Join Elle Newmark, author of the historical fiction novel, The Sandalwood Tree (Atria), as she virtually tours the blogosphere in March, April and May on her second virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!
About Elle Newmark
Elle Newmark is an author whose books are inspired by her ravels. Her work has been published into 16 languages and she lives in the hills north of San Diego with her husband, a retired physician. She has two grown children and five grandchildren.
To find out more about Elle or learn about her books visit http://ellenewmark.com
Visit her tour page at Pump Up Your Book!
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About The Sandalwood Tree
From incredible storyteller and nationally bestselling author Elle Newmark comes a rich, sweeping novel that brings to life two love stories, ninety years apart, set against the backdrop of war-torn India.
In 1947, an American anthropologist named Martin Mitchell wins a Fulbright Fellowship to study in India. He travels there with his wife, Evie, and his son, determined to start a new chapter in their lives. Upon the family’s arrival, though, they are forced to stay in a small village due to violence surrounding Britain’s imminent departure from India. It is there, hidden behind a brick wall in their colonial bungalow, that Evie discovers a packet of old letters that tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the very same house in 1857.
Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to uncover what the letters didn’t explain. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, a dark secret is exposed, and this new and disturbing knowledge creates a wedge between Evie and her husband. Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Bombay and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love.
When I found the hidden letters, I had just ﬁnished an assault on the kitchen window. I squeezed out the sponge and stood back, squinting with a critical eye. A yellow sari converted to curtains framed the blue sky and distant Himalayan peaks, which were now clearly visible through the spotless window, but the late-afternoon sun spotlighted a dirty brick wall behind the old English cooker. The red brick had been blackened by a century of oily cooking smoke and, just like that, I decided to roll up my sleeves and give it a good scrub. Rashmi, our ayah, deigned to wipe off a table or sweep the ﬂoor with a bunch of acacia branches, but I would never ask her to tackle a soot-encrusted wall. A job like that fell well beneath her caste, and she would have quit on the spot.
The university chose that bungalow for us because it had an attached kitchen instead of the usual cookhouse out back. I liked the place as soon as I walked into the little compound full of tangled grass and pipal trees with creepers twisting around their trunks. A low mud-brick wall, overgrown with Himalayan mimosa, circled our compound with its hundred-year-old bungalow and vine-clad verandah, and an old sandalwood tree, with long oval leaves and pregnant red pods, presided over the front of the house. Everything had a weathered, well-used look, and I wondered how many lives had been lived there.
Off to one side of the house, a path bordered by scrappy box-wood led to the godowns for the servants, a dilapidated row of huts, far more of them than we would ever need for our small staff. At the far end of the godowns a derelict stable nestled in a grove of deodars, and Martin talked about using it to park our car during the monsoon. Martin had bought a battered and faded red Packard convertible, which had been new and snazzy in 1935 but had seen twelve monsoons and too many seasons of neglect. Still, the jalopy ran, I had a bicycle, Billy had his Red Flyer wagon, and that’s all we needed.
The remains of the old cookhouse still stood around back, listing under a neem tree, a bare little shack with a dirt ﬂoor, one sagging shelf, and a square of mud bricks with a hole in the center for wood or coal. Indians didn’t cook inside colonial houses—a ﬁre precaution and some complicated rules having to do with religion or caste—and it must have been some very unconventional colonials who decided to attach a kitchen to the main house and install
a cooker, bless their hearts.
I hired our servants myself, choosing from a virtual army that lined up for interview. They presented their chits—references— and since most of them couldn’t read English they didn’t realize that the bogus chits they had bought in the bazaar might be signed by Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, or Punch and Judy. The only chit I could be absolutely sure was authentic said, “This is the laziest cook in all India. He strains the milk through his dhoti and
he will rob you blind.”
In the end we had a scandalously small staff—a cook, an ayah, and a dhobi who picked up our laundry once a week in silent anonymity. At ﬁrst, we’d also had a gardener, a sweeper, and a bearer—a more typical arrangement—but that many servants made me feel superﬂuous.
