19 December 2011

Where the Bulbul Sings by Serena Fairfax

Daughter of Far Pavilions
This is an ambitious book, embracing a broad swathe of history, from the time of the Second World War to the present.
I enjoyed the narrative, strewn as it is with exciting events which build up, amidst suspense of all kinds, into a well-orchestrated and fulfilling climax that quivers to a specific end in the time-honoured tradition of the quintessential romantic novel. The characters are well developed and convincing. There are even bits of hilarious comedy casually woven in. And, though there is a certain amount of contextualisation, it is naturally done and more for purposes of clarity than to posture for readers of other cultures. Serena Fairfax even uses Indian words naturally, picking for instance 'shamiana' in favour of 'marquee', surely not an easy choice for someone who lives in London where people are more familiar with marquee than shamiana.

Hermione, the heroine of this book, is beautiful, vain and self-centred. Through her, the specific marginalization of the Anglo Indian community is sensitively documented. This is the main theme of Where the Bulbul Sings. Other key characters represent equally romantic and fascinating groups: the Germans sequestered in India during the Second World War; Indian royalty; highly-paid courtesans; Raj relics who stayed on.
So I felt really sorry that with so much potential, a number of things prevent this book from being the whopping, bestselling blockbuster that it really should have been.
The first is its production values. My copy had bubbles under the laminate of the cover. I felt the margins were suffocatingly narrow. Careless proof reading has resulted in shabby copy. And a good editor might have got Serena Fairfax thinking about using a less gushy style; about dividing the book not just into chapters but sections too; and perhaps managing the transitions from one historical timeframe to another with more patience.
The book also makes copious use of capital letters, italics and bold lettering on almost every page:
Greetings and welcome Miss Müller. Welcome!’
He pronounced it like mullah and Edith gave a little giggle.
‘Hush a moment.’ Hartley’s voice was sharp for him. ‘What’s that now?’
He stopped as Prime Minister Nehru came on the air, his voice solemn and emotional. The light has gone out of our lives…
‘Nothing will be the same again,’ Hermie said quietly, her eyes brimming with tears not so much for the dead Patriot as out of disappointment that the bright prospect of home had gone out of hers.
I tried my best to convince myself that the author was an artist who must surely be allowed the liberty of presenting her text in any way she thought best. However, I found it just too tiring to eye and mind and, despite every effort, concluded that I would have much preferred to be allowed to select emphasis instinctively as most writers are content to let their readers do. And I ploughed on because I really did want to know what happens in the end.

The second reason this book falls short of utterly fab is not as straightforward.
“Historical events /incidents have been slightly re-jigged. Any errors are all mine,” reads the author’s disclaimer at the start of the book. Where the Bulbul Sings revels in a wealth of historical fact: not just its setting but all kinds of fascinating detail and trivia, including long-forgotten earth-shattering events.
I enjoyed learning that women made crotchet squares to scrub pots clean with. And being reminded (by an English character)
You know, Mr Gandhi once said that the seven great sins are wealth without work, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, pleasure without conscience, politics without principle, and worship without sacrifice.
I admired all this and felt disappointed with the minor anachronisms. Would someone have spoken of a “daily caffeine fix” in the 1940s? I don’t think so.


  1. For those of us who don't live in India, it would also be great to have the publication information of your books. This way we can get our local libraries to order them for us.

  2. Hi Anonymous ...
    Thanks for your message ... I feel squeamish about giving publication information along with my 'review' because I'm not really advertising the book, just writing about what I'm reading :-)
    Besides, anyone who reads what I've written is already online, and only two clicks away from reams of information from auntie Google ... I did a search on "Where the Bulbul Sings by Serena Fairfax", which is from a non-mainstream publisher - and found that it's easily available online.