This title has that crisp, acerbic ring that characterizes the novels of Anita Brookner, and at first seems an odd choice of name for a book about a young Englishwoman who spends two years with the Punjabi villager with whom she falls in lust, if not love. The title's restraint particularly resonates when readers consider that this adventure took place at the end of that emotionally extravagant decade, the '70s. Sarah Lloyd is easily seduced by beauty and the glory of a Sikh warrior's unleashed mane of hair is too much for her. She cuts her Indian pilgrimage short, finds the village of the man who intrigues her, and moves into his family's home. It's an unlikely venue for a woman who loves the "chaos and electric energy" of the Calcutta streets but then there is "that hair," plus the opportunity to enter "rural life, the real India, the one I had come to find."
This woman knows how to travel hard and that skill serves her well in her new home. Sarah Lloyd is the kind of traveler who is happiest when staying in a gurdwara, "a large communal hall with windows all around" that is open to anyone, feeding and sheltering all who enter it without charge. If this is your idea of hell on earth, keep reading--this state of overcrowded, public bliss is where Sarah Lloyd lives for the next two years.
She is an artist and the one image of Jungli, the man whom she lives with, is a drawing she has done of his profile. This is perhaps the only clue the reader is given about the feelings Lloyd has for Jungli--he is gorgeous and her drawing of him is very reminiscent of the drawings of desert nomads done by T.E. Lawrence to embellish his Arabian classic. Like Lawrence of Arabia, Sarah Lloyd is enchanted with her idea of the country that has taken her in, and by extension with the man who has made it possible for her to live there in the way she feels is most authentic.
The beauty that nourishes Sarah is hard to pinpoint in the surroundings she has chosen but she is quite lyrical when she finds it. Delighted by a profusion of "English wildflowers" she discovers in Amritsar, she catalogs them in a tumble of poetry that evokes Midsummer Night's Dream. "Everything was so perfect," she writes of Jungli's village, "the clear early morning, the smell of damp wheat, the flowers in the verges, and the sky flecked with birds."
But Eden does not come without flaws and Lloyd is smart enough--and observant enough--to notice them and chronicle them with the same exactitude that she uses for the unexpected splashes of beauty. The lack of privacy, the dearth of sympathy, the realization that village life has no place for individuality is all noted and explained without whining or sentimentality. Understanding that she is "a guest" who during her visit "remained an outsider," Lloyd watches without judgment and--even more impressively--without self-consciousness. Never in her chronicle of her two years in rural India does she indulge in the wild paranoia that frequently strikes expats in Asia. What people think of her, she seems to have sensibly concluded, is none of her business. Instead, she decides, when it comes to this new life, she has "a lot to unlearn."
As she unlearns, she describes it all on paper. She acquires language so she can have her questions answered, and when she and Jungli leave his family's village to enter a religious community presided over by an enigmatic saint, her questions proliferate. She has a household to run, provisions to buy, dung to collect. Even though she shares a hut with another couple, she is forced to become house-proud. And she is given a new identity. Without the buffer of foster-parents and their defined place in their community, Sarah Lloyd is known by Jungli's name--when her new neighbors talk about her, they call her "Pritam Singh's."
But truly this is who she never becomes--if anything or anyone possesses this woman, it is India, not the man who gave her a life there. At the end of their time together, it is Jungli who receives the reader's sympathy as Lloyd dismisses him in the book's final sentence, "I knew with absolute certainty that Jungli would love me until his death."