Review: “A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman – A South Indian Jane Austen?

A Fine Tapestry by Mythili Lakshman

“A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman is a  very readable novel about a large and traditional Hindu Tamil family and is set in a South Indian village in post-Independence India in circa 1960. The fine tapestry of this novel centres about 2 married sisters, one of whom is suffering a terminal illness. The novel is similar to the works of the famed Jane Austen in relation to consanguineous marriage,  niceness, traditional family and class values, and avoidance of contemporary social horrors, but is in stark contrast to the blunt social messaging of the novels of  South Indian Arundhati Roy.

Jane Austen’s brilliant novels have a message about young upper class English women in rural England of circa 1800  overcoming the  social disempowerment of women in their prosperous environment (notably by truthfulness and clear articulation of their opinions) and finding marriage based on true love [1].  “A Fine Tapestry” [2] has a core message about  the terminal illness of a young wife in the context of a large and loving rural South Indian family in circa 1960. Both authors can be criticized  for avoiding horrendous contemporary social circumstances and narrowly confining their work to the peaceful world of prosperous families and their associates. However  the counterargument is that the writer as an artist is surely  free to choose the subject, canvas and palette – and that is fine as long as we are aware of the Elephant in the Room societal horrors  that have been omitted. Thus while a great fan of Jane Austen’s truthfulness, decency and beautifully constructed, witty and often wickedly ironic writing,  I have coined the term “Austenizing” to describe  how the British Establishment exploited her writing to glorify British imperial  “civilization” while hiding (Austenizing) its horrendous and genocidal realities – a perversion of the truth that continues to this day. No such complications for brilliant South Indian writer Arundhati Roy whose  passionate novels “The God of Small Things” (1997) and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (2017) uncompromisingly tell the big truths about massive social injustice impacting human lives.

Mythili Lakshman graduated in IT (Information Technology) from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai,  and after migrating to Australia obtained a PhD in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and had a 2 decade career in data science.  After the death of her parents,  Dr Mythili Lakshman sought to recapture her Tamil heritage with this first novel, “A Fine Tapestry”, that is variously set in a South Indian village, Trivandrum and in Mumbai  at the post-Independence  time of her parents and grandparents in circa 1960 [2]. The brilliant English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1818) was the daughter of an English clergyman, and did not marry but lived with her sister Cassandra all of her life.  Jane Austen published her first major novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, under a nom de plume in 1811, 6 years after the death of her father in 1805 [1].

Without giving the story away, the father of sisters Latha and Radha,  Paddhu (married to Koma), has 7 siblings. Paddhu’s sister Rajam (married to Rangarajan) has a son Shankar who marries his first cousin Latha. Paddhu’s brother Gopi (married to a fecund and plump Janaki) is a medical doctor who right at the beginning of the novel  diagnoses Latha’s terminal illness (a worsening  heart muscle deficiency), and informs   Paddhu , Koma and thence Latha, but Latha’s husband, Shankar, is kept in the dark. Latha and Shankar are childless after years of marriage but Dr Gopi warns that a pregnancy might kill Latha who consequently spends  a lot of time with her married sister Radha in Mumbai…

“A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman is well-written in plain language, is eminently readable and has been very well edited. For English-speaking and non-Tamil readers it exhaustively translates  key Tamil relationship words in faint type (e.g. Latha is Radha’s elder sister or “Akka”), has useful photographs (e.g.  illustrating different kinds of female clothing, a key element in the novel), and has a detailed Appendix relating to Tamil language, food, religion  and customs. One can see that this sensibly ordered novel was written by a person with a scientific background.  Indeed some of the characters are praised for their linguistic and/or mathematical ability.

I personally deeply related to the novel because my dear late wife for over half a century, Zareena, died recently from a lengthy terminal illness. Zareena née Lateef (Fiji-born, of Bihari and Bengali background, very well read,  and science-trained at the University of Tasmania)  introduced me to North Indian language, culture, food and literature.  All of Zareena’s  grandparents were Indian indentured labourers (5-year slaves known as “Girmityas” from mispronunciation of “Agreement” ),   slaving on British and Australian sugar cane plantations in Fiji [3-12],  and she famously had 71 first cousins.

In reviewing “A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman I have adopted the course of comparing key aspects of the novel with the works of Jane Austen as set out below

  1. Arranged marriages, money and marriage for love.

Like Jane Austen novels, “A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman [2] is largely concerned with love and marriage. “A Fine Tapestry” details  arranged marriages and specifically the arranged  marriage of  the heroine Latha’s sister,  Radhu. In “A Fine Tapestry” the marriages are arranged  by the respective families but mutual attraction and “true love” appear almost before the wedding ceremonies are finished.  The economic realities and economic disparities are revealed and discussed. And of course the various couples must both be Tamil and Hindu of the same class.

Brilliant English novelist Jane Austen confines her novels to the rural English upper classes in  circa 1800 but daringly adopts the proto-feminist line of women marrying for love. Nevertheless the economic and legal realities  and imperatives are made clear. Thus “Pride and Prejudice” clearly and famously states at the beginning that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Chapter 2, page 8 [1]).

The following quotations from Jane Austen’s writings illustrate both sides of this wealth/love dichotomy: “I would rather work for my bread than marry him” (Miss Frederica Vernon in “Lady Susan”, 1794); “I would rather be a teacher in a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like” ( Emma in “The Watsons”, 1804); “There are certainly not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them” (“Mansfield Park”, 1814); “A large income is the best recipe for happiness that I ever heard of. It certainly may secure all the myrtle and turkey part of it” (“Mansfield Park”, 1814); “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony, but I need not dwell on such arguments with you, pretty dear” (Letter from Jane Austen to her niece Fanny Knight (Austen), 1817) (Chapter 6, page 42  [1]).

