Over a decade before The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, award-winning author Rumer Godden was delighting readers with the exploits of the residents and staff at a quaint getaway resort in southern India.
Wily and winning Anglo-Indian hotel owner Auntie Sanni has entertained all manner of guests during her many years as hostess at Patna Hall, a popular vacation spot on the lush Coromandel coast. Now, with an election coming, business is especially brisk, and her hotel is packed with Indian politicians, British diplomats, journalists, American tourists—even a donkey, an elephant, and a woman of mystery or two.
Among the vacationers are Mary and Blaise, a young English couple on their honeymoon. But where Mary is enchanted by the colors, sounds, and vibrant Indian life, prim and priggish Blaise sees only squalor, sordidness, and a Coromandel Sea teeming with sharks.
Matters are only made worse when Mary becomes interested in local Indian politics—particularly the handsome, exquisitely spoken candidate Krishnan, whose kindness and wisdom are like a balm for her spirit. As tensions between the newlyweds continue to mount, even resourceful Auntie Sanni may not be able to forestall potential unpleasantness or prevent it from escalating into tragedy.
The acclaimed author of Black Narcissus and The River returns readers once again to her beloved India with a novel brimming with heart, wit, unforgettable characters, and “a sense of timelessness reminiscent of E. M. Forster” (The Times, London).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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Coromandel Sea Change
By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Rumer Godden Literary Trust
All rights reserved.
Saturday was change-over day at Patna Hall.
'Two hundred sheets,' shouted the vanna – the old washerman was close to weeping. 'Two hundred pillowcases and the towels. That is too much.'
'It is because of the election.' Auntie Sanni was unmoved. 'So many people coming and going besides our own guests.'
Usually guests, as Auntie Sanni liked to call them, stayed at least a week or ten days, two weeks sometimes three, even three months like Mrs Manning. Sheets were changed three times a week and always, of course, when a guest came or went but now, 'Too many,' wailed the vanna.
'It is for the good of your country.' Hannah, the Madrassi housekeeper, was always a reconciler; she also happened to be a strong partisan for the new and hopeful Root and Flower Party. 'Don't you care for your country?'
'I care that I can't wash two hundred sheets.'
'A contract is a contract.' Auntie Sanni was unrelenting. 'It does not say how many or how little. Take them and go.'
'And none of your ironing without washing them first,' sharp little Kuku put in.
'Wash them yourself,' said the vanna and left the bundles lying on the floor.
The three women in the linen room took no notice. They knew, as the vanna knew, that there were many vannas in Shantipur, even more in the port of Ghandara four kilometres away, all with swarming families, all poor; not one of them would let a contract with Patna Hall be taken from him. 'He will soon be back,' Hannah prophesied.
The linen room at Patna Hall was in a small cloistered courtyard built at the side of the main house for administrative offices and linen room, store rooms, a pantry or confectioner's room where Patna Hall's own specialist puddings and desserts were made with, nowadays, a refrigerating room. These were to be expected but Auntie Sanni's office was part business, part conservatory, part menagerie. The convolvulus blue of morning glory tumbled over the window, pots of canna lilies and hibiscus stood in corners; tame birds, cockateels and mynahs, flew round the room. One mynah, Christabel, had learned to call Kuku so cleverly that Kuku never knew if is were Christabel or Auntie Sanni. There were doves; bright green parakeets flew in from the garden and mingled with them all – often they perched on Auntie Sanni's desk, watching her fearlessly, their scarlet-topped heads on one side. It was not only birds: two cats, tabbies, slept stretched on a mat in the sun; a brown spotted goat was tethered outside while her kids wandered in and out, one white, one brown as if the colours had been divided. 'But don't let the monkeys in,' Hannah had warned Kuku, 'they take too many things.'
The monkeys were small, brown and wild; their brown faces and bright eyes peered from the trees. They ran across the courtyard on all fours, their tails lifted their small skinny hands quickly into anything – 'and everything,' said Hannah – and always, all through rooms and cloister, the soft Indian sea breeze blew bringing the sound of the waves crashing on the beach below.
