|The Road to
Maridur is submitted for the 2002 Kiriyama Prize.
Pacific Rim Book Prize has been awarded every year since 1996. It
promotes books that will contribute to greater understanding and
cooperation among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim.
Jonathan, a young Englishman, visits India, where his grandmother had
been the governess in the family of a maharajah. The British Raj has long
passed into history but the princely family still struggles to maintain its
fortunes. Jonathan is welcomed into the bosom of the family and soon begins
to detect strange and ominous undercurrents. Tradition, he finds, dies slowly
in modern, secular India. He is attracted to the Raja's
romantic and college-educated daughter Sakuntala, who seems destined for a loveless arranged marriage within her narrow community. He
watches, helplessly, as the marriage arrangements proceed, unable to do
anything against the overwhelming power of tradition and caste. Following on
the acclaimed China Coast Trilogy,
The Road to Maridur is New's first new work in nearly two decades. It weaves a subtle love
story into the vivid tapestry of contemporary India and draws a line under
his reputation as one of the most important novelist writing about
"There is a melancholy, Chekhovian quality to the
Indian princely classes. Wealthy and influential before independence,
the formerly great families live on the trappings of grandeur still
lingering, the real thing long gone.
"In British author Christopher New's new novel, 'The
Road to Maridur,' the faded splendor of the once magnificent Raja of
Maridur is captured in images of moldering palaces and lands gone to
waste, but brought back to life most vividly through the little
touches of color that are sprinkled throughout the text: the elderly
Ranee who insists on being driven everywhere in her Daimler, the oil
paintings hanging on dilapidated walls and the women of the house who
still dress in richly dyed silk saris with fresh flowers in their
hair, as if nothing had ever changed.
"'The Road to Maridur' is Mr. New's fourth novel and
the first to break away from his series on the British experience in
China, a series which included the acclaimed historical novel
'Shanghai' set during the first half of the 20th century and listed on
the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. Turning his pen
towards India, he's demonstrated that he can bring the same depth of
insight to other parts of Asia as he has towards China.
"The story follows a few months in the life of a
young Englishman, Jonathan Kelly, who travels to India to stay with a
minor aristocratic, devoutly Hindu Indian family for whom his
grandmother was a governess in the last days of British rule. This
family, his grandmother tells him in the opening chapter set in a gray
London, were Rajas and Ranees in their day and 'used to rule a state
as large as Wales,' but have since 'come down a bit in the world.'
"[It] is an outsider's view of India, yet it works
because it makes no pretense of being anything else. Through
Jonathan's innocent but skeptical eyes, Mr. New leads us through
India's unfathomable traditions and culture. Often his observations
are comic, as when one of Jonathan's students, Sanjay, proudly tells
him that he will be financing his two years at college in England by
selling fake Rolex watches; or when Jonathan watches village men lined
up in a field defecating on the earth like cattle.
"At other times the plot is tragic, no more so than
in the story of Kamala, the young woman who sells one of her kidneys –
as casually as if it were an old sari – to keep her family alive. But
most often Jonathan's attempts to understand the Indian mind leave him
bewildered. When Jonathan presses Sakuntala to say whether or not she
believes in an elaborate purification ritual in which she has just
taken part, she replies: 'Why do you always worry about whether or not
people believe in them Jonathan?...It's doing that matters to them I
think. Not believing.'
"Mr. New's prose slips easily across the pages as he
evokes the harsh but exotic land his characters live in, and the
reader soon becomes engrossed in this world. As the story progresses
the gulfs between Indian and English perspectives get wider and wider
until it's clear that each individual is irretrievably trapped in his
or her own culture and there is nothing to do but accept it.
"...Characters are sharply drawn – from the spirited
American girl, Kathy Brown, who shocks the Indians with her openness,
to the scheming, narcissistic uncle Ramesh, who introduces himself as:
'Numerologist, astrologer, Kali-devotee and possibly destined to be a
future prime minister of India.'