  1. Class differences.

As noted above, the marriages in “A Fine Tapestry” are exclusively  between high class Tamil Hindus.  Similarly,  virtually all the marriages in Jane Austen’s novels are between variously  wealthy members of the  English upper class.

Thus in  “Emma”, the heroine Emma disingenuously distances herself from Harriet’s decision to reject  (lower class) farmer Robert Martin’s proposal of marriage,  but makes it clear that an affirmative would have ended their friendship: “While you were in the smallest degree wavering I said nothing about it because I would not influence; but it would have been the loss of a friend to me. I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin of Abbey-Hill Farm. Now I am secure in you for ever … Dear affectionate creature! – You banished to Abbey-Mill Farm! – You confined to the society of the illiterate and vulgar all your life! I wonder how the young man could have the assurance to ask it. He must have a pretty good opinion of himself.”

However, when the Harriet match to the farmer  is finalised at the end of the novel, the joy is enhanced by the discovery that Harriet’s father is a well-off tradesman and not a gentleman after all: “The event, however, was the most joyful, and every day was giving her fresh reason for thinking so. – Harriet’s parentage became known. She proved to be the daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had ever been hers, and decent enough to have always wished for concealment. – Such was the blood of gentility that Emma had been so ready to vouch for! – it was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connexion had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley – or for the Churchills – or even for Mr. Elton! – The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed… Harriet, necessarily drawn away by her engagements with the Martins, was less and less at Hartfield: which was not to be regretted. – The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer goodwill; and, fortunately, what ought to be, and must be, seemed already beginning, and in the most gradual, natural manner” (see Chapter 6, page 51 [1]).

  1. Ignoring horrendous  realities.

In “A Fine Tapestry” the characters  live blessed lives in a post-Independence rural village paradise. The only serious shadows (other than economic ups and downs) are Latha’s childlessness, Latha’s terminal heart condition (that precludes pregnancy as life-threatening), the miscarriages of her mother Koma, the terminal tuberculosis of her father Paddhu (that precludes sexual intimacy with his wife), and the widowhood of Latha’s  aunt Subbu (that precludes re-marriage). This large family is otherwise extraordinarily  healthy.

“A Fine Tapestry” is evidently set shortly after Indian Independence because the members of this well-off family are transported  by bullock cart rather than by car.  However, the now ended British Occupation is only  referred to in passing and there is no mention of its horrendous, genocidal atrocities [1]. Thus over 2 centuries Britain ruled India by keeping several hundred million Indians  in dire and deadly poverty under the heel of well-fed and well-armed British soldiers and even more numerous and similarly well-fed Indigenous Indian armed forces. Over 2 centuries Britain  stole $45 trillion from India and reduced the Indian percentage of world GDP from 24% in 1770 to a mere 4% in 1950 [13-20]. Over 2 centuries 1,800 million Indians died avoidably from British-imposed deprivation. Indians suffered a succession of horrendous, British-made famines, from the  1769-1770 Great Bengal famine (10 million killed) to the 1942-1945 WW2 Bengali Holocaust (WW2 Indian Holocaust, WW2 Bengal Famine; 6-7 million people deliberately starved to death by the British  with Australian complicity), with many horrendous famines in between [1, 15-17, 21-34].

South India was  impacted by such famines in 1791-1792, 1805-1807, 1823, 1833-1834, 1854, 1865-1868, 1876-1878, and 1896-1902 [pages 116-117 [1], [23]]. Further, the avoidable death rate from deprivation in “avoidable deaths per thousand of population per year”  decreased from a genocidal 24 under the British (1947) [22] to a much better 3.5 (2003) [34] that nevertheless still means that 4 million people die avoidably  from deprivation each year today in India , as compared to zero (0) in China [34]. This horrendous avoidable death rate would have been declining in the years of the novel,  but would still have been huge and apparent in the decades immediately  after  Independence, even in a South Indian paradise.

Jane Austen’s novels are set at a time when there was shocking poverty in Britain  and in the British Empire through the rural Enclosures in England, brutal industrial conditions, slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, the Napoleonic  war,  and genocidal violence throughout the British Empire. In Jane Austen’s time 1 in 5 women in London survived by prostitution [1].  Yet Jane Austen confined her novels to  the hygienic and privileged lives of the English upper class in the drawing rooms of their fine rural mansions and palaces.   Inevitably the real world intrudes somewhat in the narrative of Jane Austen’s novels with military characters (e.g. in “Pride and Prejudice”) , naval characters (e.g. in “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion”), wealth and sugar from Caribbean slave plantations (e.g. in “Mansfield Park) , rural poverty (e.g. the aggressive Gypsies in “Emma”), and of course, servants, who while untermenschen (lesser humans),  are a background necessity for the privileged lifestyle and as such could have  a key  informative role in the narrative  of Jane Austen’s novels (most clearly so in “Sense and Sensibility”, of which more below) (for a detailed  discussion see Chapter 6, “The rare intrusion of humble social reality into Jane Austen’s novels”, pages 42-55 [1]).

