Mothers and daughters stretch India’s social boundaries

The Jewel Daughters, by Nina Harkness. Pothi.  278 pages. Trade paperback $14.00. Kindle $2.99.

Like her debut novel A Sahib’s Daughter, this new title by Ms. Harkness is a multigenerational and multicultural exploration of life during and after India’s period as a British colony. Spanning forty-five years, it has as one area of interest the relationships between Indian natives and British tea plantation administrators, revealing the cultural and racial social structure during a period of change. JewelDaughtersFront

The central character is Cara Powell, daughter of a Welsh Presbyterian pastor in Shillong, a small city known for its beautiful rolling hills and as a regional administrative center. The pastor dies when Cara is fourteen, and her mother Beula, an orphan of mixed race, struggles to raise her on a slim pension from the church. Fearful for beautiful Cara’s future, Beula is anxious to marry her off. Rather than encourage a relationship with a local boy, Avon, she insists on a marriage to the self-centered and ill-tempered Scottish sahib, Gerard McKenzie, manager of a tea plantation near Sonari in the state of Assam.

McKenzie takes Cara to Sonari, but he never takes her in marriage.

McKenzie is both crude and cruel. Cara’s life with him provides some degree of luxury, but she is disrespected and abused. A man of little education and no tact, he eventually finds himself overwhelmed by social change, labor agitation and other changes in the tea business, and especially by the responsibilities of domestic life and fatherhood.

Cara raises three daughters. Two are her children by McKenzie. The third is the daughter of a neighboring indentured laborer named Saptamita, who has returned McKenzie’s attraction to her. However, this woman realizes that both she and the child would be better off if the girl (McKenzie’s one year old daughter) was taken into the McKenzie household and raised as Cara’s daughter.

Nina Harkness

Nina Harkness

The book’s title comes from the girl’s names, and their names come from their physical features. Saptamita’s blue-eyed child is named Sapphire; Cara’s older daughter, with her father’s flame of red hair and also his temper, is named Ruby. Her younger daughter, more diminutive and pale-eyed, is Pearl.

Cara’s relationship to each daughter is different, as are the girls’ personalities. Ms. Harkness brings us inside of Cara’s complex feelings for each. Readers share Cara’s struggles as a mother who is essentially the property of a childish, brutal man whose personal comforts are his only concern. Domestic life is a constant irritation to him, and he eventually finds his way back to Scotland, abandoning Cara and his daughters. Cara’s strength and self-sacrifice are set in sharp contrast to McKenzie’s boorish insensitivity.

With little social standing once abandoned by McKenzie, and no claims on property or income from him (beyond what he left behind) or from the British government, Cara and her three bastard daughters – like Cara herself subject to the prejudices against people of mixed race – return to Shillong. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 9, 2014 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Jewel Daughters

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