"Mr. New has made the most of India's intrinsic
texture to create a vivid backdrop to the story.…Jonathan offers this
description of the local street color: 'the fat, half-naked priests
with their mumbo-jumbo and their ear-tugging celebrants, the vivid
saris, jasmine in the hair, ash on the forehead, hooting lorries and
ambling cows, rickshaws and broken roads, leprous beggars who refused
to go to hospital – and through and through everything, holding it all
together, that web of superstition and magic that entangled everyone,
and yet at the same time consoled and supported them.'
"The storyline is plotted out precisely, with every
event contributing to a deeper understanding of the situation,
culminating in a shocking, yet inevitable ending.
"...Mr. New has succeeded
admirably in capturing a time and a place in India's history where
worlds were colliding with huge velocity. Whether this book is
approached as an in-depth portrait of rural traditions in the
subcontinent, or simply a sketch of a doomed love affair, it is a
highly enjoyable read."
Asian Wall Street Journal
“Jonathan, a young British innocent taking a year
out from studying English Literature, decides to fly to India to visit
the family his grandmother worked for in the days of Empire. They are
princely aristocrats, now somewhat fallen in the world. In their
rambling, dilapidated mansion they lodge him in the same small room
under the roof his grandmother formerly inhabited.
“It doesn’t take long for two things to happen.
First, Jonathan begins to perceive tensions underlying the family’s
outward poise. Second, he falls in love with their nubile daughter,
“Behind the well-paced plot lie Christopher New’s
thoughts on the cultural differences between India and the West. The
vehicle for these is usually Jonathan, whose mind is still not made up
on many matters, and whose indecision allows the author to engage in
regular tart (but superficially non-committal) observations on the
Indian scene. And all of India, as they say, is here - the
debilitating heat, the holy cows, the juxtaposed poverty and riches,
the traditional music and dance, the cycle rickshaws, the badly-paved
streets, the bribes, the belief in auras and prana, the crows.
“The strength of The Road to Maridur lies in
the intelligence that informs the narration....The Road to Maridur...represents
the beginning of...disenchantment. There are even moments of
comparative euphoria in the book, such as Jonathan’s enthusiasm for an
Indian classical dance performance, strongly contrasted with the
artificialities of Western classical ballet.
“New’s characters adhere rigidly to type....There’s
no escape from their world – it has the iron grip of unavoidable
predestination. This is not the fatalism so many of his Asian
characters display, but the straightjacket of set social and
“...No one ever feels a careless exhilaration on,
say, a morning in the high mountains. Instead fate, usually seasoned
with a bitter authorial irony, propels the characters, Eastern and
Western alike, unswervingly to their unavoidable destinies.
“This is a good novel and,
like all New’s fiction, makes good reading. The author has the
advantage of being simultaneously intelligent and engaging. The book
is cogent,...avoids sensationalism...[and] is hard to put
down....If...you know some of his other books already...then The
Road to Maridur will not disappoint you.”
The Prologue to The Road
It is the crows that he remembers first. Even after so
many years, it is always the crows. Whenever his gaze wanders off from his
book in the library and he glances absently out at the breeze-ruffled leaves
of Russell Square, still it is the crows that drift across his memory first,
the gaunt black crows with their brutal beaks and their scavenging eyes.
Not familiar English crows cawing in the whispery
beeches of temper-ate England, or indolently flapping along in looping
flight below the am-bling, woolly clouds of English skies. No, it is the
jungle crows he sees, the marauding jungle crows, swirling in tumultuous
greedy flocks beneath the searing skies of India.
Why it is the crows, he cannot say. They were not the
first to greet him there, nor the last to see him leave. He only knows they
are the harbingers, that other memories will follow – a wooden tower, a
crum-bling stone parapet, a grove of elegantly leaning palms. He will hear
voices murmuring through a velvet night and glimpse a blur of mellow
lamplight on a dark veranda. He will smell the scent of burning san-dalwood,
he will hear a leopard snarl. He will see an old man with a stick and faded
turban. And a woman's saffron handprint on a flaking white-washed wall.
Copyright © Christopher New