The Ganges River runs through young Harriet’s world. The eleven-year-old daughter of the British owner of a successful jute concern, she loves her life in Bengal, India, on the river’s edge, so far removed from the English boarding school she attended before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe.
Often left alone by an overworked father and preoccupied mother, Harriet is enchanted by the local festivals, colors, and vibrant life surrounding her. Now, as she stands on the brink of adulthood—too old to play childish games with her reckless little brother, Bogey, yet too young to be touched by such grown-up concerns as the faraway Second World War—a stranger’s unexpected arrival will rock her world.
When Captain John, a handsome soldier returning wounded from the battlefield, becomes her family’s new neighbor, Harriet is instantly entranced, beset by a rush of unfamiliar emotions: longing, jealousy, infatuation. But the inevitable change inherent in growing older may be too heavy a burden for a young girl to bear when it carries with it disappointment and heartbreaking loss.
Inspired by the author’s personal experiences as a child raised in India—and the basis for the acclaimed classic motion picture of the same name from French film director Jean Renoir—Rumer Godden’s The River is a lovely, moving portrayal of childhood’s end. Evocative, heartfelt, and bittersweet, it is a coming-of-age story without equal from a major twentieth-century novelist.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1946 Rumer Godden Literary Trust
All rights reserved.
The river was in Bengal, India, but for the purpose of this book, these thoughts, it might as easily have been a river in America, in Europe, in England, France, New Zealand or Timbuctoo, though they do not of course have rivers in Timbuctoo. Its flavour would be different in each; Bogey's cobra would, of course, have been something else and the flavour of the people who lived by the river would be different.
That is what makes a family, the flavour, the family flavour, and no one outside the family, however loved and intimate, can share it. Three people had the same flavour as the child, Harriet, who lived in this garden; were her contemporaries, her kin; Bea was one, the others were Bogey and Victoria. They lived in their house beside the river, in a jute-pressing works near a little Indian town; they had not been sent away out of the tropics because there was a war; this war, the last war, any war, it does not matter which war.
It is strange that the first Latin declension and conjunction should be of love and war:
'I can't learn them,' said Harriet. 'Do help me, Bea. Let's take one each and say them aloud, both at once.'
'Very well. Which will you have?'
'You had better have love,' said Harriet.
In the heat they both had their hair tied up on top of their heads in topknots, but Bea wore a cerise ribbon; the effect of it on her topknot gave her a geisha look that was interesting and becoming. Her eyebrows, as she studied this Latin that it was decreed that they should learn, were like fine aloof question marks.
'Do you like Latin, Bea?'
'No, of course I don't, but if I have to learn it,' said Bea, 'it is better to learn it quickly.' She glanced across at Harriet. 'You are always trying to stop things happening, Harriet, and you can't.'
But Harriet still thought, privately, that she could.
It was the doldrums of the afternoon and Bea and Harriet, the older children, had to do their homework, opposite one another, at the dining-room table. It was hot. Outside the garden was filled with hot, heavy, sleepy sun; there was a smell of leaves and grass and of sun on the house stone. Beyond the garden was the sound of the river and from far away came a whoop from Bogey. I wonder what Bogey has found now, thought Harriet, and wriggled. The fan blew on her forehead, but it only blew hot air, the polish of the table was sticky and held the skin of her arms, there was a dusty dry feeling of dust between her toes. 'You will get hookworm, Harriet, if you go barefoot,' Nan told her. 'Why do you? Bea doesn't.' Harriet looked now under the table to see. No, Bea's feet were gracefully crossed in their correct sandals.
'You had better get on, Harry,' said Bea. 'You have algebra to do as well, and music, and you haven't learnt your Bible verses yet. Better hurry, Harriet.'
Harriet sighed. Latin, and algebra, and music and other things: eating liver, having an injection, seeing a mad paidog – how did Bea manage to take them all so quietly? How? Harriet sighed. She could not, nowadays, aspire to Bea.
'Nan, why is Bea so different?'
'She always was,' said Nan.
'No, she is changing.'
'She is growing up,' said Nan. 'We all have to, willy-nilly.' Harriet did not much like the sound of that expression, 'willy-nilly'.
