In India a woman alone does not go and live alone – not, at any rate, far from her own kind, not unless she is a saint or a great sinner. Sophie was not a saint, or a sinner, but she was undeniably a woman.
So begins the novel, Kingfishers Catch Fire, by British author Rummer Godden (1907-1998). Godden grew up in India and used her experiences as a background for this novel. Kingfishers is the story of Sophie Barrington Ward who takes her two children to live in Kashmir. Her husband, a British officer stationed in India, has passed away and she refuses to return to England to live a conventional life.
Instead she moves to a remote Indian village and rents a small house, hoping to live simply on her husband’s pension. But what passes for simplicity to an English woman is luxurious extravagance to the villagers. From the beginning the people question the strangeness of her ways and her motives for coming. There are two rival clans in the town, but Sophie is completely oblivious to their quarrels. She seems strangely unaware of cultural differences between the villagers and herself, assuming that common sense will win out in every disagreement. She wants to help them, but her western ideas of justice and fairness fall on bewildered ears. Eventually her disregard for the villagers’ beliefs leads to tragedy for herself and her children.
Two men are put in prison, but although they have caused trouble for Sophie, she knows that they are not guilty of the accusations leveled against them. She expresses her concern to Dr. Glenister, the missionary doctor who says, “But, dearie, they hurt you terribly.” Sophie asked herself, Have you a duty to those who hurt you? Surprisingly the answer seemed to be that you had. If Sophie shrank from that answer, that could not take the duty away… (p. 232)
In the end, Sophie does what she can to make amends. Some issues are resolved and others are not. When I finished the book I was left scratching my head over what exactly she had accomplished with her self-imposed exile in Kashmir. Reading Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem from which the book takes its title, cleared up the mystery to some degree. In the poem Hopkins writes that just as kingfishers and dragonflies reflect glorious color as the sun hits their wings, so mortal men reflect God’s glory when they are expressing grace and justice to their fellow men. When they do that, they are “being Christ in a thousand places”.
A very interesting book!