As a great fan of Jane Austen’s exquisite and universal writing, I have earnestly argued that the artist is free to  choose the subject,  the canvas, the medium and the palette.  Jane Austen set her novels in  the world she knew, the privileged rural homes of upper class English families. Jane Austen’s world was not directly impacted by the ghastly horrors of her time (not least those in British-ruled India) and as an artist, in my view, was perfectly at liberty  to exclude those horrors from her nobly moralistic narratives.  Likewise, Mythili Lakshman in her  novel “A Fine Tapestry” was perfectly at liberty as an artist  to exclude from her lovely, culture-inspired novel the ghastly horrors  of post-Raj India (up to 2 million killed in Partition massacres, 18 million Partition refugees, and 350 million Indian  avoidable  deaths from deprivation (1947-2005) . However while respecting the artistic licence of these writers, the reader must be aware of the horrendous contemporaneous social realities.

  1. Bigotry and class consciousness.

Communal hostility and bigotry briefly surface in “A Fine Tapestry”, specifically   in Mumbai when  Radha (Latha’s sister) and her husband Krishnan befriend their neighbour, Vimla Ben, who is shunned by all the other Gujarathi residents of the apartment block for some unknown reason. Latha (who is living with Radha and Krishnan) writes to her husband Shankar: “Did you know that Vimla Ben’s family is excluded by all the other residents in the building? We don’t know why, but even the children are blackballed. The older girls seem to cope. They have each other to play with. But , poor Mridhul! When Radha realized,  she tried to get Mrihdul included in the games,   but the other mothers just took their girls home when Mridhul joined in. We were both so shocked” (page 230 [2]). When Shankar  (a civil engineer and architect) and   Krishnan go into partnership to build multi-storey apartments in Mumbai they encounter a bureaucratic blockage: “It was almost as though the Maharashtrian clerks did not want the Madrasis (as the Tamilians were called derisively) to set up their own business” (pages 258-259 [2]). However they are saved by their influential  and knowledgeable Gujarathi neighbour, Mr Karpadian, who is grateful for their friendship  when they are shunned by their own people: “No, no. Krishnan Bhai, you must know that our own community treats them as pariahs, especially when I am away. Even the wife of your landlord, Dilip, won’t speak to my wife or our children”. Mr Karpadian shook his head. “How cruel to shun a young child like this”” (page 260 [2]).  When the construction partnership gets going, they face a boycott by Maharashtrian workers. Mr Karpadian’s secretary to Shankar: “Saab (boss), all the Maharashtrian labourers are boycotting all businesses owned by Madrasis (South Indian)… They are showing solidarity towards their white-collar counter-parts who are demanding preferential treatment for jobs over migrants, specifically Madrasi migrants” (page 308 [2]). Shankar evades the boycott by going back to Trivandrum and hiring Tamil labourers.

The central characters of “A Fine Tapestry” and their wider connections are all unfailingly nice by today’s nice standards. However one supposes that discrimination  against  low caste South Indians would be a given for these people, although this is not exampled  in this novel published in 2019. The same cannot be said of Jane Austen’s leading characters who are unanimous in regarding the poor as lesser mortals, and indeed even regard wealthy businessmen and farmers as unfit for polite society or marriage into the upper class, as in the example of low-born Harriet in “Emma” quoted above. Jane Austen’s novels reflected the mores of her English upper class contemporaries in circa 1800, whereas  I suspect Mythili Lakshman’s  “A Fine Tapestry” also reflects the mores of her educated, politically correct  Australian contemporaries  in the 21st century.

The female characters in a “A Fine Tapestry” are strong women who are treated with endless devotion and courtesy by their husbands and other male relatives. I simply do not know to  what extent this reflects actuality in South India in 1960 or is simply a reflection of the decent values of educated, civilized and politically correct  Australians in the 21st century that arose from the global  feminist movement in Western countries.

On the other hand, Jane Austen’s novels make quite clear the actuality of the disempowerment and second class status of even upper class women in the patriarchal England of circa 1800. Jane Austen’s novels  can be considered feminist tracts because her  strong female characters demonstrate  how women in that 1800  context could be empowered by intelligent articulation of their views and by sticking to their guns. Notable examples of strong, dignified, and articulate women  are Elinor Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” and Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”.

  1. Death and religion.

At the heart of  “A Fine Tapestry” is Latha, a woman suffering a terminal disease and steadily increasing weakness and breathlessness. Latha is childless but conceives an alternative  legacy through editing and illustrating children’s stories written by her Aunt Janaki (the variously conflicted, plump and food-loving wife of Dr Gopi). Mythili Lakshman deals with this central narrative in a commendably straightforward way that reflects the reality of human behaviour – the courage and dignity of the dying and the kindness of the carers. The tears come afterwards. (My late wife’s specialist had recommended Dr Atul Gawande’s profound and useful book “Being Mortal. Illness, medicine, and what matters in the end” [35]  which Zareena joked “was too close to home”. On taking my late wife to what proved to be her last visit to her specialist in the heart of Melbourne,  we arrived early so I pushed her in her wheelchair down a block,  just past the Victorian Parliament to the statue of poet Adam Lindsay Gordon who died young (and was apparently rejected as a suitor by my 19th century settler forebears because he drank). The plinth is engraved with the lines from “Ye Wearie Wayfarer”: “Life is mostly froth and bubble/ Two things stand like stone/ Kindness in another’s trouble/ Courage in your own” [36]).

Aspects of the Hindu religion, ritual observance and  worship form a substantial theme  of “A Fine Tapestry”. However a remarkable feature of Jane Austen’s novels is that they are all ultimately about marriage but almost completely avoid mention going to church (the only 2 brief mentions are at the end of “Emma”  in relation to the marriages of Emma and Henrietta, respectively). Yet church was an obvious venue for young people to see each other (the other venues being dinners, balls and parties).   One supposes that this absence came from Jane Austen’s respect for her clergyman father  and his calling. In contrast, because the clergy was an option for upper class Englishmen, there are notable  and important clerical characters in Jane Austen’s novels notwithstanding  an absence of Christian ideology and worship and  only a scant  mention even of ”church”.

Similarly, despite “marriage” and “inheritance” being key practical themes  in Jane Austen’s novels, and life expectancy being low in 1800, “death” is a scrupulously avoided topic.

  1. Sex, adultery and the Indian connection of Jane Austen and “Sense and Sensibility”.

Mythili Lakshman deals honestly, frankly  and sensibly with the physical aspects  of love and desire in the various married lives e.g.  Paddhu and Koma (Paddhu’s TB precluding sex), Latha and Shankar (Latha’s terminal illness making pregnancy very dangerous), Gopi and Janaki (Gopi’s desire and plump Janaki’s jealousy of her trim niece Latha), widowed Sabbu (excluded from re-marriage) and Radha and Krishnan (untrammelled  intimacy).  Illegitimate sex is of course not mentioned and utterly out of the question, although plump Aunt  Janaki jealously mistakes her  husband Dr Gopi’s  concerned observations   of his terminally ill patient Latha with something else.

While true love and infatuation are major themes in Jane Austen’s novels, physical preludes to sexual intimacy  in marriage, as described in “A Fine Tapestry”, are   completely  absent. However illicit sex is a key issue inJane Austen’s novels. Thus in “Pride and Prejudice” the cad Wickham is thwarted in his  attempted seduction of Darcy’s sister Georgiana but is successful in eloping with  Elizabeth Bennet’s young sister, Lydia ( a mess eventually sorted out and legitimized by the wealthy and decent Darcy). In  the sexually titillating “Mansfield   Park”,  Henry Crawford, the brother of  Mary Crawford  (an “advanced woman”), elopes with Maria, the wife of the stolid Rushworth. Further,  Maria’s sister Julia elopes with Yates.  Astonishingly for the times, Mary Crawford (with naval admiral  connections) states the following: “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals . Of Rears and Vices , I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat” [1]. In “Lady Susan” (Jane Austen’s first completed novel), Lady Susan “entertains” Mr Mainwaring at her London apartment before being caught by Mrs Mainwaring and Reginald de Courcey.

However Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” [S&S] takes the prize for being a fictional version of the adulterous relationship between Warren Hastings (First Governor General of India) [Colonel Brandon in S&S] and Jane Austen’s paternal aunt Philadelphia Hancock née Austen [Eliza I in S&S]  that resulted in Jane Austen’s lively cousin and sister-in-law, Eliza Hancock [Eliza II in S&S], being born in Bengal in 1761 in the early years of the British conquest and merciless devastation of Bengal (in 1769-1770 rapacious British over-taxation of the Bengalis resulted in 10 million dying in the Great Bengal Famine) [1].

Colonel  Brandon [Warren Hastings] has an affair with a to-be-married woman, namely his brother’s wife-to-be Eliza I [Philadelphia Hancock née Austen,  married to Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon and Warren Hasting’s business partner in Bengal] . The second Eliza, Eliza II [Jane Austen’s lively cousin Elizabeth Hancock]  comes from “the first guilty connection” of Eliza I which one supposes could indeed be with Colonel Brandon [Warren Hastings] prior to their sprung elopement. Philadelphia Hancock / Eliza I and Eliza Hancock / Eliza II are rather lively women. Both Philadelphia Hancock and Eliza I in S&S die prematurely (from cancer and consumption, respectively) and both Eliza Hancock and Eliza II in S&S are left with an infant without a father (through the guillotine and desertion, respectively).  The duel between Brandon [Hastings] and cad Willoughby may indeed be a reflection of the famous duel between Hastings and his intractable enemy Philip Francis in Calcutta (1780) in which the latter was wounded but survived to resume his active animosity against Hastings in Bengal and in England that contributed  to  the famous impeachment of Warren Hastings by Parliament for his crimes against Indians and in particular  against  the begums of Oudh  (he was , of course, eventually acquitted). Warren Hastings also had an affair with Baroness Anna Maria Chapuset  “Marian” Imhoff, the wife of the painter Baron Imhof (whose removal  from the East Indies was conveniently secured by Warren Hastings). Just as Colonel Brandon marries and finally takes his wife Marianne home to his palace Delaford in S&S, so in real life Warren Hastings married and took his wife Mrs Anna Maria Chapuset “Marian” Hastings home to his palace Daylesford.

Jane Austen as a teenager  started writing the unfinished “Catherine” or “The Bower” which was her first attempt at telling the Warren Hastings/Aunt Philadelphia story –  the name Cecilia (patron saint of music) is used rather than Philadelphia (lover of the Delphic i.e. lover of music and poetry) and Mrs Philadelphia Hancock (Hancock meaning “having cock” i.e. having game) becomes Mrs Cecilia Lascelles (Lascelles being the name of the Earl of Harewood, with “harewood” also implying part of an estate “having game”).  It is likely that  her parents stopped this first attempt by Jane Austen at truth-telling. Jane Austen provides an intriguing insight in a surviving letter to her sister Cassandra (15 September 1815):“And Mr. [Warren] Hastings! I am quite delighted with what such a man writes about it [“Pride and Prejudice”]. [Brother] Henry sent him the books after his return from Daylesford, but you will hear the letter too… I heard [brother] Edward last night pressing Henry to come to Gm [Godmersham], & I think Henry engaged to go there after his November collection. Nothing has been done as to S & S. The books came to hand too late for him to have time for it, before he went. Mr. Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree … I long to have you hear Mr. H.’s opinion of P & P. His admiring my Elizabeth is particularly welcome to me” (see Chapter 6, pages 45-47  and page 55[1])

  1. Consanguineous marriages (blood-related marriages) in  Tamil Nadu and Jane Austen’s family.

A remarkable aspect of “A Fine Tapestry” is the consanguineous first-cousin  marriage between Latha and her first cousin Shankar. This consanguineous marriage  represents a major element of similarity between Mythili Lakshman’s novel and the major novels of Jane Austen in which consanguineous marriage is common.

Thus in ”Pride and Prejudice” the ridiculously pompous and sycophantic  Reverend Collins proposes to marry his cousin Elizabeth Bennet but is firmly rejected by the dignified and forthright Elizabeth.

In “Mansfield Park” Edmond Bertram ends up marrying his cousin Fanny  who is more in the nature of a sister to him on account of being the household  companion to Lady Bertram (shades of the shocking brother-sister sexual encounter  in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” and, extensively so,  in  Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada”).

In “Persuasion” there is an unsuccessful plot to marry the heroine Anne Elliot or possibly her older sister Elizabeth with their cousin,  the cad Mr Elliot, and the realized marriage  between Henrietta Musgrave and her cousin Charles Hayter. Anne rejected the suit of Charles Musgrave who subsequently married her younger sister Mary.

In “Sense and Sensibility” there is a non-consanguineous familial “closeness”.  Edward Ferrars eventually marries Elinor Dashwood who is the daughter of Henry Dashwood who dies leaving his estate to  his son by a previous marriage,  John Dashwood. Edward Ferrars is a brother of John Dashwood’s wife the nasty Fanny Dashwood née Ferrars. In similar vein Colonel Brandon has an affair with Eliza I who is engaged to be married to his brother (Eliza II results from this “first guilty connection”.

The consanguineous connections in Jane Austen’s novels reflect the remarkable  consanguineous connections within Jane Austen’s family.    Thus on the paternal side, John Austen V (1696-1728) married his cousin Mary Stringer, the daughter of Jane Stringer (née Austen) and Stephen Stringer. A further instance is that of Jane Austen’s brother Henry Austen (1771-1850) who married his cousin Elizabeth (Eliza) Hancock (1761-1813), the ostensible daughter of Philadelphia Hancock (née Austen) (George Austen’s sister) and Tysoe Saul Hancock, but who was almost certainly fathered by Warren Hastings. Henry was the lucky man in this in the sense that his brother James also had an interest in his cousin Eliza but was rejected by Eliza because of his clerical commitment (Chapter 4, page 29 [p1]).

Consanguineous connections occurred among the forebears of the family of Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh. Thus Cassandra Leigh’s cousin James Leigh was the great-nephew of James Brydges (1st Duke of Chandos) and married Lady Caroline Brydges, the daughter of Henry Brydges (the 2nd Duke of Chandos) and hence the granddaughter of James Brydges – this couple thus shared a common great-grandfather. At a more intimate level, after the death of his first wife Mary, James Brydges (1st Duke of Chandos and corrupt Paymaster to the British Forces under Marlborough ) married his beautiful cousin Cassandra Willoughby in 1713, but they had no children. A further such marriage in the family was opposed and thereby prevented: Martha Bourchier (daughter of James Brydges’ sister Katherine) fell in love with Alexander Jacobs (son of James Brydges’ sister Elizabeth). Alexander went overseas with his regiment and Martha was entered into an unsatisfactory marriage with Henry Perrot, an intimate of Brydges (cf. Colonel Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility” who left for India after his affair with his brother’s fiancée Eliza was discovered) (Chapter 2, page 13 [1]).

Another recurring theme of Jane Austen’s  paternal Austen and maternal  Leigh tribes is the rejoining of distant familial connections. Thus Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen lived with his distant relatives Thomas Knight and his wife Catherine (née Knatchbull). After the death of his foster father,  Edward received the Godmersham and Chawton estates and eventually took on the name Knight (Edward’s uncle James Leigh-Perrot and his nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh did likewise). Edward’s daughter Fanny Knight (Jane Austen’s favourite “neice”) married Sir Edward Knatchbull and hence rejoined these strands. However Fanny’s brother, another  Edward, married Mary Dorothea Knatchbull (Sir Edward’s daughter by a previous marriage). This union (blessed by 7 children) was non-consanguineous but had the embarrassing consequence that Fanny became simultaneously the sister-in-law and aunt as well as stepmother of Mary Dorothea  (Chapter 4, page 29 [p1]).

The problem with intermarriage between close relatives, such as  first cousin marriage exampled above, is that it increases the probability of deleterious conditions in the offspring arising from double occurrence of defective recessive genes (the human genome has 23  pairs of chromosomes, this including 22 pairs of autosomes plus   2 X chromosomes with females and an X and a Y chromosome for males. Thus a person homozygous for a deleterious recessive gene (i.e. a double dose of the bad gene) would variously suffer from a  deleterious or lethal condition. However those heterozygous (i.e. having a good copy of the gene and a bad version of the gene) would typically survive to reproductive age as “carriers” of the bad gene which could thence on a statistical  basis be transmitted to progeny.

The most famous example of the consequences of inbreeding is  haemophilia in  the related British, German and Russian royal families in the 19th and 20th centuries linked  to the large extended royal family of the British Empress of India, Queen Victoria. She  was married to her German cousin, Prince Albert, and bore him 9  children. Her son Prince Leopold had a defective gene on the X chromosome and eventually died from haemophilia (the same fate befalling the son of Queen Victoria’s grandson-in-law  Czar Nicholas II of Russia). At least 2 of Queen Victoria’s daughters were “carriers” by  carrying   a defective recessive gene for the condition on the X chromosome [37].