'Oh, well!' she said, and sighed again and her mind went off on a rapid Harriet canter of its own, too rapid for stops. Will-I-get-hookworm-you -get-all-kinds-of-worms -in-India-and-diseases-too-there-is-a-leper-in -the-bazaar-no-nose-and-his-fmgers-dropping-off-him-if-I-had-no-fingers -I-couldn't-learn-musiccould-I-no-March-of-the-Men-of-Harlech. She looked at her own fingers, brown and small and whole, except that one had a nail broken where Bogey had banged it, and one had a scratch new that morning, and two were stained bright yellow from the dye she had been making from the yellow flower of a bush that grew beside the cook-house.
The middle finger of Harriet's right hand had a lump on the side of it; that was her writing lump; she had it because she wrote so much, because she was a writer. 'I am going to be a poet when I grow up,' said Harriet; and she added, after another thought, 'Willy-nilly.' She kept a private diary and a poem book hidden in an old box that also did as a desk in an alcove under the side-stairs, her Secret Hole, though it was not secret at all and there was no need to hide her book because she could not resist reading her poems to everyone who would listen. Sometimes she carried her book pouched in her dress. She was writing a poem now, and, as she began to think of it, her eyes grew misty and comfortable.
'Saw roses there that comforted her heart
And saw their crimson petals plop apart.'
'Plop apart?' asked Bea, her eyebrows more clear and more surprised and Harriet blushed. She had not known she had spoken aloud.
'Do get on, Harry.'
'Yes, Bea – Amo, Amas, Amat ... Bellum ... Belli ... Bello ...'
War and love. How many children, wondered Harriet, yawning, had had to learn those since – she cast round in her mind for someone prominent who could have learnt them – since Julius Caesar, say, or Pontius Pilate (they must have learnt them, they were Romans) or even Jesus – perhaps-if-Jesus -went-to-school. She yawned again and reached for the Outline of History. Loves-and-Wars, she thought, flipping over the pages. Xerxes-Alexander-Goths-and-Huns – Arthur-and-Guinevere-Richard the Lionheart-Marlborough-Kitchener. Love and war, love and hate all muddled up together. She remembered she had no history to prepare; it was Bible verses and she shut up the book and opened Father's old Bible that they used for lessons. Ever-since-Adam and Eve, cantered off Harriet, Cain-Abel-Jacob Leah and Rachel-the-Children of Israel and-all-the-rest-of-them. Even in stories, even in plays, and she looked at Bea's elbow holding down the edges of the Shakespeare's flimsy pages that blew up under the fan. Shylock and Portia-and-RomeoandJuliet-and-Cleopatra. She liked Cleopatra best, but even thinking of Cleopatra she wondered that no one ever grew tired of it, of all this love and all this war. Or if they do, she thought, someone starts it all over again. It is as much life as living, thought Harriet. You are born, you are a he or a she, and you live until you die ... Willy-nilly. Yes. Nan is right. It all is willy-nilly, though I think you could live very well without a war ... and I suppose without being loved. But I hope I am loved, thought Harriet, as much as Cleopatra, and she thought, I wish I were not so young ... children don't have loves or wars. She drew circles on her algebra. Or do they? wondered Harriet. Do they ... of their kind?
A drum began to beat softly in the village behind the house. Harriet sat up. 'Bea. Tonight is Diwali.'
'I know. But if you haven't done your homework,' Bea pointed out, 'you won't be allowed to go.'
Bea loved Diwali night as much as Harriet did, but when she was excited, she managed to contain her excitement as she contained her likes and dislikes. How? Harriet gave her another long look and sank back baffled. 'I thought you had forgotten,' she said.
'How could I forget?' said Bea. 'Listen to the drums.'
All day the drummers had been going round the town and the villages that lay around it. Diwali was the Hindu festival of the Feast of Lights.
There are ritual festivals in every religion throughout the year, and every family keeps those it needs, the Chinese and the Roman Catholics being perhaps the most elaborate in theirs, though the old Russians and the Hindus come close and Tibet has charming holidays of its own. Diwali was a curious festival to find in the keeping of a European family, but in Harriet's, as in every large household in India, there was always someone who had to keep some one of the different festivals as they occurred: Nan was a Catholic; Abdullah, the old butler, was a Mohammedan, and so was Gaffura his assistant; Maila, the bearer, was a Buddhist from the State of Sikkim; the gardeners were Hindu Brahmins, Heaven Born; the sweeper and the Ayah were Hindu Untouchables and Ram Prasad Singh, the gateman, the children's friend, was of the separate sect of Sikh. Now the gardeners were away in the bazaar, buying the little saucer earthenware festival lamps and the wicks and oil to float in them, while Abdullah and Maila were not interested. The children kept Diwali because it is an irresistible festival and no one could live in the country in which it is held and not be touched by it.
