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I am a paradox. At times I’m spontaneous and wild. At times I am a creature of habit - especially around this time of the year. And so, I spent the Independence Day holiday last week enjoying my annual read of Rosamunde Pilcher’s ‘Coming Home’. The book is one of my mother’s favourites, and ever since she was kind enough to loan it to me, reading it has been my Independence Day tradition.

I keep returning to Pilcher’s novel every February for one clear reason. Towards the end of her story she describes Colombo during British rule. She writes about Kuttan at the Galle Face Hotel. It never ceases to fascinate me that Pilcher wrote about one of the most admirable characters I have ever met. I still recall vividly the day I interviewed him not that many moons ago, at the Galle Face Hotel. After spending an hour with him, satisfied I had enough facts to write a great article I had closed my notebook and got ready to leave when he invited me to the dinning area and offered me tea and cakes. “You have come to my home,” he said. “I can’t let you go without a cup of tea.”

When I met Kuttan, there were wrinkles on his forehead: his mustache was silver. During the years of the Second World War when Judith and Gus, (two main characters in ‘Coming Home’) go in search of him to the Galle Face Hotel, he had looked quite different. Here’s how Pilcher describes him. “They had not heard him come, but now he was there. Gus rose to his feet. ‘Kuttan.’ He stood, beaming, his white tunic embellished with the red silk epaulet that were his badge of office; his hair neat and oiled, his superb raj-style mustache immaculately barbered. “It’s good to see you Kuttan,” says Gus. “And You. God is very good. You have come on the ship from Rangoon?” asks Kuttan.

“Yes.”

“I shall watch your ship sail out into the sea. At dark, all the lights will be on. Very pretty. I shall watch you go home,” Kuttan responds.

Elsewhere in the narrative, Judith, who was born in Colombo and who has now returned to the island enlisted in the Royal Navy gives picturesque descriptions of the Galle Road, the harbor, the taxi drivers waiting near the clock tower in wartime Colombo. Though Judith is not real there is no doubt that Kuttan is the same Kuttan we all knew till recent times and Colombo had looked exactly like how Pilcher describes it in her novel, in the mid 20th Century. It is safe to think so because Pilcher herself had served in Trincomalee during World War II as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Not surprisingly, therefore, in an interview given when the book was published, Rosamunde Pilcher said, “Coming Home” was “not so fictional. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s about my own experiences. Because I had spent a long time meeting with and living with so many young people in Portsmouth and Ceylon, I’d seen countless love affairs starting, blossoming, crashing and ending.” Consequently, the 728-page novel had not only proved more difficult to write but taken five years to complete, including two years of planning. “It was much more work and a much longer book than I thought it would be,” Pilcher recalled. At one point, she found herself with too many characters and had to rewrite the entire first half. “It was a labour of love, really,” she concluded.

For historical accuracy she had turned to Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. For more personal aspects she turned to her childhood in Cornwall, England, and her wartime service in Ceylon, where she was working when the first atomic bomb was dropped.

Her stay in Ceylon had been special because it was from Trincomalee that she embarked on her career as a writer. “While in Ceylon I wrote a short story, and my father submitted it to Woman and Home magazine,” she told The Western Morning News of Plymouth, England, in 2013. “The day he sent me a cable to say it had been published for 15 guineas really was the best moment of my life. It was the moment I knew that I could do it.”

In ‘Coming Home’, the protagonist Judith Dunbar, spends her teenage years at boarding school, while her beloved mother and younger sister live abroad with her father who was stationed in Colombo for several years. When her new friend Loveday Carey-Lewis invites Judith home for the weekend to Nancherrow, the Carey-Lewises’ beautiful estate on the Cornish coast, it is love at first sight for Judith. She falls in love too with the generous Carey-Lewises themselves. With their generosity and kindness, Judith grows from naive girl to confident young woman, basking in the warm affection of a surrogate family whose flame burns bright. But it is a flame soon to be extinguished in the gathering storm of war. And Judith herself has far to travel before at last . . . coming home.

As always, the story Pilcher weaves is an intricate one, moving seamlessly through the war-torn years.

As one critic wrote, here we are among “the reliable sights and sounds of Pilcherdom: a world of strong women, well-mannered men, bracing landscapes, big dogs, loyal cleaning ladies and houses that smell of wax polish …. As with her other novels, her prose in ‘Coming Home’ is packed with warmth and sincerity, and her storytelling skills never cease to mesmerize.

There’s no magic though in how she writes. She said once in an interview, “I always practice my dialogue out loud. Once, when Fiona was small, she had a friend over, and I was hanging up the washing and running through my dialogue. Her friend said, ‘Look, your mummy’s lips are moving.’ And Fiona said: ‘Don’t be stupid. She’s writing.’

Whether you imagine you are walking through the dreamy villages of Cornwall, the stout cottages, and beautiful gardens standing amidst the artists’ studios, galleries, and cafes or allowing the sea breeze to play with your hair on the Galle Road during the 1940s, ‘Coming Home’ is the perfect kind of book to read curled up in bed with a cup of tea and endless hours ahead, on every Independence Day holiday. You will discover on every page, all the good shades of love you would ever know. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

It is sad to note that before I could finish writing this article, Rosamunde Pilcher, passed away in Dundee, Scotland. She was 94.

Her son, the author Robin Pilcher, confirmed the news to the Guardian.

Robin described Pilcher as “a wonderful, rather alternative-thinking mother – I think she might have liked the description bohemian – who touched and influenced the lives of many of all ages, not only through her writing but through personal friendships”.

“When my eldest son was young, my wife would always drop in on my mother on her way to Dundee. He thought that when she said ‘going to Dundee’, it meant seeing his grandmother, so he called her Dondie. She was called that by grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all their friends. She was Universal Dondie,” he said.

She is survived by her four children, 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. 


 

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