The Indigenous Australians (Australian Aborigines)  have lived in Australia for 65,000 years and have the oldest continuous human civilization. The Indigenous Australians lived in relatively small tribal groups and developed an elaborate “skin name system” of forbidden marriages that had  an extraordinary ability to minimize in-breeding in small groups. Unfortunately consanguineous marriage has a relatively high incidence in Muslim countries [38] . Despite  being prohibited by the Church of England, first cousin consanguinity was a common occurrence in the novels of Jane Austen,  in her family and one supposes also  more generally in the rural upper class in England.   Before the age of the car, even the upper classes of rural England had limited mobility (via horseback and carriage)  and hence limited choice of partners. In addition,  first cousin consanguineous marriage  kept family wealth as well as bad genes in the family. According to The Hindu: “It [consanguinity] is widely practiced in Asia, North Africa, Switzerland, Middle East, some parts of China, Japan, fishermen communities in Europe and America. One in two rural marriages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are consanguineous” [39]. Accordingly,  the consanguineous union of Latha and Shankar in “A Fine Tapestry,” and indeed of so many characters in Jane Austen’s novels,  would be quite representative of the times.

The most surprising feature of  “A Fine Tapestry” is that all the central characters are so  unfailingly “nice”. The worst “crime” is that of plump Aunt Janaki who secretly suspects that her adoring husband Dr Gopi is lusting after their beautiful and slim niece Latha whereas in reality he is only keenly observing the progress of his terminally ill patient. The only real “nastiness” to disturb this general “niceness” is the blackballing for unknown reasons of Radha’s Mumbai neighbours by all the other apartment dwellers, and the self-interested prejudice of Maharashtrian workers  against Tamil businesses in Mumbai.

“Niceness” of nearly all the characters  is similarly the  defining characteristic of Jane Austen’s novels – they all have exquisitely good manners and even the “bad” characters can only at worst be described as having the quite general human frailties of being  too proud, too unfeeling, having mercenary motives or being secretive. Thus in “Pride and Prejudice” the cad Wickham is condemned for his designs on Georgiana and for his elopement with Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sister Lydia – however when proper marriage and  subsistence is achieved at the end through wealthy Darcy’s generosity borne of love for Elizabeth, the cad Wickham is welcomed as a member of the family.  In “Sense and Sensibility”  the cad Willoughby discards his real love, Marianne,  for the wealthy Miss Sophia Grey, but rushes over to Delaford when he hears of Marianne’s serious  illness and confesses his “crime” to Elinor.

At the heart of “A Fine Tapestry” is the terminal illness of childless Latha (that will rapidly become deadly if she falls pregnant ), and the decision of Latha, her parents  and her uncle Dr Gopi not to tell her husband Shankar. Similarly, truthfulness is at the heart of all Jane Austen’s novels that all reach their happy conclusion (true love marriage) when  the truth is finally revealed.  “Bad” characters are condemned for not revealing  the truth i.e. lying by omission. Thus, for example,  in “Emma” Frank Churchill is condemned by Emma for not revealing his secret attachment to  Miss Jane Fairfax (which he does for fear of antagonizing his wealthy foster mother, Mrs Churchill, but all is revealed when the latter dies).

However Jane Austen recognizes that the truth can be socially unacceptable.  Thus in “Emma”, the wealthy Emma is privately castigated by Mr Knightley (the father-figure she eventually marries) for making a cutting remark in company at the expense of the  poor and endlessly loquacious Miss Bates who is , of course, mortified. Indeed in “Pride and Prejudice” Elizabeth Bennet is mortified over not revealing to her family what she had learned from Darcy  about the wickedness of Mr Wickham, a revelation that would surely have prevented the disastrous elopement of Wickham with Lydia.

Final comments.

“A Fine Tapestry” by Mythili Lakshman is a very readable novel that is very  similar  to  the novels of brilliant English  writer Jane Austen in terms of domesticity, consanguineous marriage,  niceness, traditional family and class values, and avoidance of contemporary social horrors. At their core is exquisite consideration of  truthfulness in a domestic setting, whether of a prosperous Tamil  family  in rural  South India in circa 1960 or of wealthy upper class English families in rural mansions in circa 1800 ( and often  built by returning English “nabobs” – English colonialists with the riches of  Indian nawabs or Muslim princes  – with  their immense and   ill-gotten profits from India as well as other colonies of the British Empire).

However “A Fine Tapestry” (published in 2018, 60 years after the time of the novel’s  characters, and 2 centuries after the death of Jane Austen)  is  written in a commendably clear, straightforward and indeed didactic way by  a South Indian Australian  author  with a scientific background and living in a politically  correct and feminism-cognizant Australian society in the 21st century.  The plot of “A Fine Tapestry”  is not based on human frailty , let alone wickedness,  as in the elegant constructions of Jane Austen. Further, the writing of Jane Austen is exquisitely symmetrical and balanced like a Mozart symphony, and is carefully constructed with brilliant wit and irony  to achieve for a truth-telling woman writer  “the art of the possible”  in an extremely patriarchal society.

