I first met Gita Aravamudan at the Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai in 2011. As we waited for the inaugural session to begin, I started talking with the elegant lady seated on my right and was surprised and delighted to find that she was Gita Aravamudan, a name that was very familiar to me through her bylines in various magazines and newspapers. I especially remembered reading her articles in Aside, a fortnightly magazine that celebrated the Madras in which I grew up. Gita is an award winning author and journalist who has published important non fiction books such as Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, Unbound: Indian Women @ Work as well as fiction. Over the years, I have been in touch with Gita over Facebook and literary festivals. It is a privilege to know a person like her. She is warm, friendly, gracious, a down to earth intellectual. My respect and regards for her have no way biased this review of her latest novel.
Set in the gold mines of Kolar which was once counted among the richest goldmines in the world, The Color of Gold flits back and forth between three different time periods in its narrative spanning a hundred years, and through the characters who live in each of these times weaves together a story that blends literary and historic fiction in the form of a cozy whodunnit mystery. Seen mainly through the eyes of three female protagonists – Shiela, Arati and Ponni who live in the sprawling house in KGF at different periods in time, the Colour of Gold is the story of a town which was once a charming haven and now a ghost of its past, stripped of the sheen of gold that had pervaded it once upon a time.
At the heart of the novel lies the town of KGF where gold was mined from ancient times dating back to the first millennium, which was an idyllic place in the 1950s with sprawling bungalows lines with trees and gardens and a close knit community that rejoiced in the colonial customs left behind in the town which once called itself ‘Little England’. The novel depicts how KGF changed over hundred years through the stories of the people who lived in the place – English officers who held court in KGF during the days of the British Raj, the Indian officers who took over the place after independence and the poor native miners who struggled to make a living under both of these even as they brought forth gold from the heart of the earth.
Between the history of the place that is narrated with a tinge of nostalgia lies the mystery of a genial Anglo Indian who is mysteriously killed soon after he receives a letter from a hundred year old Englishman, the romance between a young Indian woman Arati and an Anglo Indian which is taboo in the period and the passion of an Englishman for his Indian mistress Ponni who has borne him a white child with ‘a touch of the tar brush’. Descriptions of the ore being smelted into golden bricks which are then carried away to England, the claustrophobic atmosphere underground in which even longtime miners feel suffocated, the lure of the shining metal that leads mining expeditions to the their deaths beneath the glittering rocks, the vibrant Christmas balls celebrated in the town in the old English traditions and the changing attitudes to class and race differences across a century, all of these take the reader on a journey across KGF through the different time periods described in the book.
The plot goes from one story to the other without the reader losing interest and ties up the threads neatly in the end, with a twist worthy of classic murder mysteries. I loved the many references to gold in the narrative, such as the dead man being remembered as ‘a solid rock of gold’, Ponni bemoaning her fate of being stuck with Robert Flanagan like ‘a nugget of gold within a rock’, and so on.
The book is action-packed, with lyrical descriptions in places. It is both a gripping page turner as well as a lovely old photo-album with beautiful black and white pictures of a lost golden world.