Tonight when it is dark, thought Harriet, her eyes anywhere but on her work, Ram Prasad will have bought for us a hundred or two hundred lamps. They are made of earthenware, shaped like hearts or tarts or leaves, and they cost two pies each (a pie is a third of a farthing), and in each we shall put oil and float a wick; then we shall set them all along the roof and at the windows and in rows on the steps and at the gate and over the gate, and we shall light them. Everywhere, on every house, there will be lights, and on the river the boats will have them burning and we shall see them go past, and other lights on rafts will be floated down and the rich Hindus will give feasts and feed the poor and let off fireworks and we shall stay up to dinner to see.
Diwali, to the children, was also the official opening of the winter. The greenfly came, millions of insects that flew around the lights at dusk. The gardeners began to plant out vegetables and flower seeds. There was a coolness in the mornings and evenings, a thicker dew, more mosquitoes. Then Diwali came, and it was winter. Winter, the cold weather. That is the best time of all, thought Harriet with relish. It seemed to her, as she looked forward to it, a pageant of pleasantness. Soon we shall have fires, thought Harriet, and sweet peas. I wonder what we shall do this winter? What will happen? And as people far wiser than Harriet have thought, she answered herself. Nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing ever happens here. And then she asked Bea, across the table, 'Bea. Is Captain John coming tonight?'
Bea raised her head. 'I suppose he is,' said Bea, and she added uncertainly, 'Bother.'
'Yes. Bother,' said Harriet. 'Bother! Bother! Bother!'
'We must have a quiet winter this year,' Mother had said. 'The world is too unhappy for anything else. There are hurt men and women, and children dying of hunger ...'
'Oh, Mother!' said Harriet, wriggling.
'Yes,' said Mother firmly, 'think of Captain John.'
'I don't want to think of Captain John,' said Harriet with a feeling of fixed hard naughtiness. 'Why should there be a Captain John?' she asked angrily. 'Or if there must be, why should he want to come here?'
Captain John had come because he had to try to pick up again the threads of living and of earning his living. He had been a prisoner of war and escaped, only to go for more than a year to hospital. He had been tortured in the prison camp, but he was wounded before he went there. He was a young man, or had been a young man, but now his stiff grey face was any age; he had a stiff body, one leg was amputated at the hip, and he had a heavy artificial one that made him more jerky still. The children were warned to be careful of what they said to him. He eschewed grown-ups, but he seemed to like to come into the nursery. Why does he, wondered Harriet. What does he want? He seemed to want something. To be hungry. For what? At first he liked Victoria best, and this was surprising to Harriet because Victoria treated him in a matter-of-fact, off-hand way, that was shocking.
'You mustn't, Victoria,' Harriet told her. 'Captain John was so brave. He stayed there in the battle until his leg was shot off.'
Victoria's brown eyes rested thoughtfully on Captain John. 'Why didn't he stay until the other leg was shot off?' she asked.
But he still seemed to like Victoria best.
'Did Victoria ask him to come tonight?' said Harriet now. 'Or did Mother?'
There was a silence, and then: 'No one asked him,' said Bea. 'He asked me.'
'Asked you?' said Harriet. 'But ...' She had thought that grown-up people did not ask for things.
'He seemed to want to come,' said Bea.
Harriet stared across the table, but all she could see of Bea's face was her forehead and the withdrawn sealed look of her lids as she studied her book. The shadow of her ribbon made a mark of shadow, like a moth, on her cheek. She had withdrawn even further into herself than usual.
Harriet's river was a great slowly flowing mile-wide river between banks of mud and white sand, with fields flat to the horizon, jute fields and rice fields under a blue weight of sky. 'If there is any space in me,' Harriet said, when she was grown up, 'it is from that sky.'
