Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Monsoon Summer includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Nurse and midwife Kit Smallwood survived the Blitz in London only to find herself at loose ends after the war ended. Thrown together on a project with the captivating Anto Thekkeden, she follows her heart . . . straight into marriage. Before she knows it, she’s on a ship for India to meet her husband’s family and, later, to a job educating Indian midwives.
Once in the stunningly beautiful, oppressively hot, and bewilderingly confusing homeland of her husband, Kit takes up her work, much to the chagrin of the Thekkeden family. Fulfilled by her work, but uncertain of her place in society, Kit must overcome the challenges posed by her decision. When disaster strikes the Moonstone Maternity Home not once, but twice, even Kit’s faith in herself is tested. It’s only by going back—into her family history, into her in-laws’ past, into her own failings—that Kit can move forward.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Monsoon Summer opens, we’re given a portrait of a crumbling British estate, Wickam Farm. In Part Two, we are introduced to Mangalath, Anto’s family home. What do the descriptions of the decorative lions at each place tell us about the family fortunes involved? At Wickam Farm, “The crunchy fur of a lion skin beneath our feet. The severed heads of foxes, deer, a tiger, staring coldly down,” and at Mangalath, “At the end of the drive, two large gold lions glowered from gatesposts, their paws resting on shields.” How does each estate mean “home” to the characters?
2. Although Monsoon Summer begins in the aftermath of World War II, the political strife in India is of a much different nature. Why do you think Julia Gregson chose to open the novel in the more familiar setting? Did you learn anything about World War II from the book? What about Indian Independence?
3. Kit and Anto’s marriage is not always as idyllic as the lovers imagined in bed at Wickam Farm. At what points were you most worried about the state of Kit and Anto’s marriage? When did you feel most secure? Do you think that your opinion differed from that of the characters, if you were to ask them?
4. The book explores the many midwifery superstitions and traditions local midwives taught Kit. When the midwives and the staff at the Moonstone are discussing how to ease labor, Kartyani describes how she “would open all her cupboards and doors” to open things up for the mother. What other old wives’ tales have you heard about easing childbirth pains or ensuring a healthy baby, perhaps handed down from mother to mother?
5. Traditional garb is very important to the characters in Monsoon Summer. Reflect on the different ways traditional Indian dress is used: to signify home to Anto, as welcoming by Mariamma, a return to wifeliness when Kit is released from prison. Why do you think dress is so symbolic, and do you think that Western modes of dress carry the same significance to people in Europe and America?
6. In the last pages of the novel, we find out a secret that Glory has been carrying about her own past. How did this revelation change your perception of her, if it did? How do you think that experience shaped who she became as a mother, as an Indian woman, as a woman living in the U.K.?
7. The birth of Mrs. Nair’s baby gives Kit back the confidence she’d lost during the war with the baby in the tin helmet. Have you ever lost the ability to perform a task out of nerves, even briefly? What helped you gain back the confidence to perform the task again?
8. In India’s caste system, to be a midwife is considered to be a lowly job, an unclean profession. How was Kit prepared or unprepared to confront prejudice about her job in India? Do you think you’d have continued to do the work after finding out the truth, or would you have given up the job for the sake of family harmony?
9. Anto’s intended, Vidya, never appears in person, so Kit never meets her. Did you feel anything for her, the daughter of a prominent Indian family, who’d expected her marriage to already be taken care of? What would you feel about Kit if you were in Vidya’s shoes? How does Kit seem to feel about her?
10. Why do you think that Julia Gregson chose to make the Thekkedens a Catholic family in India? How does the Hindu influence of the region play out with their family’s religion? Does religion have any place in Kit and Anto’s home?
11. Monsoon Summer begins one year after India has achieved Independence from British colonial control. Did Monsoon Summer change your ideas about post-colonial India? Were the relations between British and Indian characters what you expected of the time period? How were they different? How do you think the story would have been different if it had been set before Independence?
12. Kit is physically assaulted in India. Why do you think Kit chose not to tell her husband about the assault in the garden? Do you agree with her decision not to? Or would you have told him and enlisted his help? How do you think the story of how she lost her virginity, and her mother’s reaction, might have influenced her?
13. Anto and Kit have one of the most intense experiences of their married lives during Kit’s first monsoon. What significance does the coming of the monsoon rain have for Kit? For Anto? For you, as a reader? Why do you think Julia Gregson chose to name the book after the rain?
