By Joanne Norris
Throughout history, what is unspoken can shape the future just as fundamentally as what is heard. Things get concealed and forgotten, leaving other events and other voices to shape the narrative and dictate how that history will be perceived in years to come. There are notable examples of how explicit this concealment can be, such as the use of propaganda in the Second World War. By a subtle altering of the facts, there is the power to justify atrocities and change the way that we view the past – a bias that seems to go against the nature of what history represents. However, it can also occur by a more subtle omission: for instance, in the selective nature of what gets taught in schools.
The events portrayed in Belonging by Umi Sinha are a part of history that don’t often get taught in mainstream education, lending them almost an air of fiction for those who may not know much about the British Empire and the colonisation of India. Umi’s meticulous research, which includes accounts from real diaries, blends fact and fiction together in a gripping and emotive story. This blurring of the boundaries of fact and fiction in her writing style mirrors that which happens in the novel, and in history in general.
In Belonging, we see numerous examples of how the truth can be concealed – both in the wider events that shape society and in the personal lives of its characters. As we read, we are not only reading the accounts themselves, but reading between the lines: attempting to uncover the truth that is hinted at as we begin to piece together the story alongside the characters. It’s a journey not only through the hundred years that the novel spans, but through the complicated and troubled lives of the main characters, who are connected in ways that they barely understand. These struggles between connection and disconnection, belonging and loss, fact and fiction are what makes Belonging such a complex and varied experience. It’s a study on the past, the present, and how history can shape and mould the existence of individuals – even when that history is not fully uncovered.
Following Lila’s story, we are witnesses to how fundamentally she has been shaped, not just by the traumatic events of her past, but by the attempts to hide them. During her early years in India, Lila’s home life is shadowed by the mystery around her mother and her ‘headaches,’ with Lila forced to make herself almost invisible in the family home so as not to unsettle her. But when she moves to England after she witnesses her father’s suicide, the invisibility continues. Aunt Mina refuses to call her Lila, seeing it as a ‘native’ name and instead insisting on calling her Lilian in an attempt to eradicate the past. Mina chooses a new name and a new backstory for Lila in order to allow her to be “free of the past” but the reality is that by rewriting Lila’s story, it silences her emotionally as well as physically, when she becomes voluntarily mute. While Mina’s intentions are good, it can also be said that she is doing this for her; she is making Lila’s story more palatable, less of a reminder of her own painful associations with India.
Throughout the novel, Lila struggles with the impact of ‘not knowing,’ but the attempts made to cover up and conceal her history do not give her peace, as expected. It colours all the decisions that she makes and how she interacts with the world; from her voluntary muteness to her belief that she is alone and unwanted. Lila describes Mina’s attempts to bury India and her past as “annihilation.” The violence of this word at first seems dramatic in the voice of a child, but she captures early on the problematic nature of concealment and the damage it can do. Her father, Henry, is troubled by the same concerns. He grows up believing that he is responsible for his mother Cecily’s death. Despite his own father’s refusal to speak of what really happened during Henry’s childhood, Henry’s dreams hint at the truth. Here, Henry’s memory has more power than his father’s attempts to protect him:
Last night I had the dream again. It’s always the same: I am in a small hot space, with something covering my face so I can’t breathe. My eyes, nose and mouth are filled with darkness and in my ears there is a terrible screeching and I open my mouth to call for help, but no sound comes.
The dreams have a dual meaning. They demonstrate how inextricable the past truly is, as Henry dully remembers his early life being placed in a bag by his mother to save him from the devastating events of Cawnpore, yet also representing the stifling nature of concealment in general. Both his childhood and also Lila’s are shrouded in darkness, shaped by what they do not know.
This desire to be “free of the past” comes up numerous times within the novel, spoken by characters as a way to protect themselves and those around them from the pain of their history. After Lila is born, Henry is told that she has his mother’s eyes, but he is conflicted by this similarity:
One part of me was glad, another sorry that she should carry anything of our history. I would like to free her of it all – of that grinding weight that bears down on us and pushes our lives in directions we never dreamt of.
Henry doesn’t want Lila to have the same experience as him growing up but in the end he can’t control it, driven as he is by the secrecy and unhappiness in his own existence to take his life. He sees the past like a curse; a shackle that he has not been able to break. Characters often contemplate their own free will, and whether they have the autonomy to change the paths laid out for them. For instance, Lila is haunted by the idea that she may be a carbon copy of her mother, that the roots of her history cannot be upturned. Both Henry and Mina want Lila to be free, but ultimately the past is what helps us to change things for the better. It’s the same in our personal lives as it is in history – by understanding the past and being open to all its complexities we can make more informed choices. Even the most appalling events are included in this novel with no sense of judgement. Umi simply describes them as they happened, giving a voice to those who suffered without condemnation of any ‘side.’
Umi’s ability to retell these stories without passing judgement is even more palpable when contrasted with the prejudices we see, particularly with regards to the experiences of Indian soldiers during World War 1. For instance, Jagjit’s experience of Kut and the ‘Mesopotamian Picnic’ is very different to the way it was portrayed to the British public. So called by the papers in comparison to what was happening on the Western Front, the campaign cost thousands of lives and soldiers existed in unimaginably harsh conditions. From Lila’s conversations with Jagjit and Simon, she (and we, as readers) learn just how much they suffered. This renaming of the Mesopotamian Picnic mirrors Lila’s rebirth as Lilian in the eyes of Mina, as well as depicting how events in history can be renamed to give different connotations and divert attention. It’s a display of control and dominion that diminishes the experiences of the marginalised (in this case, the Indian soldiers), and it can also be seen in the way that the British Empire renamed parts of India.
The suppression of truth that twists through the lives of the characters in Belonging is constantly reflected by the other forms of suppression that simmer at the surface. Alongside the trivialisation of those involved in the Mesopotamian campaign, there are other instances of bias and truths being concealed, namely with regards to the Cawnpore rebellion. Mina notes how little information she and the rest of the general public had as the events took place. The limited information and incorrect reports combined to result in news bias, painting the retaliatory violence of the British soldiers as right and just. It seems likely that the shock of the rebellion and the brutality that entailed could have contributed to the prejudice that Jagjit and other Indian soldiers experienced under their British generals, who may have had the slogan “Remember Cawnpore!” on their minds. As a result, Indian soldiers were often seen as being untrustworthy and disloyal, thereby justifying the mistreatment of them. During the research for the novel, Umi noted the difficulty she had in finding accounts of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought for the British during the war. The theme of obscurity exists not only in the novel itself but in the actual creation of the novel.
The threads of concealment, memory and history fray and become entangled in so many ways, connecting characters to each other and to the worlds that they exist in. Paradoxically, what they are searching for is disconnection – they want to belong, but they believe that in order to do so they need disconnection from their past. Only in this can they find freedom. The poignancy is that all these efforts to hide, conceal, and shut themselves off only result in further unhappiness.
Do the characters in Belonging find their sense of belonging? For many, tragically the answer is no. Their efforts to belong are so intrinsically linked to their struggles to connect, and yet this truth is not revealed to them. They live in silence and unspoken words, pushing away their pasts in a desperate attempt to live freely. As soon as Lila arrives in England, she knows that by denying her life in India and all the things that it entailed (both positive and negative) she cannot be herself. As a child she has an instinctive insight into the damage that secrets can have, but it will take time before she can truly fathom what this means. The concealment of her history has debilitated Lila’s efforts to truly understand herself and the trauma she has witnessed. The same has gone for history in general, and history in years to come – hiding the past cannot help us repair it.