The river emptied itself, through the delta, into the Bay of Bengal, its final sea. There was life in and over its flowing; an indigenous life of fish, of crocodiles and of porpoises that somersaulted in and out of the water, their hides grey and bronze and bubble-blue in the sun; rafts of water hyacinths floated on it and flowered in the spring. There was a traffic life on the river; there were black-funnelled, paddle-wheeled mail steamers that sent waves against the bank and other steamers towing flat jute barges; there were country boats, wicker on wooden hulls, that had eyes painted on their prows and sets of tattered sails to put up in the wind; there were fishing boats, crescents lying in the water, and there were fishermen with baskets, wading in the shallows on skinny black legs, throwing fine small nets that brought up finger-length fishes shining in the mesh. The fish were part of the traffic, and each part was animated by a purpose of its own, and the river bore them all down on its flow.
The small town was sunk in the even tenor of Bengali life, surrounded by fields and villages and this slow river. It had mango groves and water tanks, and one main street with a bazaar, a mosque with a white dome and a temple with pillars and a silver roof, the silver made of hammered-out kerosene tins.
Harriet and the children knew the bazaar intimately; they knew the kite shop where they bought paper kites and sheets of thin exquisite bright paper; they knew the shops where a curious mixture was sold of Indian cigarettes and betel nut, pan, done up in leaf bundles, and coloured pyjama strings and soda water; they knew the grain shops and the spice shops and the sweet shops with their smell of cooking sugar and ghee, and the bangle shops, and the cloth shop where bolts of cloth showed inviting patterns of feather and scallop prints, and the children's dresses, pressed flat like paper dresses, hung and swung from the shop fronts.
There was only one road. It was built high among the fields so that the monsoon floods would not cover it; it went through villages and sprawling bazaars, and over humpbacked bridges, past bullock carts and walking people and an occasional car. It stretched across country, with the flat Bengal plain rolling to the horizon and clumps of villages, built up like the road, in mounds of mango, banana and coconut trees. Soon the bauhinia tress would bud along the road, their flowers white and curved like shells. Now the fields were dry, but each side of the road was water left from the flood that covered the plain in the rains; it showed under the floating patches of water hyacinth, and kingfishers, with a flash of brilliant blue, whirred up and settled on the telegraph wires, showing their russet breasts.
The river came into view from the road, its width showing only a line of the further bank, its near bank broken with buildings and patches of bazaar and high walls and corrugated-iron warehouses and mill chimneys. Small boats, covered in wicker-work cowls, put out from one bank to ferry across to the other. In boats like that the children went fishing for pearls. The pearls were sunset river pearls, but it was the divers, not the children, who found them; the children could not get their hooks to go deep enough; the divers dived naked to the riverbed.
The children lived in the Big House of the Works. The Works were spread away from the bazaar along the river with the firm's houses and gardens on the further side. The life of every family is conditioned by the work of its elders; think of a doctor's house, or a writer's, a musician's or a missionary's. It is necessary for the whole family to live in the conditions that such work brings; for these children it was jute.
The jute grew in the fields; they knew all its processes: from the seed which their father germinated and experimented with at the Government Farm, through its young growth, when they could not ride their ponies across country, to the reaping and steeping in the water along the road, in dykes along the fields, when its stench would hang over the whole land. They saw it come in on country boats, on bullock carts, into the Works and the piles of it lying in the sheds for carding and cleaning and grading, while the great presses went up and down and the bales were tumbled out of them, silky and flaxen with a strong jute smell. They saw it go away to the steamers; the steamers and flats were piled high with it and took it down the river to the mills of Calcutta.
Excerpted from The River by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1946 Rumer Godden Literary Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface to The River,
A Biography of Rumer Godden,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Smooth and Insightful Read! This English narrator returns to her beloved India as an accomplished writer. She fondly remembers her years spent there when she was seven to twelve years old. Her father was employed in India and she lived with her mother, sisters and brother, Bogey. The reader gets a true feel for the Indian landscape and the daily movement of the people as she describes key events from that period of her life. Captain John came to stay with them after a serious war injury. Harriet tells the story and she likes to read her poems and stories to him and get his opinion. She and her sisters vie for his attention and he seems to like the sister Bea the best; but he appreciates Harriet’s ability to write and to speak her mind on issues. The story takes a tragic turn when she finds her little brother face down when he was supposed to be out playing. He has been bitten by a cobra and he dies. One sister blames her because she knew that he had a pet snake and did not tell the others. At the end of The River, her mother has a new baby girl and this seems to lift her hope as they all strive to go forward. She is seen successfully flying a kite and she compares it to her own ability to rise and soar above life’s twists and turns. This is a smooth and insightful read!