SOME OF THE most heavily traveled trails in personal memoirs are the journeys of European women -- especially Englishwomen -- heading eastward in search of the emotional unknown, "real" life, truth and romance -- what the English writer Leslie Blanch aptly dubbed "The Wilder Shores of Love."
Indeed, that genre was evidently what landscape architect and writer Sarah Lloyd's publishers thought they were getting involved with when they decided to promote her rather amazing book, An Indian Attachment, as "the true story of an Englishwoman's haunting love affair with a young Sikh." A love story, after all, will inevitably attract casual readers far more easily than a scrupulously detailed book about life in rural India; then too, Sikhs are tragically in the news these days (no doubt a total coincidence, but a useful one in the timing of Lloyd's book).
But that is not the book she has written.
Instead, An Indian Attachment is a rare example of descriptive writing at its most attentive, a world observed from within by a writer who is able to put her ego aside and get on with the task at hand: the presentation of a gripping and authentic picture of a totally foreign world. It is a book that should be read by anyone with the slightest interest in India and for that matter by anyone who cares about a truthful prose style.
Sarah Lloyd had already been traveling in India for a while when she encountered the handsome Jungli at a sort of free hostel offered by the Sikhs at their temple in Calcutta. Jungli, a 30-year-old idealistic and orthodox Sikh, had traveled there with friends from his home, a village near Amritsar 1,500 miles away in North India, to help in the search for a runaway brother of one of his traveling companions. Comradeship developed as they shared cooking chores for the communal establishment; sightseeing and friendship followed and then the pull of an affection that made Lloyd, equipped with Jungli's address, turn up in Amritsar to find him two months later.
The relatively simple story line follows her two-year relationship with Jungli, first during their stay with his family in a remote mud- built village, and later on living in a rudimentary hut on the fringes of a religious community (dehra) attached to a dubious Sikh holy man.
But throughout the book, what fascinates is the incredibly revelatory detail, the kind that even a long-term visitor to India would simply not have access to: the family's habit, in order to avoid the heat of mid-day, of taking their meals only twice a day -- first at 9 in the morning and then at 8 in the evening -- and the inevitable long stretches of hunger that resulted from that pattern; or the fact that plasticflowers often appear in Punjabi homes because live flowers are thought to be messy; or that it is part of Sikh hospitality never to ask a guest why he has come or when he is going to leave; or what it is like when a male Sikh washes his hair and he must deal with that long, thick wet mass, coiled up underneath his turban.
THERE ARE also simply wonderful descriptions of a country that Westerners, after all, have attempted to describe since they first set foot on the subcontinent. Witness just one example, and they are everywhere in this book: "There were such marvellous birds . . . Wild peacocks roosted in ancient banyans and foraged for grain in the fields. Broad-bean-green bee-eaters, resplendent rollers in turquoise and indigo and king-size kingfishers with fierce crimson bills perched on overhead wires. Paddy birds stood dolefully in the marshes, like sad old men hunched up in overcoats and mufflers with their trouser legs rolled up. On my way to the latrine ground I would pass within a few feet of a pair of hoopoes elegantly grubbing for insects in the silt. High above soared eagles and kites and singing larks; in the grass at my feet were quail, partridge and red-wattled lapwing.' '
When it comes to personal details, attempts at self-questioning, or to the rather fuzzy subject of whether Lloyd went into this experience with a book in mind (her habitual writing was a continual source of conflict with Jungli), her commitment to detail is admittedly less wonderful. It is never at all clear why she loved Jungli (she knew from the start he was an opium addict), and several fairly important personal details are not adequately explained, like her voluntary absences -- an abortive trip to Pakistan or longer ones to the faraway Kulu valley or Sri Lanka; nor is it clear why she felt compelled to call him by a name she felt suited his personality more than his given name (which was Pahari or "hillman").
But despite these elusive tactics, the is written with both a sense of humor ("I had found my milieu: a society of people more bossy than I," she writes ) and a lack of romanticism (she wonders, for example, if their limited ability to communicate in a common language when they first met actually kindled her and Jungli's relationship).
Sarah Lloyd's life with Jungli, particularly at the dehra, involved a degree of physical discomfort few Westerners could handle. The rats, snakes and insects, the slum-like conditions, the lack of western plumbing, the extremely limited light indoors -- all these were part of her daily life. She could accept physical deprivation, but what was hard for her was the lack of privacy many Indians take for granted.
So, in the end, Indian life would not be possible for her: its limitations on "personality and self-expression, natural talent, sexual energy and freedom of choice" -- and most of all the limitations on privacy -- were too oppressive. Gradually she became crosser about Jungli's moods, his opium, his indifference to her writing. The final blow, however, came not from her problems with him but with the holy man on whom their community focused. An ultimatum he issued to have the members sign over their lives to him was simply unacceptable, and it soon became an unspoken inevitability that she would leave.
It is hard to know what Sarah Lloyd's original goals were when she started her life with Jungli. She acknowledges in the book that she was never quite at home in England and was searching for a simpler life; she says, too, that she was writing and research ing a study of Punjabi history and village traditions. But in the end, her descriptions are so powerful that questioning her motives becomes irrelevant. There are few people who can give themselves to another way of life and continue to remain observers. It is her gift that she can.