Mollie at the TypewriterOBITUARY - The Guardian

Novelist in harmony with the far pavilions
of her Indian youth

Veronica Horwell
Wednesday February 4, 2004

No romance in the novels of MM Kaye, who has died aged 95, could equal her love for India - not even that between Ashton Pelham-Martyn and his Anjuli, climaxing in a sandstorm, in her bestselling work The Far Pavilions (1978).

She had been born in Simla, summer capital of the Raj, the descendant of a battery commander in the siege of Delhi, and the daughter of an Indian civil service linguist and cipher expert. Her father read her Kipling's Jungle Book stories when she was four, and she was raised by servants, speaking Hindustani before English, while playing around gun emplacements and dodging her ayah to listen to storytellers in the Delhi bazaar. Like Kipling's Kim, she thought herself Indian, "just a member of a different caste in a land of castes".

Kaye was sent back to Britain at the age of 10 to be Anglicised at boarding school, never expecting again to smell the dust on the morning of the rains. She went on to art school; watercolours were a British Indian habit. Then, in 1926, her father was recalled to help revise treaties with princely states, and took her home to India. Her mother wanted to marry her off to an officer, but she rejected all proposals.

When her father died, Kaye slipped into solitary exile on a £1.15s pension in London, illustrating novels: "Most of the stuff I was reading was total rubbish, and I used to think I couldn't write worse. So I sat down and wrote one," she later recalled. She got £64 for it, which, with her stories for small children, raised enough for the passage back to India, and life with her sister Bets in Simla.

There, on June 2 1941, Major-General GJ Hamilton, DSO, Queen Victoria's Own Corps of Guides - also known as "Goff", a hero of the northwest frontier - walked through the door. "I thought, that's it; don't ever let anyone tell you there is no such thing as love at first sight." He was married, which did not impede their affair or Kaye's ensuing pregnancy.

Removed to a small hill station, she bore him a daughter, unaided by a drunk medical orderly. It was a five-day labour; a tiger ate a water buffalo under her verandah; the medic shot the tiger; Kaye caught malaria from mosquitoes in the watertank. "It could only happen in India."

She married her divorced hero on Armistice Day 1945; Goff transferred to the British army and Kaye was a good soldier's wife, relocating 27 times. When she returned to writing detective stories, after the birth of her second daughter, she used the latest postings as background for Death Walks In Kashmir (1953), Berlin (1955) and Cyprus (1956). Later Than You Think (1958) was based in Kenya, where she was stationed while her husband fought the Mau Mau.

Her agent through the 1950s was Paul Scott, a writer bewitched by India, who understood the divided souls of those expelled after partition and independence in 1947. Kaye suggested the basis of Scott's novel Staying On, and contributed aspects of her wry, stoic character to his Raj Quartet. He encouraged her first historical novel, Shadow Of The Moon (1957), the result of reading transcripts of Indian Mutiny trials found in a friend's shed. Trade Wind (1963) was inspired by a row of out-of-print books about 19th-century Zanzibar and the memory of an announcement at Nairobi airport: "Will passengers for Mombasa, Tanga, Pemba, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam be kind enough to take their seats?"

The couple moved to Pevensey, Sussex, after Goff's retirement in the 1960s, and there, over 15 years, while Goff acted as butler and fact-checker, she wrote The Far Pavilions. On the day of publication, he gave her a rare coin of Alexander the Great, reckoning she had a winner at last. He was right; Like Gone With The Wind, Pavilions is a work of folk art from a vanished culture, permeated with loss. It is a magnificent hybrid - the history is Raj patrician, the melodrama Bollywood, the detail Anglo-Indian.

With an ending modified to suit its American editor (the lovers were allowed a chance to survive the final battle), the book arrived on the Raj cultural wave - that period from the late 1970s to 1985 that encompassed the televising of the Raj Quartet, the David Lean film of A Passage To India and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Kaye was the least critically respected contributor - although Scott yelled the cavalry "Shabash!" (well done) after reading Pavilions - and the biggest seller. She telephoned him to listen to his enthusiasm, pointing out when he worried about the call's cost "that every word from the lips of a great man is a diamond".

Her previous books were reissued; she edited The Golden Calm (1980), an Englishwoman's diary of 19th-century India. After Goff's death in 1985, she wrote the autobiographical The Sun In The Morning (1990), Golden Afternoon (1997) and Enchanted Evening (1999).
Pavilions was ponderously adapted for television, and there were plans for a West End musical, financed by Indian devotees, one of whom said, "It evokes the love and mutual respect between India and Britain."

Kaye is survived by two daughters and a stepdaughter.

Mary Margaret 'Mollie' Kaye, novelist, born August 21 1908; died January 29 2004