Auntie Sanni – Miss Sanni to her staff and servants – was called Auntie because, in Eurasian parlance, that is the title given to any grown-up female whether she has nephews and nieces or not. Auntie Sanni had none by blood but, over the years, had acquired many – Auntie of the universe would have fitted her. She dominated the linen room as she dominated Patna Hall. 'Why?' Kuku often wondered. To her Auntie Sanni was only an unattractive massive old woman, nobody knew how old. 'No shape to her at all,' said Kuku, looking at her in one of her usual cotton dresses like a tent reaching to her feet, its voluminous folds patterned with blue flowers; Auntie Sanni called them her 'Mother Hubbards' from the garments missionaries used to hand out to the natives. On her feet were country-made sandals. Auntie Sanni's face looked young because of her head of short curls like a child's, their red still auburn. Her skin was true Eurasian, the pale yellow brown of old ivory against which her eyes looked curiously light, sea-colour eyes, now green, now blue, set wide, again like a child's but Hannah, even Kuku, could have told that Auntie Sanni was no child.
Hannah, almost her bondswoman, began piling the bundles tidily together, her silver bangles slipping up and down her arms. Hannah liked everything to be tidy, clean, exact, as did her husband, Samuel. They, for Auntie Sanni, were the twin pillars of Patna Hall.
Hannah was a big woman – though not beside Auntie Sanni. Kuku, when she was with them, looked wand slim, quick and brilliant as a kingfisher in her electric blue sari with its lurex border. Hannah had eyed that sari. 'Muslin for morning is nice,' she had said, 'and practical.'
'This, too, is practical,' Kuku had retorted. 'It is drip dry.'
Hannah herself wore a crisp white sari edged with red and an old-fashioned red bodice high in the neck, her scant grey hair pinned into a knob. In spite of this simplicity she was laden with silver jewellery: bangles; the lobes of her ears hung down with the weight of earrings; she had finger rings and toe rings on her gnarled bare feet; everyone knew where Hannah was by the sound of clinking. Kuku's choli stopped in a curve under breasts that were young and full, it left her midriff bare, supple and brown; her hair which could have made the usual graceful coil was instead frizzed into a mane that reached her shoulders; she had a flower over her left ear. 'Miss Sanni, why let her go about so?' Hannah often said to Auntie Sanni. 'That hair! Those nails! And a sari should be muslin, silk or gauze,' and Auntie Sanni always answered, 'I don't think Kuku has saris like that.'
Kuku was an orphan, brought up in St Perpetua's Home in Madras. 'St Perpetua's, very good,' Hannah had always maintained. She and Samuel were English-speaking Thomist Christians. 'St Thomas, apostle, came to Madras and is buried there,' they said. Kuku, though, was now proudly agnostic. No one knew what Auntie Sanni believed; perhaps all religions met in her as they met peaceably in Patna Hall; the gardeners were Brahmins, the sweeper women, untouchables, the waiters all Muslim while the head bearer, Colonel McIndoe's personal servant from Nepal, was a Buddhist. Nothing seemed to disturb any of them and, 'Yes, St Perpetua's is very good,' Auntie Sanni endorsed Hannah. 'It gives all its girls an excellent education and trains them for work but I don't think they get many saris.'
Kuku had been trained in hotel management. 'I didn't have to be trained,' said Auntie Sanni. 'I knew.'
Auntie Sanni's grandfather had started the hotel in the eighteen nineties but the house was older than that, 'Built by some nabob of the East India Company in the eighteenth century to catch the sea breezes,' she had told Kuku.
'Could they have come so far without cars or the railway?'
'Far from Calcutta but there were plenty of East India Company men in Madras. They would have had horses and palanquins.'
'What are palanquins?' asked Kuku.
'My grandfather made a fortune out of indigo in Bihar,' Auntie Sanni would tell the guests. 'That's why the hotel is called Patna Hall. Patna is the capital of Bihar.' She herself had never seen the acres of the leafy flowering shrub that brought such riches as, processed – 'My grandfather had his own factory' – the flowers turned from olive to orange and finally to the intense blue of indigo. 'All sailors' livery used to be dyed with it, all blue cloth until chemical dyes became rife.' 'Rife' as Auntie Sanni said it was a dirty word. 'My grandfather got out just in time. They were lovely colours, indigo, madder, sepia, those greens and turmeric yellows,' she said softly. 'It is seldom nowadays that you get colours like that.'
Patna Hall was the only substantial house on that stretch of the Coromandel coast; its stucco, as befitted the property of an indigo planter, was painted blue, now faded to paleness; it rose three storeys high to a parapeted roof. The porticoed entrance faced inwards towards the village of Shantipur with its palms and simile trees, their cotton flowers scarlet; behind them low hills, where coffee grew, cut off the horizon. There were servants' quarters, the courtyard offices, a gatehouse, a large vegetable garden, a small farm and poultry yard, even a private cemetery.
