1. How is The Wonder House a story of paradise lost? For Kashmir? For Gracie? For other characters? Apart from the conflict, even pollution has diminished the quality of living, and Lake Dal has shrunk to half its size. Is there hope of change by the end?
2. Who are the most reliable reporters of events? What is the picture of Kashmir that you take away from the book? How do the coups define events in Gracie’s world? (see prefatory note and p. 32.)
3. Menace and fear pervade people’s lives. Think of Masood, with his roof-high poplars: “They shut out the fear. . . . There was always danger now. Masood could no longer remember what it had felt like not to sense its presence creeping across the lake from the city” (p. 37). How does fear steal the joys of youth, the security of middle age, and the peace of old age?
4. Crossing lines, intercultural friendship, and forbidden romance are explored in the novel. “I will always be a stranger here, didn’t matter if I learned the language and wore the clothes, if I knew the scriptures better than they did, if I had my child here, if I lost my son and my husband, I will always be a farangi, different, not quite clean, and ultimately never to be trusted because they still think I can up and leave whenever I want” (p. 267). Are the risks of crossing lines worth it in the book? For whom? “I tried hard enough but eventually living your life on best behaviour defeats you” (p. 267). Do you think Gracie is defeated?
5. “He wondered why an old woman on a boat in Kashmir was just as boring as any other drunk” (p. 195). How much of Gracie is captured by this comment? Does her age or being English explain her weakness for “gin and thing”? How does alcohol affect Hal, Lila, and Masood?
6. Thinking of London, Hal recalls, “No mist there, no lake, no mad old woman . . . that was why he had left” (p. 199). Hal comes to Kashmir with a heaviness: “It had to be jetlag” (p. 141). He is seeking a story, “part of a series on how the Islamic conflicts have affected those just trying to live where they have always lived” (p. 156). Is Hal just an intruder in Kashmir, one more foreign journalist to raise Zamruda’s hopes about her lost family? How can he hope to understand the complexities of the region? How does Hal ultimately reconcile his lives in Kashmir and England?
7. How is food important to people in the book? How does it bind the characters on the houseboat? What has changed since the insurgency? Before, we are told, “there had been a constant exchange of food from Hindu to Muslim kitchens, house-to-house, undivided, the same spices simply applied in different ways’ (p. 36).
8. How would you describe Hardy’s style? One of the pleasures is her light imagery. For instance, after prayers at the Friday Mosque: ‘dust spun in the lattices of light among the pillars where there had been the recent rise and fall of the rows of the devoted” (p. 38). Do you remember other imagery–perhaps sounds or smells–that caught your attention?
9. How does memory expand the scope of the book? After her son’s death in a car accident, “Gracie’s dreams had kept his death current for twenty-seven years’ (p. 29). How else does she weave Hari into her present? How do we learn about Suriya’s past? (See p. 30 for her own recollections of spitting contests as a girl.)
10. ‘suriya was an eloquent mute, her every silence a full sentence” (p. 17). What is the origin of her muteness? How is her motherhood central to the book? The connection between Suriya and Lila is compelling throughout their lives. How does Lila’s loyalty become her destiny? Was she ever likely to be able to escape with Hal?
11. What part does superstition play in the novel? Consider the marked cedar wood (p. 3). Other examples?
12. Lila, the “tainted” (p. 65), is the focus of various characters’ fantasies. Who are these people? How does Lila react? What is it besides her mother’s vigilance that protects and sustains her? Why, finally, does she drop her guard?
13. Do you understand Islam somewhat better after reading the book? Masood says, ‘some of it is belief, but much of it is fear” (p. 362). Certainly Islam, as well as the idea of manhood, is used to lure Irfan into the insurgency. But Lila tells Hal, “This is a gentle religion when it’s not carrying a gun” (p. 248). Has fundamentalism increased as a result of the conflict? Irfan asks the cook, ‘do you really believe that Allah wants us to carry the gun and to kill in his name?” And the cook responds, “And do you think those Hindu boys think that their wavy-armed, animal-headed gods want them to kill Muslim boys in their names?” (pp. 150–151). See page 250 for Hal’s own experience in a mosque.
