THE SPLENDOR OF SILENCE by Indu Sundaresan. Atria Books, New York. September 2006. Hardcover, 399 pages. $25.00. www.simonandschuster.com. www.indusundaresan.com
With the Quit India campaign providing texture to The Splendor of Silence, Indu Sundaresan weaves a colorful tale of forbidden love, revolutionary fervor, and covert military operations. In this, her third novel, the author leaves the Mughal Empire behind and leaps almost to the present, to a time in which the British were trapped between surviving World War II and holding onto India. Set during a four-day period after the Japanese have invaded Burma, this novel is filled with well-built characters, explosive events, and undeniable intrigue.
Splendor opens, however, in 1963 Seattle, when 21-year-old Olivia receives a trunk of treasures from India. An accompanying letter reveals the previously untold story of the passion between Sam, the American father she worshipped, and Mila, the Indian mother who until then remained a mystery. The correspondent admits all of the disasters that befell the key players would not have happened “… if Sam had not come to Rudrakot.” The letter continues, “It would be many years before we could talk of those four days in May, many years before I could consider them with something akin to equanimity.”
This letter, floating in and out of the story proper, transports Olivia and the reader to the desert kingdom of Rudrakot in northern India and to a time when war threatened, racial prejudice was rampant, and a rising nationalist movement rumbled across the country. Sam, an American soldier with the Office of Strategic Services, travels to Rudrakot on a personal, secret mission: to find his brother—believed incarcerated—and rescue him from the local British installment. Meanwhile, Sam’s single purpose is threatened when he meets Mila, the lively daughter of Rudrakot’s political agent and fiancée of the kingdom’s prince. Mila and Sam fall in love, but both know that their mutual attraction must be kept secret at all costs. Burdened but not slowed, Sam goes about the business of making alliances to assist him with his mission. One of these alliances will prove to be critical yet force Sam to make choices that will impact either his brother or Mila’s family. At the same time, the ugly politics of prejudice will turn on an unsuspecting victim and illustrate how quickly easily assumed camaraderie can change.
While it would have been easy for the author to make more of World War II in the story, she chose instead to illustrate the period’s growing unrest, presenting India as it prepared for eventual independence from Britain. From radical bomb plots to military segregation, from the glittering expanse of a royal palace to the realities of caste and class divisions, the author paints a historic picture that neither apologizes for nor boasts of existence during the British Raj of the 20th century. In short, this book is as much a war-and-adventure story as it is a love story. While love-and-intrigue stories run the risk of falling into the category of romantic fluff, Sundaresan’s characters are as developed and mature in their miscalculations and trespasses as they are in their successes and victories. Between the focused and determined Sam and the spirited and independent Mila comes a kaleidoscope of characters who radiate life from all points of the societal spectrum and who build upon interwoven subplots that shock, surprise, and entertain.
Are the lovers legendary? Perhaps so because even in their silence, as Sam learns, “All legends are true in India.”
—Jeanne E. Fredriksen