book review: "Black Narcissus" - Rumer Godden

book review:

Black Narcissus
Written by Rumer Godden
Pan Books (1994)

The Sisters of Mary are given an old palace by the General of faraway Mopu, near Darjeeling, to form a school and dispensary for the natives of the hilly village. The palace itself had been a harem house of ill repute before it was taken over by the Brothers of St. Peter, who never succeeded in completing their mission. Determined to succeed after the Brothers leave, the sisters are helped by Mr. Dean, and irascible English agent who took care of everything from construction to plumbing.

The road is full of compromises for the Sister Superior, Sister Clodagh, who not only has to put up with Mr. Dean, the Englishman who has turned native, but also take lessons for the General’s young son, Dilip Rai, who desperately wants to study and join Cambridge; and manages to convince her he has every right to be there despite the all girls situation. A voluptuous young village girl called Kanchi is trying to attract the young general’s attention and upsetting the sisters in the attempt. Sister Ruth begins to have an unhealthy attraction for Mr. Dean. Sister Blanche is consumed with the desire to have a child of her own. The nuns are soon heading the way of the brothers, and can’t much hold it together when Sister Blanche is blamed for the death of one of the village babies.

The exchanges between the insufferable Mr.Dean and Sister Clodagh are humourous and touching, despite their differences. On Christmas night he comes to the chapel for Mass with booze on his breath.

“ ‘You’re –‘ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: ‘You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’

‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill.”

According to him, Mopu was no place for a bunch of orthodox nuns. Sister Clodagh is determined to fight it out, despite Mr. Dean’s warnings. Time passes, unpleasant memories begin to surface for each sister, the hills and the thin air begin to a toll on the sisters’ sense of reality and the subsequent series of unpleasant events force them to consider turning their mission around, as Mr. Dean predicted in the beginning.

Its been a long time since I read something that touched upon subtlety in such a rare manner, and I didn’t know what I had been missing until I read it, really. You wouldn’t think a story about a bunch of nuns would excite you, but I found myself asking, “Oh, dear, what next?” though I already knew the ending. The movie Black Narcissus (1947), had Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, our very own Sabu as the young general Dilip Rai, Jean Simmons plays the native girl Kanchi. The setting was unmistakably old studio, but it stood loyally by the book, and brought out the dilemma often faced by well-meaning foreign occupants of an ancient country; either to ignore it, or give in to it completely.

- bookworm


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