British travel writer Albinia’s (Empires of the Indus, 2008) first novel retells the Mahabharata in present-day Delhi.
The author makes the epic accessible to less knowledgeable Westerners while keeping its large scope. Elephant-headed Ganesh, the traditional scribe of the Mahabharata, narrates. He summarizes the original epic while explaining how its composer Vyasa, Vyasa’s second wife Meera, the slave girl Leela whom Vyasa impregnated and a slew of secondary characters have reappeared through the ages, reliving the original story of egotism, sexual conquest and intrigue, as well as love and loyalty. In his current incarnation, egotistical, womanizing Vyasa is a professor, internationally famous for his controversial take on ancient texts. He has raised his twin son and daughter alone since the death of his wife Meera, whose poetry he published posthumously to great acclaim. Now his son is marrying the daughter of a reactionary right-wing Hindu named Shiva, whose moral rigidity is pure hypocrisy. Meera’s adopted sister Leela lives in New York City with her husband Hari, who happens to be Shiva’s brother. After 20 years of self-imposed exile, Leela returns to Delhi with Hari to attend the wedding. But she has never told Hari, a sweet-natured businessman, that she knows Vyasa, or anything about her past. A poor orphan, she was adopted by Meera’s parents and raised as Meera’s sister. The two girls were inseparable until Meera fell in love with the young professor Vyasa, a proponent of free love; attracted to both Meera and Leela he unwittingly impregnated them both. Meera pretended both children were hers and cut off communication with Leela before her death when the “twins” were toddlers. Leela comes face-to-face with her past at the Midsummer’s Night Dream of a wedding that causes all the characters to discover their true selves for good or ill.
Lively, involving and largely cheerful (despite a graphic rape), but how readers respond will depend in part on their reaction to a white British woman presuming to author sharp satire of Indian culture.