I particularly disliked having a bearer, a sort of majordomo who trailed around after me, doing my bidding or passing my orders on to the other servants. I felt helpless as a caricature of a nineteenth-century memsahib, swooning on a daybed. Our bearer had been trained in British households and would wake Martin and me in the morning with a tradition called “bed tea.” The ﬁrst time I opened my eyes to see a dark, turbaned man standing over me with a tray it scared me out of my wits. He also served our meals and stood behind us while we ate; it felt like sitting in a
restaurant with an eavesdropping waiter, and I was painfully conscious of our conversation and my table manners. I found myself delicately dabbing the corners of my mouth and keeping my spine straight. I could see that Martin felt it, too, and meals became an uncomfortable chore.
I didn’t want “bed tea,” I didn’t want a bearer—always there, always hovering—and I enjoyed feeling useful. So I kept our little house clean and watered the plants on the verandah myself. I liked the natural jungly look around the bungalow, and the notion of having a gardener struck me as absurd. Martin told me the expatriate community was appalled by our lack of servants. I said, “So?”
I kept the cook, Habib, because I didn’t recognize half the things in the market stalls, and since I didn’t speak Hindi, the price of everything would have tripled. I kept Rashmi, our ayah, because I liked her and she spoke English.
When I ﬁrst met Rashmi, she greeted me with a formal bow, her hands in an attitude of prayer. She said, “Namaste,” and then began giggling and clapping, making her chubby arms jiggle and
her gold bangles jangle. She asked, “From what country are you coming?
I said, “America,” wondering if it was a trick question.
“Oooh, Amerrrica! Verryy nice!” The ruby in her right nostril twinkled.
Rashmi deeply disapproved of a household with so few servants. Whenever she saw me beating a rug or cleaning the bathroom she would hold her cheeks and shake her head, her eyes round and alarmed. “Arey Ram! What madam is doooiiing?” I tried to explain that I liked to keep busy, but Rashmi would stomp around the house mumbling and shaking her head. Once I heard her say, “Amerrrican,” as if it were a diagnosis. She started sweeping up with neatly tied acacia branches and taking out the garbage. I had no idea where she took it, but it seemed to make her happy to do it.
Whenever I thanked Rashmi for something, she would waggle her head pleasantly and say, “My duty it is, madam.” I wished Martin and I could accept our lot so easily.
My beautiful Martin had come home from the war with a shrouded, chaotic underside, wanting everything as neat as an army cot. It was about control, I know that, but he drove me nuts, picking at imaginary lint on my clothing and lining up our shoes side by side on the closet ﬂoor, like a row of soldiers snapped to attention. At ﬁrst I complied and kept everything shipshape, simply because we didn’t need yet another thing to argue about. But I soon discovered that ordering furniture and annihilating dust gave me a fragile sense of control—Martin was on to something there—and I enjoyed imposing my antiseptic standards on India, keeping my little corner of the universe as predictable as gravity. When this altered Martin came home from Germany, straightening books on the shelf and bufﬁng his shoes until they screamed, he often complained of a metallic taste in his mouth, rushing off to brush his teeth ﬁve times a day. I didn’t know what he tasted, but I did know he had nightmares. He twitched in his sleep, muttering disjointed bits about “skeletons” and calling out names of people I didn’t know. Some nights he’d shout in his sleep, and I’d spring up, shocked and scared. I’d dry the sweat from his face with the sheet and kiss the palms of his hands while his breathing calmed and my heart slowed. His skin would be clammy and he’d be trembling, and I’d rock him and croon in his ear, “It’s all right. I’m here.”
After a while, when it seemed safe, I’d say, “Sweetheart, talk to me. Please.”
Sometimes he’d talk a little, but only about the language or the landscape or the guys in his platoon. He said it bothered him that German sounded so much like the Yiddish of his grandparents; then he shook his head as if he was trying to understand something.
