The protagonist in this unconventional debut is India itself, alive and pulsating with all its wild contradictions and bewitching charms. Barely adhering to the confines of a novel, Mandava offers a number of largely autonomous plots linked by chance meetings and the hand of fate. Characters from two separate stories meet on a train in a third narrative strand; a character from one narrative benefits from the tragedy of a woman in another; the same cake is shared by a terrorist in one portion of the novel and a beggar girl in another. Beginning with Ravi, suffering from the mental anguish of his burn-scarred face, and of his attempts to woo the beautiful dancing girl Ana, the book swiftly picks up other lives along its propulsive way. Ravi, transformed, reemerges later as a holy man in a perceptive tale of a husband and wife, he a New Yorker, she an Indian-American on an awkward and revelatory vacation to her homeland. In perhaps the most distressing of the chapters, Navina, soon to enter into an arranged marriage with Ajay, a handsome doctor, is assaulted by the tailor of her wedding sari. In a rage at her ignorance of his love for her, the tailor splashes her face with acid. From this, a chain of loosely related events follows: We meet the young woman who is Ajay's second choice for a bride, who sees a move to America as a move to modernity; we see the deeply conflicted Ajay in New York with his mistress Joanna; and we follow Ajay as he briefly encounters the taxi driver Vyshna, whose own story follows. Like most of the characters here, Vyshna faces the often difficult or baffling events of life with fortitude and grace. Addictively interesting (and particularly sensitive to the status of women), the collective whole offers an absorbing glimpse into contemporary Indian life and its clash with encroaching Western culture.
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