14. What do we learn about the status of women in Kashmir? Lila, after her horrific attack, stands up to Masood. ‘she lurched out of her stupor. . . . “What did I do, Masood Abdullah? . . . What did I do? I am a woman, that is all that I did” ” (p. 86). Masood’s sympathy and shame are mixed: he is a Muslim man who expects his women to stay private. Lila’s attack leads her to recall the story of “the Raped Village” (pp. 95–96), women savaged by the security force meant to protect them. The result? Shamed and outcast women of all ages. What can be done about this problem of shamed women in the world today? Can women themselves change their ambivalence about their dress and their role?
15. Violence and trauma pervade the novel in both private and public ways. Trace the stories of violence and their results. That which is forbidden, such as incest, is doomed. (We think of “these violent delights have violent ends’ in Romeo and Juliet.) It is Irfan’s obsession with his cousin Lila that destroys her and his own sanity. When Hal inquires about justice, he is told, “It was family matter” (p. 353). How do families serve as double-edged swords in Muslim life today?
16. How are the English portrayed? Masood recalls his schoolboy lesson on “If,” the Kipling poem, “all about being pukkah British and stiff-lipped” (p. 367). Gracie’s own Indian husband was Oxford educated. Hal is typed easily by the boatman who “knew that Hal would come to him. The English formed habits and attachments so quickly” (p. 181). What, in contrast, do you notice about the Kashmiri? Is human nature fundamentally different in the two groups?
Suggestions for further reading:
Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir, edited by Urvashi Butalia (Kali for Women). A fearless compilation of statements from the women of Kashmir. From a district officer’s wife’s account of the family flight from Muzaffarabad, now in Pakistan, during the chaos of Partition, to the searing simplicity of the words of ordinary Kashmiri women today, this book shouted its way off the presses of a tiny publishing house.
Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War by Victoria Schofield (IB Taurus). Schofield is one of the leading commentators on Kashmir. The Pakistanis believe her views to be pro-India, the Indians think that she is pro-Pakistan, so by definition her views are a great deal more balanced than most of the Kashmir memoirs of generals or journalists from either side. She offers a series of possible resolutions that draw the reader into really imagining how the conflict in Kashmir might be resolved.
The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir by Sudha Koul (Beacon Press). Koul is a Kashmiri Pandit, from the minority Hindus of the Valley, now living in America. This is a potent mixture of the real and of magic realism, weaving together the myths of the Kashmir Valley with Koul’s childhood memories of growing up in a time before the conflict.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage International). This, too, is a memoir of Ondaatje’s birthplace at a time when Sri Lanka was still Ceylon, of his Dutch-Sinhalese family and the characters who peopled the first eleven years of his life. But it is his evocation of the island of his birth, part air and light, part madness and tragedy, that makes the place itself the leading character. It reads as a master class in the capturing of a landscape and its people.
The Everest Hotel: A Calendar by I. Allan Sealy (IndiaInk). A beautifully crafted book that tells the story of the end of one man’s life as the permanent resident of the hotel of the title, set in a partially fictional Himalayan hill station. Sealy’s fragile detail makes the reader see how actions, both great and small, can impact in equally powerful ways, whether it be just a word said in anger or a vast revolutionary gesture borne of great personal pain.
Staying On by Paul Scott (Chicago University Press). Even though it is not considered a part of Scott’s Raj quartet, this is the book for which Scott posthumously won the Booker Prize. It is often referred to as the postscript to the other four, which circle around a central cast of English characters in India as independence approaches. Written with delicate shades of character and place, it nudges the reader into the strange world of those who stayed on, unable to leave the world of the Raj once the British had left India. It is a small book of enormous poignancy.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage). Mistry has perhaps the greatest ability of his generation for turning the quotidian into the parabolic. This is another tale of the end of a life. Nariman Varkeel is from the Parsi community in Bombay. The end of his life examines all aspects of family life. Through it we witness how both the best and worst of human nature comes out around those we are related to, and in it we see ourselves. It is a lyrical parable.
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (Grove Press). The facts of Partition are too huge for most of us to absorb: the movement of millions of people, the death trains, the Hindu-Muslim massacres, but Singh takes one small village in the Punjab and their story of what happened to their Muslims as the atrocities of Partition happened around them. Singh is the grand man of letters in India, a writer whose work should be better known abroad as well because he is one of the great writers of his generation, and indeed superior to many of the Indian writers abroad who have been taken to the heart of the literary world.