The dying embers of an Indian empire, that had forcibly inducted its indigenous population into a Victorian template of social hierarchy, turns the microscope of these inherent inequalities onto the trauma suffered by a mixed race family unit torn apart by the death of the white patriarch and the subsequent inability of a blinkered western society to place the mother/child bond over and above the colour of a person’s skin.
James Ash’s untimely death at Imphal leaves his children, Jay and Molly, financially dependent on their father’s English family as their Indian mother quickly realises that emotional ties are meaningless in the face of racial prejudice and family resentment that means she is now consigned to a life of social and economic purgatory, having committing herself to a man who has, by stint of his race, left an indelible stain on Josmi’s perceived character.
Rebecca Smith personalises the inequities of race and empire by tracing its largely detrimental impact across the generations, to the modern day, and by shining the optic on one family rather than a nation. As the orphaned children finish their Indian education and arrive in England, the vacuum left by their parents is quickly filled by their extended family. But what remains is their feeling of isolation, and being different, as post-war Britain’s ruling class continues to cling onto a feeling of public school superiority, fuelled by generational dyslexia, which mean colour and heritage are a person’s defining characteristics.
As Jay progresses through life the creation of a memorable life though takes second place to that of a meaningful life. Married and a parent his life superficially conveys a contented man living a provincial life protected from the harshness of adversity. But the unspoken pain of his mother’s existence having been effectively wiped clean hangs in the air like the oppressive humidity of an impending monsoon.
The Ash Museum is a metaphor for the acquisition of memories and ultimately death, and the legacies they leave behind both tangible and intangible. But life is also about finding peace both physically and spiritually and for Jay it is striving for the “perfect view” that could only be found when he is reconnected with his mother.
- Rich Review rating: