’Belonging’ by Umi Sinha


So I was standing in the airport, on my way to a wedding in Stockholm. And as I am currently without a car, my darling flatmate (who is just the best thing since sliced toast) drove me to the airport in the morning before she had to go to work. This was convenient since the airport by car is only 15min from our flat, but because we live weirdly in the middle of nowhere, it would have taken me about an hour and a half by bus. Less convenient was that it meant I was at the airport earlier than necessary. I bought a hot chocolate so I could hide in a corner of the cafe with my book. I then finished my book. And because I was travelling light with only hand luggage, I hadn’t brought a second.

I was not supposed to have finished my book before I even got on the plane. And I still had time before my flight. So inevitably I find myself in a bookshop. Telling myself that I can browse without buying anything. While true that I can force myself to browse without buying, it does make the browsing somewhat bittersweet and I tend to leave with a list of titles on my phone to add to my Amazon wish-list. However as I was in this particular situation in lack of a book, it made the temptation all the worse. And they had one of those fancy 2-for-1 offers which does typically beat Amazon prices. So I find myself departing the bookstore with two new books that I am desperately attempting to fit into my hand luggage between my bridesmaids dress and my toiletries.

So this is the story of how ‘Belonging’ came into my possession. To be fair, the whole concept of ‘belonging’ fascinates me and ‘Belonging’ is fictionalised account of three generations of an English family  and their lives in India during the age of the British Empire. I think even if I hadn’t been in need of a book. Its the kind of book I couldn’t possibly resist.

I’ve been trying to convince my mother to read it so I can discuss it with her. Its a fascinating and fantastic study of Britain and India through the eyes of three generations of a troubled family, Cecily, her son Henry, and his daughter Lila. I should start off by saying the characters are absolutely superb. Characters mean everything to me and I adore the characters in ‘Belonging’. Their so beautifully human and imperfect, while somehow simulataniously inhumanly delicate and magical. In fact the whole way that the book in written is magical. It feels like one is carefully unwrapping layers upon layers of this troubled family, jumping to conclusions, then jumping back, holding ones breathe and letting it go in fits and starts.

Typically I don’t like books that jump between viewpoints (I tend to find myself jumping to the bits about characters that I like and ignoring others) but ‘Belonging’ glides so smoothly between the characters and the scenes and wordings are chosen so carefully and well that I don’t get bored with a particular character. Instead the different characters parts of the story compliment each other so well that one desperately needs them all to piece together the clues. Essentially one is searching for clues to answer all the questions that the first chapter creates, a chapter seen from the viewpoint of Lila who is a child at the time and is hiding and therefore sees little clearly. The only thing that Lila sees clearly is her fathers death and her mothers smile and these are what haunt the whole book.

Perhaps ‘Belonging’ seemed particularly poignant to me because I read it on the airplane to Stockholm and then on the train from Stockholm to Copenhagen to visit my grandparents. Having grown up somewhere in limbo between Denmark and England I have always struggled with my own sense of belonging and never more so then when I visit Denmark. And though ‘Belonging’ is set in India and the characters history is tortured and haunted unlike my own, there were certain parts that resonated deep within me. I had several moments on the train where I had to put the book down and reflect upon a specific phrase of paragraph. All in all it left me with a deep sense of melancholy, but hope, and having used it to reflect upon my own sense of belonging, more at peace with myself. It is a beautiful book and firmly on my list of favourites.

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