14. Between her father’s British heritage and her mother’s origin and insecurities, Kit herself contains a lot of British-Indian history within her person. How does Kit’s experience of India differ from her mother’s? How do you think Kit’s children, also of mixed heritage like their maternal grandmother, will experience racial tensions in India as they grow up?
15. Motherhood is explored across generations and cultures in Monsoon Summer. Kit seems to accept as fact Glory’s need to steal small items from her employers. Why do you think keeping up appearances is so important to Kit’s mother? How does motherhood get played out by the various characters in the novel: Kit, Glory, Amma, Mariamma. Which of these representations of motherhood felt most authentic to you? Why?
A Conversation with Julia Gregson
Kit’s a woman with a very specific history and set of skills (her history during the war, her first sexual experience, her socioeconomic restrictions, her skill in the delivery room, and doubts surrounding that). Did she spring directly to life, or did she reveal her personality’s different facets slowly? If the latter, what came to you about her first?
Kit began as a small seed of an idea in my mind about ten years ago when I was at dinner with friends and one of the guests intrigued me. She was English and married to an Indian doctor she’d first met when they were both students together at Cambridge University. They’d married in England and shortly after gone back to a small village in Northern India where they moved in with his family. Overnight, the man she’d met as a free-wheeling, drinking, carefree student was gone. In India, she ate mostly with the women of the family. Her mother-in-law, a bully, smacked her for minor offences. By contrast, in their village, her husband, now the local doctor, was a kind of returning god.
I sensed in this woman a deep split: on this night, and on this brief trip back to England, she was basking in the easy laughter, the banter, the shared subtext of a normal dinner party in the U.K., and yet I felt she deeply loved her husband. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Marriage is hard enough, but throw in another country and another set of cultural norms and the heat is on. But important to say, I met this woman only once. My Kit is not her, Kit grew and evolved as the book grew.
What significance do monsoons hold for you personally? How did you decide to have such a poignant moment of marital tension take place during the annual rainstorm—and which came first, the storm or the fight, in your mind? Have you ever seen a monsoon yourself?
When I was sixteen, I worked on a 90,000-acre cattle ranch in Queensland, Australia. I was a jillaroo—a kind of cowgirl. My job, one of my best ever, was to exercise the horses, and to ride every day to the local school, seven miles away. The climate was boiling hot and dry, but one night I was at a wool-shed party, and the temperature rose higher and higher and the atmosphere became more electric and then exploded into this incredible storm. It stuck in my mind: the tension of that night, also a very drunken jackeroo riding on the back of a cow waving a bottle of rum! I love extreme weather, one of the many reasons I like living in Wales. I was also blown away by Alexander Frater’s book, Chasing the Monsoon. He showed me it was the perfect time for a really blazing marital row!
This is your fourth book. How have you grown as a writer with each one? How was writing Monsoon Summer different from writing East of the Sun?
The success of East of the Sun was the most amazing surprise, as unexpected as it was life-changing. It taught me many things. I now had these wonderful and miraculous things called readers, and they wrote to me. I know that sounds a pretty obvious thing, but when you’re not published, you don’t have them and that makes all the difference. I also learned what it takes to research a historical novel set in another country. As a journalist, I’d travelled to many countries to get stories, but now I had to learn about leaving 90 percent of that research in my notebook. East of the Sun was about three naïve young girls in search of husbands in India. They were not talking about the great events of the day, but it was important for the reader to feel the threat of their ignorance, like a tom-tom in the background.
East of the Sun also taught me how to manage my temperament as a writer, how the whole process from soup to nuts, from research, to writing, to the final editing and obsessing over minute particulars will be addictive and consuming and give you some of the best and the worst days of your life.
Monsoon Summer is based on true accounts of British midwives in India after Independence. How did you come across this historical fact? What stuck with you about the story in particular? And is there any true tidbit that you weren’t able to put in the book that you’d be able to share?
It’s always struck me that midwifery is one of the bravest professions on earth, and to practice it, in a foreign country, with its own cultural norms and taboos, makes it extra scary. So much hope, so much joy rides on it, such devastation when it goes wrong. When I heard about the Countess of Dufferin Fund, which began in the U.K. in 1885 and was dedicated to improving women’s health care in India, it set off a train of thought. How did the English midwives interact with the local midwives? How did Indians, themselves, feel about foreigners interfering with something so private, so important?