Indeed the first major novel Jane Austen wrote, “Northanger Abbey”, was unsuccessfully submitted for publication in 1803- it was evidently rejected  simply  because it criticized  the publisher’s popular  “Gothic” horror novels that sold well at the time.  “Northanger Abbey” was eventually published in December 1817, after the death of Jane Austen from a terminal illness (Addison’s Disease) in that year. However in “Northanger Abbey”   the endlessly and exquisitely  truthful Jane Austen leaves us with a powerful message for 2019 as a nuclear terrorist Britain  gears up with  a nuclear terrorist US and a nuclear terrorist Apartheid Israel  for “obliteration” of zero-nuclear-weapons and peaceful Iran, the genocidally murderous English Establishment   having already invaded 193 countries in the last millennium [40, 41].

In the UK-imposed Indian Holocaust 700 million Indians died avoidably from deprivation in  the 80 years  from 1757 (British defeat of the Bengalis under nawab Siraj-ud-daulah) to 1837 (accession of Queen Victoria) with  1,800 million Indians dying thus in the 2-century period of 1757-1947 [22].  The UK invaded another 4 countries in the 21st century, having helped the US Alliance devastate  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen in the last 2 decades, and having been complicit in the Iraq Genocide and Iraqi Holocaust, the Afghan Genocide and Afghan Holocaust,  the Libyan Genocide, the Syrian Genocide, the Yemeni Genocide,  the Muslim Genocide and Muslim Holocaust ( 32 million Muslims dead  from violence, 5 million, or from imposed deprivation, in 20 countries invaded by the US Alliance since the US Government’s 9/11 false flag atrocity  in which 3,000 died) [42-48], and in the Global Avoidable  Mortality Holocaust (15 million avoidable deaths from deprivation annually on Spaceship Earth with the First World in charge of the flight deck, and 1,500 million such deaths since  1950)[34].

In “Northanger Abbey” Henry Tilney  passionately defends the nobility and unimpeachable decency of English civilization that could not possibly admit of the possibility of his “lover” Catherine Morland’s fantasy about Henry Tilney’s father, General Tilney, murdering or otherwise sequestering his wife in the grim Northanger Abbey: “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English and we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where everyman is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (Chapter 6, page 44 [1]). The answers must surely be Yes, yes and yes!

Should the British all go about in sack cloth and ashes for their immense past and continuing crimes? Yes! The Germans undertook de-Nazification for  their crimes of 1933-1945 and adopted a C4A (CAAAA) protocol  of Cessation and Acknowledgement of the crimes, Apology and Amends for the crimes, and Assertion “never again to anyone”. Unfortunately a serial war criminal UK rejects all elements of the CAAAA (C4A) protocol and the war criminal killing by the murderous British Establishment continues, with peaceful Iran the likely next victim.

I reiterate that the author as an artist – whether Dr   Mythili Lakshman in 2018 or Jane Austen (1775-1817) – is perfectly free to choose his/her subject, the canvas, medium and palette. Thus Jane Austen’s famous painter contemporary John Constable (1776-1837) painted happy folk in an idyllic  English countryside (e.g.  “The Hay Wain” [49]) whereas Joseph Turner (1775–1851) painted dramatic and violent  landscapes that could involve Napoleonic battles or  be peopled by the working poor (e.g. “The Fishermen at Sea” [50]),  and Francisco Goya (1746-1828)  painted society portraits as well as the horrors of war  (e.g. “The Third of May 1808” [51]; he also created the  horrifyingly graphic series of 82 prints called “The Disasters of War” [52]). However the intelligent reader and Mainstream media, commentariat and academics  must supply the social context. Unfortunately, Mainstream media, politician, commentariat , critic and academic presstitutes resolutely lie by omission, and the more horrendous the reality the more resolute is the lying [1, 53-56].

Arundhati Roy in her brilliant   novels “The God of Small Things” (1997)[57] and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (2017) [58, 59] chose both Art and exposure of immense social injustice. Arundhati Roy  commented thus on Mainstream media presstitutes and their look-the-other-way audiences: “In the ‘free’ market, free speech has become a commodity like everything else—justice, human rights, drinking water, clean air. It’s available only to those who can afford it. And naturally, those who can afford it use free speech to manufacture the kind of product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose” [60] and   “The ultimate privilege of the élite is not just their deluxe lifestyles, but deluxe lifestyles with a clear conscience” [61].


[1]. Gideon Polya, “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability”, G.M. Polya, 1998, 2008, and available  for free perusal on the Web: .


[2].  Mythili Lakshman, “A Fine Tapestry”,  Bhavani Raskutti, 2018: .


[3]. Anthony Mason, “Australian coverage of the Fiji coups of 1987 and 2000: sources, practices and representation”, PhD thesis, University of Canberra, 2009: .

[4]. K. Gravelle, “Fiji’s Times. A History of Fiji”, Fiji Times, Suva.

[5].  Gideon Polya, “Review: “Tears In Paradise. Suffering and Struggle Of Indians In Fiji 1879-2004” by Rajendra Prasad – Britain’s Indentured Indian “5 Year Slaves””, Countercurrents, 4 March, 2015: .

[6]. Rajendra Prasad, “Tears in Paradise. Suffering and struggle of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004”, Glade, Auckland, New Zealand, 2004.

[7]. Gideon Polya, “Review: “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India” by Shashi Tharoor”, Countercurrents, 8 September 2017: .

[8]. Gideon Polya, “Review: “The Cambridge History Of Australia” Ignores  Australian Involvement In 30 Genocides”,  Countercurrents, 14 October, 2013: .

[9]. Blum, “Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower” (pages 199-200).

[10]. William Blum, “The making of official history”, Anti-Empire Report #40, 17 December 2006: .

[11]. Kavia Ivy Nandan (editor), “Stolen Worlds. FijiIndian Fragments”, Ivy Press International , 2005.

