Reading Group Guide - The Splendor of Silence
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Reading Group Guide

In 1960s Seattle, a young woman named Olivia, reeling from the death of her father, receives a trunk from India containing, among other treasures, a letter from an unknown narrator. Olivia reads it, finally learning about her father's time in India and about the mother she never knew — a history that has lived in silence for her whole life.

Thus begins the story of four days in May of 1942 and the events that would shake the fragile peace in the small kingdom of Rudrakot in northwestern India, for many years under the rule of the British Raj. It is the story of Sam, an American soldier in search of a missing brother, and Mila, the free-spirited daughter of the local political agent, and of their sudden love for one another, ignited dangerously within the social tinderbox of a country on the verge of change.

Sweeping and poignant, filled with evocative details from a fascinating time and place, The Splendor of Silence paints an unforgettable portrait of a rapidly changing society and a love ahead of its time.

Though the central story of The Splendor of Silence is the romance between Sam and Mila, many other types of love are depicted as well. How does Mila's love for her father and her brother color her relationships with Jai and Sam? In what ways are each of the central characters in search of or driven by love? Do Mila's familial attachments and Sam's devotion to his brother devalue their love for one another or lend it more depth and meaning?

The settings in the novel are described in intricate detail. Does this create a sense of exoticism or more of a sense of fleshed-out reality? How do these physical details juxtapose with less concrete elements, such as the ghosts of Chetak's tomb and the shifting passions of the characters?

The central narrative of May 1942 is interspersed with the story of Sam's passage through Burma a month prior and framed by Olivia's perspective in 1963 Seattle. How do the tones and writing styles of these three sections differ? How does the immediacy of Sam's experience in April inform the decisions he makes in Rudrakot?

How do the structure of the novel and the repeated foreshadowing tie into the author's themes of karma and fate? In what ways do the future and past exist alongside the present? How does this inform the novel's vision of India?

Mila keeps her work in the Lal Bazaar a secret from everyone in her life. What does her work tell you about her character? How is this complicated by her secrecy?

In describing Raman's relationship with his late wife, Sundaresan writes that she "had satisfied his ego, for all love - despite popular opinion - is not selfless at its very beginning."(Pg. 160) Do you agree with this statement? Are Mila's relationships self-serving? What about Ashok and Vimal, and Kiran's relationship with the British soldiers?

The "silence" of the title is a theme that is repeated in several ways, including the physical silence before the windstorm. How does this natural silence operate as a symbol? In which sense is silence seen as a positive force, and in which negative? What, ultimately, is the splendor of silence?

The social and political climate of 1940s India is depicted as heated and complex, with issues of race, class, and gender inequality creating daily tension and upheaval. Does the revelation of Ashok's homosexuality complicate the discussion more so than the other issues? If so, why?

Why did Mila neither leave with Sam nor provide him with an explanation? Does her death indicate that she made the wrong decision, or was it the only choice she could have made?

The novel ends with Jai inviting Olivia to visit India. Continue the story for yourself. What do you think the visit will mean to her? Why is it important for Jai to break the silence and to see Olivia again?

Interested in finding out more about the author? Visit her website at www.indusundaresan.com where you'll find some of her short works, including an essay on the women of the Taj Mahal.

Included in The Splendor of Silence are some enticingly detailed descriptions of Indian meals. Why not hold a meeting at an Indian restaurant, or even try some of the recipes for yourselves?

Visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Independence_Movement to learn more about the Indian Nationalism movement and the context of the novel.

© Indu Sundaresan
Contact Indu: indu (at) indusundaresan (dot) com