by Anuradha Roy
People are presumably still given to taking spiritual pilgrimages to faraway places like Israel, France, Spain, Japan and, especially, India. There are any number of gurus and ashrams, monasteries and temples that attract the traveler in search of some deeper meaning in their lives. It's a powerful draw. So powerful that many people fall into the thrall of their spiritual leaders, the gurus and priests that purport to hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven. It's seductive, and in the case of particularly charismatic leaders, potentially very dangerous. History is littered with tragic and disturbing tales of misbehaviors, everything from squandering the ashram's money on a collection of Rolls Royces, to abusing choir boys or orphan girls, to killing hundreds in acts of mass murder and suicide. The stories have become almost stereotypical. In fiction and film, if you encounter a guru of almost any kind, it has become a trope that the reader or viewer comes to expect misbehavior and abuse at his or her (mostly his) hands. Indeed, if a story were nowadays to depict a guru luring a small girl into his inner sanctum only to end up innocently working a jigsaw puzzle and coloring books, that indeed would be surprising. That would be a story.
Alas, we must continue to wait for that story to come along. The core element of this story does center around an Indian ashram in a coastal temple city, a place in which one of our several protagonists experienced vividly-described abuses at the hand of its charismatic but enigmatic leader. First, though, we meet Nomi aboard a train on the way to this coastal city. She is seen through the eyes of three older women, Vidya, Latika and Gouri, who are off on a vacation together, one last big trip to this temple city full of bustling tourists. The women are excited to be traveling, but their personal baggage follows in their wake, each of them with her worries and accumulation of ailments, most worrisome that of creeping dementia. At their destination, they take a tour of one of the temples, led by Badu, a young man whose story we also follow, as he pursues his own dreams of romance with a boy who works at a beachside tea stall. Meanwhile, Nomi has been left behind by the train at an earlier stop and arrives later. She is ostensibly researching film locations and plot ideas with a burly Indian man hired by the company to show her around. It comes to light, though, that she is also exploring a dark corner of her past. We get to visit that past with her in a series of ever darkening flashbacks to her war-torn childhood and abandonment at this ashram, which is a place of refuge, but also of lurking threats from within.
All of these stories eventually reveal hidden connections. The whole jumble is heavily populated with idiosyncratic characters, some of whom are more thoroughly drawn than others. Occasionally, characters the reader will want to like will do something distasteful, others will sometimes do things surprisingly off-key. This can be a little jarring to the reader. That is a small disappointment in this colorful story, a slice of these lives, most of which are left with profoundly vague outcomes. If the reader wants neatly tied-up stories and relationships, they won't really be found here. One wants to know what really happened at the ashram (Where were the reasonable adults?) But that tale is also told through the eyes of a child, and for her there can be no clear answers. There are many questions, but there is something compelling about being invited to fill in the gaps for oneself. We certainly want the best for the characters we like, even sometimes for those whom we dislike. But life isn't easy that way, and Nomi, at least, knows that. The book has its flaws, but its a vivid journey of emotion, survival and doubt.
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