I haven’t been to India and think the closest I’ve come to experiencing the colours, noise and vibrancy is through reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The Far Cry reminded me of that novel in that it shows India as it is, (or at least how I think it is) there are no rose tinted glasses here, but it’s by an author who truly loves the country.
In her preface to the Persephone edition, Emma Smith (1923-2018) recalls arriving for the first time in India. It was September 1946 and she was 23 years old when she sailed out of Southampton. She was attached to a documentary film unit commissioned by the tea board to make educational films in Assam. Her title was assistant-director, which meant general dogsbody and the script writer was none other than Laurie Lee, then better known as a poet!
‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.”
It’s this sense of innocence mixed with excitement that I think she captures so well in The Far Cry with her 14 year old protagonist Teresa Digby.
In England Teresa divides her time between her boarding school and her aunt. Her parents are divorced and her mother lives in America while her father visits when he can. Life is not easy, Mr. Digby is a pompous man, a prep school teacher living with the delusion that he should be a successful writer and Aunt May lives to find fault, an upright women both in her chair and her mind. When Teresa’s mother decides to come to England, Mr. Digby panics and decides the best thing would be to leave the country, fleeing to India with Teresa ‘tucked under his arm’, to Ruth, his daughter from his first brief marriage.
Mr. Digby is ridiculous, vain, pompous and weak and yet utterly believable. Teresa is that young girl who has always been criticised, never given any time or listened to, so that she’s built a hard shell around herself, keeping everyone at arms length so that at 14 she’s lonely, miserable and difficult.
The Far Cry is divided into five sections and the first three: Departure, The Boat and India concentrate on this brittle relationship between father and daughter, which I found fascinating. The fear of the unknown that they both feel when they arrive is handled of course in completely different ways, but when Teresa overcomes her fear and heads out into Bombay (Mumbai) with their bearer Sam, it’s through her eyes that we see the city, describing the markets, people, animals, in rich, heady language and in between the descriptions a short paragraph about her
‘With wide eyes and open mouth Teresa drank in the confusion as though she tasted a new wine and could never have enough of it. Her fears were gone, her caution; her former instinct, as old as herself, to repulse externals, gave way to a reckless rush of confidence. She flung down her defences; she threw open her doors. She longed to be occupied by this anonymous turmoil which she felt to be so safe, for in all these crowds not a single face looked at her threateningly, not a hand touched her accept by accident, not a soul knew who she was or cared. And Sam guided her swiftly and surely. She followed him with elation and no alarm.’
It isn’t, of course, as simple as just arriving in a new country to change your character but it’s a beginning for Teresa to see that there is another way of living. She and her father set out to cross India by train to Calcutta (Kolkata) for the fourth part which is set in Ruth’s bungalow where she lives with her husband a tea planter. The favourite daughter, we’ve known from the beginning that she’s beautiful and elegant. A girl who understood her beauty from a young age she’s fabricated her life to match her appearance.
‘There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors…’
This part didn’t work quite as well for me, told from Ruth’s point of view, the language changed and was more complicated, pretentious in a way, but I suppose that would fit with the narrator. I’m afraid I found myself almost as bored by Ruth as she was of herself and the life she’s created. It’s from Ruth that the far cry of the title comes, as a cry of despair.
‘There is no solution, her mind cried out within her. It is useless to flee.
Where can we fly? We are victims of our own absolute weakness.‘
Which makes me think of Mr Digby fleeing the potential crisis of meeting his wife whilst too afraid to confront Teresa and try to take the time to understand her. Both he and Ruth find it easier to ignore the ‘tiresome child.‘
But the final part offers hope for Teresa, she meets up again with another outsider, Miss Spooner, an elderly lady who was on their voyage out, and the two form a friendship that is completely outside the understanding of Randall Digby. Hooray!