On the other side of the house facing the sea, a garden of English and Indian flowers sloped to a private beach that had a bungalow annexe. On every side dunes of fine white sand stretched away, planted with feathery casuarina trees; on the right the dunes led to a grove of mango and more simile trees; on the left they rose to a knoll that overlooked the demesne. On the foreshore of hard sand, the great rollers of the Coromandel Sea thundered down, giant waves that rose to eight, even ten feet, before they crashed sending a wash far up the sand. Further out, by day, the sea was a deep sapphire blue.
The hotel beach was forbidden to fishermen or their boats; indeed, the sea there was netted to a distance of five hundred yards not only against fishermen but sharks; every night Thambi, the lifeguard, and his assistants, Moses and Somu, unfolded a high strong-meshed fence across the private beach padlocking it so that the beach was cut off from the sea. 'Unless there is bathing by moonlight,' said Thambi.
'Please,' Auntie Sanni would say seriously to each guest, 'please remember it is dangerous to go out alone to bathe. With the force and power of those waves, you must take a guard.'
Women bathers usually had to have a man each side to hold them and bring them up through the wave to ride gloriously back on its crest of surf. Thambi would let no one go into it without wearing one of the fishermen's pointed wicker helmets bound firmly under the chin; the helmet's peak would pierce the waves that otherwise might stun. 'Ours is not a gentle sea,' said Auntie Sanni, 'and please,' she said again to her guests, 'no one must swim unless Thambi is on the beach.'
Patna Hall looked tall from the beach, the blue of its stucco ornamented with decorations of scrolls and flowers like daisies, oddly inconsequential. The flat roof was bounded by its balustraded parapet, which had a wide ledge on which young adventurous guests liked to sit. At night the house lights shone far across the sea; a small glow came, too, from the gatehouse where Thambi and his wife Shyama lived. Thambi was another of Auntie Sanni's right hands, hotel guard as well as beach lifeguard; it was Shyama who was supposed to open and shut the gates but as they were always open she had nothing to do except to cook a little, dry chillies in the sun and wash her hair. 'Lazy little slut,' said Kuku. 'Thambi ought to beat her.'
'I thought you were a feminist.'
'I am but I don't like to see her.'
'I do,' said Auntie Sanni with a vision of the scarlet of the chillies and the blue-black hair.
Overlooking garden and sea, verandahs ran the full length of the house above a basement of cellars and fuel stores that was half buried in sand. The lower verandah was the sitting place for the whole hotel, with cane chairs and tables, cane stools and old-fashioned steamer chairs with extended boards each side on which feet could comfortably be put up. There was a bar at one end; at the other, Auntie Sanni's swing couch had bright chintz covers and cushions; before lunch – which she called tiffin – and before dinner she liked to sit there and reign.
Inside, behind the verandah the rooms were high, floored with dark red stone which Samuel saw was polished; every morning a posse of village women came in to sit on the floor moving slowly forward on their bottoms as they pushed bottles, their ends wrapped in a waxed cloth until the stone shone. The upper air was stirred by punkahs – electric flat-bladed fans; when the sea breeze was strong they stirred by themselves. If the wind was too high, sand blew in over the floors to Samuel's grief.
There was a billiard room; though few house guests played billiards, gentlemen, chiefly Indian, came in from Ghandara to play and have drinks – there was a bar in the billiard room as well. The verandah was reserved for resident guests.
The drawing room, away from the sea, was immense, a double room; the stone floor here was green. It was so little used that the electric fans overhead creaked when they were switched on. 'So much empty space,' mourned Kuku.
'Which is always useful,' said Auntie Sanni, 'and makes for peace and health, two things that are uncommon in this country which is why people come.'
Hannah reigned over the bedrooms with, under her, not women servants but men, bearers or houseboys in brass-buttoned white tunics, white trousers, black caps, while Samuel was king of the dining room behind the verandah.
Samuel was regal, white-whiskered, white-bearded, his clothes immaculately white and starched, his turban huge with, round it, a red and gold band on which, in brass, was Auntie Sanni's family crest – 'My grandfather's crest.' The waiters wore modest imitations – woe betide any of them who had a spot or smudge on their tunics or trousers.