Were the British midwives patronizing? Were they prepared in any way to acknowledge they had lessons to learn from the local midwives? How great the fury would be if things went wrong. My Kit compounded all these pitfalls by not being properly trained. Since writing this book, I’ve had amazing conversations with some well-trained modern U.K. midwives who practice in India, Bangladesh, and Sudan. They tell me that while countries like India have made improvements in maternal health in the last ten years, the barriers still exist if the hospitals are too far away or the treatment is not affordable. One grim stat is that nearly a thousand women die every day from childbirth across the world. Most of these are from PPH, (post-partum hemorrhage, or excessive bleeding after delivery.) This is almost completely preventable if women have a trained midwife and quality medications, plus access to an emergency cesarean section.
Anto is under so much pressure from the family and from his own sense of self-worth that he sometimes struggles to be present to Kit. How did you make him a sympathetic character without whitewashing who you wanted him to be and how you wanted him to react?
I was the daughter of an RAF officer. As a family we travelled on average every two and a half years: new friends, school holidays in Cyprus and Australia, long and sometimes lonely absences from parents. As a result, I always feel something of an outsider, although I’ve actually lived in my present home for more than twenty years. I understand the mechanics of how you fit in: how you listen and observe, adapt, wait for signals. So, to that extent, Anto c’est moi. I understood what a hybrid he became—torn between independence and a longing for home. Also something of a chameleon.
From where did you draw inspiration to write about a time and place so different from where you live? How did you research the daily aspects of Indian life that come so alive on the page?
My obsession with India began when I was five and met the most wonderful woman, Kate Smith Pearse, who kind of adopted me and my sister. Her husband had been the headmaster of a posh boarding school in India where they educated the sons of maharajas. She told me stories about India. Her dressing-up box was full of their little silk clothes; her floor was covered in the same crunchy tiger-skin rugs that appear on the floor of Wickam Farm. Mrs. Smith Pearse was not your stereotypical memsahib. Trained as a nurse, she’d longed to follow her profession in India, but because of cultural sensitivities, and the snobbery of the school, had not been allowed to. She made a huge impression on me—I think I am channeling parts of her still! Plus I’ve been to India three times now to research my novels, and before that, was sent to Bangladesh as a journalist to interview refugees.
Who inspired some of the strong female characters you write? Not only Kit, but Daisy, Dr. Annakutty, Mrs. Nair? Do you draw from women you know to make each one complex in different ways?
My first book, Band of Angels, was partly based on the nurses who went to Scutari with Florence Nightingale, a fierce, strong character if ever there was one. I’ve always been intrigued by women who break away, and indeed now I come to think about it, run away from home. The bolters. The achievers. Though Dr. Annakutty had a charm bypass that was partly her attraction for me. Most women are so trained to be people pleasers, soothers, compromisers, it’s bracing to write someone who doesn’t give a damn about any of that, who is nakedly ambitious. I admire Annakutty for her dogged determination to get her degree and her competence once qualified. As for Mrs. Nair, it was interesting for me to watch her emerge and find strength after the devastating death of her baby and the subsequent loss of her marriage.
Which part of the book was the most difficult to write? The easiest?
It’s funny, it’s like childbirth, I can’t exactly remember the most painful bits, except to recall that I had to work hard at deciding which characters would have a say, and then technical decisions, like: Would it be off-putting if some characters spoke in the first person, and some in the third? I decided if I wrote them well enough, it wouldn’t detract from the story’s flow, but I’m still having that conversation with myself. Endings are always hard.
Why choose to give Amma the hobby of rehabilitating orchids? What do the orchids symbolize to you?
Amma’s life at the epicenter of a complicated and demanding family is hard, and the orchids with their “pointless flapperish beauty” symbolized, for me, a temporary release from all of that. This very private relationship is complicated when her husband rewards her with orchids, his pipe of peace for his many absences and his infidelity, but I find Amma’s relationship with her orchids touching. When she fusses them, feeds them, longs for them to grow, I feel like she’s nourishing forgotten parts of herself.
Why did you decide to end the novel with the celebration of Onam at Mangalath? What does the festival mean to you, and how did you first learn of it? What about it spoke to you as a setting for the final pages of Kit and Anto’s story?
Onam with its ten days of feasts and festivals, and games, and elaborate and beautiful floral tributes is the most popular and important festival in South India. Think of our harvest festival and Christmas combined and toss in a huge family party as well and some sporting competitions. Designed to welcome King Mahabali back from the underworld, it seemed to me the perfect metaphor for all the trials and tribulations that the Thekkeden family had come through. The festival celebrates harvest home, and family, and seemed to me the perfect way to end a book in which ultimately love of family survives against what felt like impossible odds.