Book review : India, 1941. The country is in the midst of an uprising against the British Raj. Led by Gandhi’s freedom fighters, the people rebel against the oppressive influence of the British monarchy. One teenage girl, however, has other matters on her mind. Princess Malvika Singh, otherwise known as the spoilt and mischievous Mili, has just been accepted into the School of Tender Hearts. When Mili and her best friend Vicky arrive at the boarding school, they meet new friends Gurpreet and Jatin and commence causing havoc. But even while skipping lessons and playing practical jokes, the four cannot entirely forget the unrest and violence taking place in the outside world. And when tragedy strikes the students, they must all learn to cope with their grief. Mili finds herself transformed from spoilt princess into someone more solitary and independent. With this comes an increasing closeness to her teacher Raven, who seems to be the only one she can trust. As the violence escalates and love blossoms, the students must all consider their futures, and what it means to be Indian in these tumultuous times.
Here’s yet another novel from the author of The World Beyond, based on the colonial rule in India, struggle for freedom, and a love story between an Indian woman and an Englishman. (It was opposite in her previous novel. It was an Indian man and an English woman) ATS too has the nostalgia, the heart-break of losing the friends to the struggle, the despair, the fear, the tough unavoidable decisions and the life altering moments that the previous one had.
Malvika Singh, shy, dignified, respectable and with an ethereal grace about her, addressed as Mili by friends and relatives, manages to get admission in STH in Kishangarh along with her childhood best-friend, the wacky, the tough girl with care-a-damn and live-for-the-moment attitude, Vicky, to pursue her further studies. She wanted to go because 1) she could be independent – away from the restrictions of the kingdom and 2) she could be with Vicky.
There they become best of friends with Jatin, staunch believer in Ahimsa but a loyal friend and Gurpreet, the extrovert, the revolutionary and who believed in eye-for-an-eye philosophy. The reader is always made to wonder, through the debates between these two, whether the Gandhian principles of Ahimsa were actually right or we could’ve achieved independence sooner if we too attacked back.
Four of these together bunk classes, go to picnics, create all kinds of mischief, get caught and once almost get expelled, but have great fun. Most of their scoldings came from Raven Sir but he also helped them the most.
Their lives suddenly change with a tragic incident involving Vicky. Mili, the frightened, shy girl becomes strong and begins to stand up for herself at the same situations where she wouldn’t normally have. Also, Raven Sir warms up to Mili and suddenly becomes over-protective of his most mischievous student. Mili soon develops feelings for him. And, Mili feels, the feelings were mutual.
Outside STH, the Indian struggle for independence begins to gather pace and strength with so many students joining the struggle. The Quit India Movement in 1942 rocks the town and many English officials begin to leave the country for good.
Mili leaves school mid-way as it (school) begins to haunt her. Raven Sir doesn’t stop her although she was ready to stay back if he did and he knew it.
After leaving STH, she starts an NGO for the downtrodden, abused and helpless women and gets back to STH after 6 years, this time not as a student, but as a missionary with a presentation about her organisation and to raise awareness and funds. But is Raven Sir still around?
What makes Mili to leave the school midway? Why does Raven Sir not stop her? Did he not have feelings for her? What happens post independence in India when all Englishmen were ‘not wanted’ anymore in India? Does Raven Sir leave too? Does India really become independent post 1947? To get answers to all these questions, you’ll have to read the novel.
A warning : Always be stomach full before you start to reading the novel. Or else, you’ll feel unbearable torture. If she tortured the readers with Mughalai cuisine in The World Beyond, she tortures one here with a detailed description and often mentioning the Indian cuisine. Oh, I’m still hungry.
Kudos to her for creating fictional towns out of her imagination yet making them so real and believable. Also, the detailed description of the towns only add to their beauty in the images that you visualise in your mind while reading.
Voice against certain Indian policies and traditions followed back then is raised. Like, widows being admonished to ashrams and forced to led an austere life with no contact with outside world. Like, racial discrimination and discrimination based upon caste and creed.
And more importantly, it’s shown that, just like it was shown in The World Beyond, not all Englishmen were happy with the actions of the British Officials and most of them condemned the unfair treatment and atrocities meted out to Indians.
The World Beyond was set in 1857. The first war of Independence. After the Storm was set in 1942 and 1947. The Quit India Movement and Independence Day. Mathematically, her next novel can be expected to be set in 2037 and historically it must be set in 1965 in which year we fought our first war with Pakistan as an Independent India. And, a love story between an Indian man and a Pakistani woman would be like icing on the cake. 😉
Overall, a wonderful read. Highly recommended for historical fiction lovers. And for mushy-romance lovers.
The author can be reached here – Sangeeta Bhargava