The British Empire Library

Rungli-Rungliot (Thus far and no further)

by Rumer Godden

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Rumer Godden took her two daughters, their governess, and four Pekinese up into the Eastern Himalayas in 1941, respite from the clamour and killing of World War 2. She found the surroundings of the house she chose to rent breathtakingly beautiful and serene. Chinglam, reached by ‘a scratch of a road along the ridge of the mountains,’ stood on a substantial tea estate 18 miles from Darjeeling, though the town felt a world away.

The author of Black Narcissus and many later novels, Godden’s memoir invites us to share her daily life in India. She appeals to our own need to sometimes escape from present-day hurly- burly. The temptation diminishes as we read of the perilous narrow bridge to be crossed between the highway and the houses perched on the mountainside. The eleven servants whom the estate manager advised hiring were Nepali country people, led by ‘Ears,’ from neighbouring Sikkim. He oversaw domestic duties but also the servants designated for such motley jobs as watercarrier, watchman, washerman, woodcutter, and a boy to wait at table. Tasks were unevenly demanding, from the bread-runner who three times a week ran 36-miles miles on foot in a 12-hour round trip to pay Godden’s merchant accounts, to the servant who folded the clothes tidily and set them in elusive places. The children played and learned their lessons together with Giovanna, the Swiss governess, allowing Godden peace of mind to sit at her desk and write. Together with a clutch of small visitors they became an isolated though not lonely community.

Descriptions of the scenery are woven throughout the book, the mountains above, the clouds below, a garden filled with flowers, a lemon tree with fragrant leaves, the stream coming down from a mountain spring on a bamboo path. The nearby River Teesta flooded so dangerously once upon a time, long ago, that a legendary lama ordered it to recede, leaving the community safe in Rungli-Rungliot, the title of this book. We learn the sequence of tea processing, from leaf-picking to drying and readying for dispatch. Routines were interrupted by the Sunday trip to the market at Rungli, a 12-mile ride on the pony Godden bought from the munshi. The market, ‘a line of sellers along the road above the post office’ supplied fresh produce, the forerunner of today’s organic farmers’ markets. And an occasional tragedy interfered, like the chicken, Risotto, dying in agony after eating a hairy caterpillar!

The days drew in, and excitement for Christmas mounted until, on the brink of great disappointment, all seemed lost. With wrapping paper still unused, and no parcels in the mail, it was not until long after nightfall on Christmas Eve that a runner arrived seeking help to bring up the many packages awaiting delivery, a fitting end to a magical chronicle.

British Empire Book
Rumer Godden
Peter Davies
Review Originally Published
Spring 2023 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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