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Flowers, Children, Servants, Animals : A TIME TO DANCE, NO TIME TO WEEP by Rumer Godden (Beech Tree Books: $16.95; 243 pp.)

February 21, 1988|Sharon Dirlam | Dirlam is a Times staff writer. and

"Intolerance of ordinariness" was Rumer Godden's chief flaw, according to an early teacher, Miss Mona Swann.

"Miss Swann's castigations made me sure that I could really be what I had always felt I was born to be, an author," Godden writes.

In her long and fascinating life (publication of this book marks the author's 80th birthday), that quality emerges not as a flaw but as a hallmark of her own extraordinariness.

In this memoir, Godden traces her life from adolescence, when she was wrenched from an idyllic childhood in India and deposited with her sister in a cold, strict convent school in England, to her own middle age at the end of World War II, when she again leaves India for England, impoverished and with two young daughters.

Godden's life was so rich, her observations so wise and her insights so perceptive, that each page of her autobiography is a treasure house. Her books were critically acclaimed from the beginning, both in England and the United States. Even ordinary concerns, such as the need for money, led her along unusual paths. She operated her own school for dancing in Calcutta. For one bleak time, she and her children, all in poor health, lived in a gloomy Indian hospital overlooking a graveyard.

After being abandoned by her husband, Godden and her daughters spent one particularly happy period, penniless, in a simple mountain house in Kashmir.

Every activity provided her with a wealth of material for her many books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's stories, some of which have not been out of print since they were published. Her first best seller was "Black Narcissus" in 1939.

Even what she might consider an ordinary time of her life produced the book, "Thus Far and No Further." Godden writes: "There are only a few things in this book . . . work, flowers, children, servants, animals. There is nothing else because there was nothing else. It has brought me more letters than anything else I have written."

This wonderful autobiography is full of Godden's spirit, her courage and passion, her acceptance of fate and her love of life. It will be embraced by all who have read her works; for others, it will be a compelling introduction to a remarkable writer.

"Forced to lie still, I began to see more clearly and saw what might be a hole of escape. Suppose, instead of living to get money to spend, we lived by not spending? Somewhere away, where it would be so quiet and simple that a little would go a long way?

There was a lane outside the hospital through which the country people made their way into the city and when I was allowed up I watched them. The country women and children had more pink in the olive of their cheeks, they were fatter and the men were sturdy and big under their rags.

'Ayah,' I ask, 'how much would a peasant like that one need to live?' The peasant was an old man, in straw sandals driving a pack pony.

'Country people are fools,' says Ayah. 'They do not know cinemas. They do not know shops. What do they need? Suppose he has a house, and a field that has rice in it and a patch to plant with sag (Kashmiri spinach). He has some fruit trees and a walnut tree. He will have a few hens, a pony and a goat. He has a fishing spear for fish. He burns his wood for charcoal. He sells his nuts for salt and tea dust, maybe a new firepot or tobacco for his hookah. If he needs some clothes he can work a few days for someone else or hire out his pony. How much money does he need? None,' said Ayah in great scorn.

It was then that I remembered the house I had seen from the lake, that speck among the faint far green of trees, the small house alone on the mountain."

--From "A Time to Dance, a Time to Weep"

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