[12]. Gideon Polya, “Anti-Indian subversion of Fiji by Apartheid Israel, pro-Apartheid Australia & pro-Apartheid America”, Countercurrents, 20 October 2017: .


[13]. Gideon Polya, “Britain robbed India of $45 trillion & thence 1.8 billion Indians died of deprivation”, Countercurrents, 18 December 2018: .


[14]. “Economic history of India”, Wikipedia: .


[15]. Suketu Mehta, “This land is our land. An immigrant’s manifesto”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

[16]. Gideon Polya, “Review: “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India” by Shashi Tharoor”, Countercurrents, 8 September 2017: .

[17]. Shashi Tharoor, “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”, Scribe, 2017.

[18]. “Economic history of India”, Wikipedia: .

[19]. “Angus Maddison statistics of the ten largest economies by GDP (PPP)”, Wikipedia: .

[20]. Angus Maddison, “Contours of the World Economy 1-2030AD”, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[21]. Paul Greenough (1982),“Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the Famine of 1943-1944” (Oxford University Press, 1982).

[22]. Gideon Polya, “Economist Mahima Khanna,   Cambridge Stevenson Prize And Dire Indian Poverty”,  Countercurrents, 20 November, 2011: .

[23]. “Total number of deaths due to British made famines in India”, Bharat-rakshak Wiki: .

[24]. N. G. Jog, “Churchill’s Blind-Spot: India”, New Book Company, Bombay, 1944 (Winston Churchill quoted on p195).

[25]. K.C. Ghosh, “Famines in Bengal 1770-1943” (National Council of Education, Calcutta, 2nd edition 1987).

[26]. T. Das, T. (1949), “Bengal Famine (1943) as Revealed in a Survey of Destitutes of Calcutta”,  University of Calcutta, Calcutta, 1949.

[27]. Gideon Polya, “Australia And Britain Killed 6-7 Million Indians In WW2 Bengal Famine”,  Countercurrents, 29 September, 2011: .

[28]. “Bengali Holocaust (WW2 Bengal Famine) writings of Gideon Polya”, Gideon Polya: .

[29]. Amartya Sen,  “Famine Mortality: A Study of the Bengal Famine of 1943” in Hobshawn, E. (1981) (editor), Peasants In History. Essays in Honour of David Thorner (Oxford University Press, New Delhi).

[30]. Cormac O Grada (2009) “Famine a short history” (Princeton University Press, 2009).

[31]. Madhusree Muckerjee (2010), “Churchill’s Secret War. The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II” (Basic Books, New York, 2010).

[32]. Thomas Keneally (2011), “Three Famines” (Vintage House, Australia, 2011).

[33]. Gideon Polya,“ WW2 Bengali Holocaust: “Churchill’s Secret War” By Madhusree Mukerjee”,  Countercurrents, 13 June, 2011: .

[34]. “Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, including an avoidable mortality-related history of every country from Neolithic times and is now available for free perusal on the web :  .


[35]. Atul Gawande, “Being Mortal. Illness, medicine, and what matters in the end”, Profile 2015.


[36]. “Adam Lindsay Gordon”, Wikipedia: .


[37]. “Haemophilia in European royalty”, Wikipedia: .


[38]. Emmanuel Todd , “After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order”, Columbia University Press, 2006.


[39]. “Problems with consanguineous marriages”, The Hindu, 29 April 2004:  .

[40]. Gideon Polya, “British Have Invaded 193 Countries:  Make  26 January ( Australia Day, Invasion Day) British Invasion Day”, Countercurrents,  23 January, 2015: .

[41]. “Stop state terrorism”: .

[42]. Gideon Polya, “Fundamentalist America Has Trashed Secular Governance, Modernity, Democracy, Women’s Rights And Children’s Rights In The Muslim World”, Countercurrents, 21 May, 2015: .

[43]. Gideon Polya, “Paris Atrocity Context: 27 Million Muslim Avoidable  Deaths From Imposed Deprivation In 20 Countries Violated By US Alliance Since 9-11”, Countercurrents, 22 November, 2015: .

[44]. “Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide”: .

[45]. Iraqi Holocaust, Iraqi Genocide”: .

[46]. “Afghan Holocaust, Afghan Genocide”: .

[47]. “Experts; US did 9-11”: .

[48]. Elias Davidsson, “Hijacking America ‘s Mind on 9/11. Counterfeiting Evidence”, Algora, New York 2013, 328 pp: .

[49]. “The Hay Wain, Wikipedia”: .


[50]. “Fishermen at Sea”, Wikipedia: .

[51]. “The Third of May 1808”, Wikipedia: .

[52]. “The Disasters of War”, Wikipedia: .


[53]. “Mainstream media censorship”:  .


[54]. “Mainstream media lying”:


[55]. Gideon Polya, “Fake news: “fake realities”  and “lying by omission””, Global  Research, 18 April 2018: .


[56]. “Lying by omission”: .

[57]. Arundhati Roy, “The God of Small Things”, IndiaInk,  1997.

[58]. Arundhati Roy, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, Knopf, 2017.

[59]. Gideon Polya, “Review “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” By Arundhati Roy – Empathy”, Countercurrents, 12 October 2017: .

[60]. Arundhati Roy, “War Talk”, Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2003, p. 78).

[61].  Arundhati Roy and David Barsamian,  “The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile”, Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.

Dr Gideon Polya taught science students at a major Australian university for 4 decades. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds” (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007:

) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: ). He has published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see:  ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others:  ;  Gideon Polya:  ; Gideon Polya Writing: ; Gideon Polya, Wikipedia: ) . When words fail one can say it in pictures – for images of Gideon Polya’s huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: and  .


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