The food was delectable, the service unhurried; neither Auntie Sanni nor Samuel had heard of unions and, though luncheon was served at one, dinner at eight, the dining room kept no hours. The food was brought in from the cookhouse outside; in the magical way of Indian servants it was kept hot by the old-fashioned use of packing cases lined with zinc in which were gridded shelves with a brazier burning red below.
From the first day she came there had been battles between Kuku and Samuel. 'Always objecting. Never do as she is asked. Why not?' demanded Samuel.
'I suppose an orphan girl without money has to fight,' said Auntie Sanni. 'Poor little Kuku. She hasn't learned that the best way to fight is by not fighting. Also, we are getting old, Samuel, perhaps we need fresh blood,' and, seeing disbelief in his eyes, 'but I think Kuku will soon go on to something else, she won't be satisfied here. Besides St Perpetua's asked me to take her. Kuku needs a chance.'
'I think we are full up,' said Auntie Sanni in her office this Saturday morning.
'Full up! My God!' Kuku had brought the ledger from the reception desk in the hall. 'I don't know where to put them all.'
'Let me see.' Auntie Sanni opened the big register. There were, of course, permanencies, in chief Colonel McIndoe, Auntie Sanni's husband, though no one called her Mrs McIndoe. They had a suite on the first floor overlooking the sea. There was Kuku's small room on the floor above. 'The first room I have ever had of my own,' she had exclaimed in delight when she came. Samuel and Hannah had their own neat house, kept apart from the other servants' quarters by a hedge of poinsettias. 'Let me see,' said Auntie Sanni.
'Sir John and Lady Fisher?' Kuku peered over her shoulder.
'Number one,' said Hannah immediately.
'They are our oldest, dearest guests.' Auntie Sanni's voice dropped into a singsong which, like most Eurasians, she did not recognise as part Indian though it made Kuku wince – Kuku had tried to acquire an American accent. 'Sir John says they can only stay a week this time. You will put flowers in their room and fruit and order a taxi to meet the connection from Delhi.
'Professor Aaron and his ladies ...'
'Eighteen of them,' added Hannah.
'One tourist professor, eighteen tourist ladies!' Kuku giggled but Hannah looked at her severely. 'This is Patna Hall,' said the look. 'We don't take tourists.'
Auntie Sanni explained, 'It is a cultural group. The International Association of Art, Technology and Culture. Professor Aaron brings a group every year, sometimes for archaeology, sometimes it is botany. Sometimes there are men but all are highly qualified. Last year the group was French, this year they are American.'
'Americans are the worst tourists,' said Kuku.
'You say that because you have heard it.' For once Auntie Sanni was wrathful. 'What do you know about it? The British can be every bit as bad, also the Germans and you will not call these ladies tourists, do you hear? Some of them themselves are professors.'
'Old?' asked Kuku without interest.
'Usually middle-aged. Young people haven't the time or money – the tours are very expensive.'
'They come from all over,' said Hannah. 'They will bring books, notebooks, maps, binoculars, magnifying glasses, cameras, what all.'
'This time it is archaeology. They will visit the new diggings at Ghoraghat, also the cave paintings in our own hills but, especially, the great Dawn Temple at Ghoraghat, the temple of Usas, the Dawn goddess.' Auntie Sanni, who had never seen the Dawn Temple, still said it reverently, then, 'A single for Professor Aaron,' she said returning to the ledger. 'Nine doubles for the ladies, they will not mind sharing. They are usually not fussy,' she told Kuku.
'Mr R. Menzies,' Kuku read out. 'He does not say when he is arriving.'
'Well, then, we cannot meet him. Give him a first floor back and, later tonight, Dr Coomaraswamy and Mr Srinivasan will be here.'
'Of course.' Hannah at once grew heated. 'Isn't Dr Coomaraswamy the leader of our campaign? Isn't Mr Srinivasan his aide? Isn't this the week of the election? The campaign starts tomorrow. Of course they are all coming back.'
'Except Krishnan Bhanj, your candidate,' said Kuku.
That slowed Hannah. 'I do not know why,' she said, 'so often he has stayed here since he was a little boy, he and his parents, very good high-up people. He was here last month. Why not now?'
Excerpted from Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1991 Rumer Godden Literary Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Characters,
COROMANDEL SEA CHANGE,
A Biography of Rumer Godden,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful story that takes place in India. Her stories stay with me long after I read them!
Very enjoyable. I highly recommend it.