A holiday destination for devout Hindus is not as holy as it claims to be in this Man Booker Prize–longlisted novel.
The fictional seaside town of Jarmuli is home to many temples and ashrams, where gurus offer spiritual guidance to Indians and Westerners. The novel opens with a harrowing scene of violence which leaves a young girl orphaned. She's put on a boat to Jarmuli and is taken in by a seemingly benevolent guru. To outsiders, his ashram appears to be a spiritual paradise, but on the inside, there is rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Later, 25-year-old Nomi Frederiksen, the orphaned girl from the beginning of the novel, recalls these incidents on a return trip to Jarmuli, where she claims to be filming a documentary. On a train, she meets three elderly women named Gouri, Latika, and Vidya, lifelong friends taking one last holiday together before Gouri becomes completely senile. These four travelers come across Badal, a temple guide who lusts after an underage boy, and Johnny Toppo, an old tea seller who sings mournful songs to his customers. Helping Nomi with her documentary is part-time cameraman Suraj, a middle-aged alcoholic who happens to be Vidya’s son. The strength of this novel lies in the first-person narration of Nomi, who recounts her tale of loss and abuse in beautiful, unflinching language. Her chapters alternate with chapters told in third person about the secondary characters, which do nothing to move the story forward or shed light on Nomi’s past or the legacy of sexual abuse behind the guise of spirituality in India. Gradually, the various threads lose their energy and fail to come together toward a satisfying resolution. The novel raises questions, certainly, but its refusal to tie things up with a neat bow leaves the ending feeling coy and unfairly ambiguous.
Though this is far from a perfect novel, there's enough spark in the first-person narration to make it worthwhile.