He told me that Germany was littered with castles and fairy-tale villages, all blasted to hell. He said the soldiers in his platoon were an unlikely bunch thrown together by war, men who would not otherwise have met. Martin, a budding historian, bunked with a fast-talking mechanic from Detroit named Casino. Also in his barracks were an American Indian named William Who Respects Nothing, and a Samoan named Naikelekele, whom the men called
Ukulele. Martin said they were OK guys, but a CPA from Queens named Polanski—Ski to the guys—had the wide slab face and ﬂat blue eyes behind too many of the pogroms mounted against the Jews, and Martin had to keep reminding himself that they were on the same side.
But Ski cheated at cards and had a nascent anti-Semitic streak. Martin said, “Of all the decent guys in that platoon I had to haul Ski back to a ﬁeld hospital while better men lay dead around us.”
His ambivalence about saving Ski haunted him, but it wasn’t the thing eating at him like acid.
One night, in bed, after having had an extra glass of wine with dinner, Martin knit his ﬁngers behind his head and told me about a mess sergeant from the hills of Appalachia, Pete McCoy, who made a crude liquor with pilfered sugar and yeast and canned peaches. Pete had served an informal apprenticeship at his father’s still, deep in the woods of West Virginia, and in a rare, lighthearted moment, Martin did a skillful imitation. He drawled, “Ah know it ain’t legal.
But mah daddy’s gonna quit soon as he gits a chance.”
I said, “The nightmares aren’t about Pete McCoy’s moonshine.”
“Hey, you didn’t taste that stuff. Burned like a son-of-a-bitch going down.” His voice became abstract. “But sometimes the moonshine was necessary, like when Tommie . . . Well, anyway, McCoy was like the medic who brought the morphine.”
I said, “Who was Tommie?”
Martin looked away. “Ah, you don’t want to hear that stuff.”
“But I do. Talk to me. Please.”
He hesitated, then, “Nah. Go to sleep.” He patted my hand and rolled away.
World War II veterans were icons of heroism, brave liberators, and most of them were glad to leave the ugliness buried under the war rubble and get back to a normal life, or try to. But Martin had come home with invisible wounds, and our normal life was as ruined as the German landscape. I wanted to understand. I’d been begging him to talk for two solid years, but he wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t let me help him, and I felt worn to a stump from trying.
That business of rolling away from me in bed hurt, but by
the time we got to India, I was doing it, too. I was becoming as frustrated as he was tormented, and we took our pain out on each other. We hid in our respective corners until something brought us out with ﬁsts raised.
I couldn’t ﬁx our insides, so I ﬁxed our outside. I prowled around the bungalow searching for dust mites to exterminate, mold to slaughter, and smudges to wipe out. I vanquished dirt and disorder wherever I found it and it helped, a little. The morning I found the letters, I’d ﬁlled a pail with hot soapy water and pounced on the sooty bricks behind the old cooker with demented determination. I described foamy circles on the wall with my brush and . . . what? One brick moved. That was odd. Nothing in that house ever rattled or came loose; the British colonials who built the place had expected to rule India forever.
I put the brush down and forced my ﬁngernails into the crumbling mortar around the loose brick, then wiggled it back and forth until it came out far enough for me to get a grip on it. I teased the brick out of the wall and felt a thrill of discovery when I saw, hidden in the wall, a packet of folded papers tied with a faded and bedraggled blue ribbon. That packet reeked of long-lost secrets, and I felt a smile lift one corner of my mouth. I set the blackened brick on the ﬂoor and reached in to lift my plunder out of the wall. But on second thought, I went to the sink ﬁrst to wash the soot from my hands.
With clean, dry hands, I eased the packet out of its hiding place, blew the dust from its crevices, then laid it on the kitchen table and pulled the ribbon loose. When I opened the ﬁrst sheet, the folds seemed almost to creak with age. Gently now, I smoothed the fragile paper out on the table and it crackled faintly. It was ancient and brittle, the edges wavy and water-stained. It was a letter written on thin, grainy parchment, and feminine handwriting rose and swooped across the page with sharp peaks and curling ﬂourishes. The writing was in English, and the way it had been concealed in the wall hinted at Victorian intrigue.