A richly atmospheric debut, first installment in a projected three-volume saga, portrays the clash of Portuguese, Hindu and Muslim cultures in the waning years of India’s Mogul empire.
A reigning Portuguese family in Goa finds itself facing bankruptcy after the 1657 Dutch victory in the Pepper Wars. For protection, patriarch Carlos Dasana is forced to woo the widowed sultana of neighboring Bijapur, a Muslim country. Since the sultan’s heir is only nine and the sultana is capricious, it’s almost as important to woo Bijapur’s grand vizier, Wali Khan, who’s likely to become regent. Via caravan, Carlos sends the vizier an irresistible bribe: former Hindu temple dancer Maya, now a famous prostitute. The motley cast of characters accompanying the caravan includes Carlos’s brash, profligate nephew Geraldo; dull and honest middleman Da Gama; Pathan, a self-important Muslim captain from the Bijapur court; and Carlos’s niece Lucinda, who wants to see the world. The action tracks the caravan along its perilous journey from Goa to Bijapur; inside the howdah, atop the elephant, ride Lucinda, Maya and her escort, the plump, unctuous eunuch Slipper, who becomes an abusive master. While battling bandits, near-rapes and elephant breakdowns, the young women grow friendly. Maya reveals that she reluctantly left her temple, where she was a “vessel” for the priests, when her guru was swept away in floods and she was sold to raise money. She possesses a headdress of great value, coveted by the brotherhood of eunuchs led by Whisper, who is also vying for the regency of Bijapur. While making an extended stay in Belgaum, the idyllic palace of the sultan’s former concubine, Lucinda falls in love with Pathan, while Maya and Geraldo lustily go at it. In this cauldron of competing favors and a constantly shifting balance of powers, portents hint at altogether different fates for Lucinda and Maya.
The author’s fondness for his material keeps this convoluted romantic epic afloat.