City of Ghosts
1919, India. Amritsar is a city in ferment. Riots against British rule are increasing and, sooner or later, there will be a showdown.
We follow three intertwining stories. Bissen fought for the British in the Great War. Badly wounded in the trenches, he meets pretty English nurse, Lilian, in the army hospital. They fall in love, but is marriage between an English girl and a Sikh possible?
Gurdial, a young orphan, struggles to make a living. He loves Sondi, the daughter of a cruel rich man and an evil step-mother. When he asks Sondi’s father for her hand, he is ordered to bring back the most precious thing in India or die. Can Gurdial fulfil his quest and marry Sondi?
Gurdial’s friend, Jeevan, also an orphan, yearns for a proper family where he can belong. He is dangerously susceptible to the brain-washing techniques of the enigmatic Hans Raj, who is determined on killing India’s enemies. For Hans Raj, non-violent protesters are enemies as much as the British. But would Jeevan really kill fellow-Indians?
Meanwhile, events move towards the infamous massacre where British troops fired on an unarmed crowd, killing 379 civilians and wounding many more.
Rai’s book reminds me of Kipling’s masterpiece, Kim, in its ability to summon up the vibrant multi-cultural nature of India, with its contradictory mixture of faiths, customs, superstitions, and modern radicalism, shot through with a fairy-tale element of the hero on a quest, and ghosts who try to help the living.
My one caveat is Lilian who behaves quite unlike an early 20th century woman. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (she was a VAD nurse during the Great War), tells how she was chaperoned when meeting her fiancé. Yet Lilian, a respectable girl, sleeps with Bissen – unlikely, given the social mores of the time. For 13 plus.
This book is split into several diverse parts, each part containing a completely different style. From romance to action, it’s pretty much all there. Essentially this is a book of short stories centred around the same city at the same time, and this is perhaps where it falls short. For those who like a melting pot of massively contrasting styles, this is the book for you! For me it was confusing to be thrown from a romance to an action novel with only a headed page to separate the two. Personally, I need an unbroken novel that I can really get my teeth into. That said, it taught me so much about a period of history that I knew very little about, even if it did not take me on the emotional rollercoaster that I wished for.