortable life in London.

In a parallel turn of events in 2005 Helen’s great niece Julia is divorcing a dreary Chelsea marriage and necessarily gets a job, working for Hari an Indian novelist in London; coincidentally at this time Julia finds the cache of very compelling letters from her Great Aunt Helen.

The point of the book is that India helps both women to find their own independence; the freedom to be themselves is an unexpected revelation. In a time of emotional turmoil both individuals are liberated by past and present India.

Sylvia Howe.

Howe has visited Kerala, Mysore and Rajasthan, she has vivid memories of her childhood in Shillong and of the tea estate where she remained till her early teens; memories boosted by her rich imagination make the descriptions vibrant. The Jacaranda Letters flatters not only India’s beautiful landscape but cultural ethos, national psyche and expressive society.

Howe left the features department of British Vogue to follow her conservationist husband to work in Africa and Brussels for 12 years, since her return to England she has ghost-written and edited fiction/ non-fiction; presently Howe teaches English in Her Majesty’s prisons and is writing her next novel.

 

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