Wagner-Wright’s debut novel focuses on a long-forgotten Indian social reformer.
In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the young warrior Abhimanyu penetrates the enemy’s complex battlefield formation but gets trapped on his way out of it. Abhimanyu’s “Chakravyuh,” or labyrinth, might well be a metaphor for the life of Pandita Ramabai “Rama” Sarasvati, an independent-minded Indian woman born in the 19th century who faced numerous obstacles in her quest to find her true calling. In a society in which caste dictated one’s life path, young Rama was fortunate on two counts: she was born a Brahmin, and her father, Ananta Shastri, was a Sanskrit scholar who firmly believed in women’s education. The young Rama’s study of Hindu religious texts only raises more questions, and the answers she receives are far from satisfactory. Unfortunately, she has more pressing concerns when she loses several family members to famine and disease. Wagner-Wright explores Rama’s coming-of-age as she learns to navigate rigid societal mores while making a life for herself and her daughter, Mano. Initially finding refuge in India’s secular social institution, Brahmo Samaj, Rama discovered hypocrisy there, too. After traveling to Britain and the United States as a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit, she eventually found succor in Christianity and returned to India to set up a school for young widows and the underprivileged. The fruits of her labors still operate in India today, although she had to overcome a labyrinth of doubters and bureaucracy to make it happen. Wagner-Wright’s novel is an informative exploration of one of history’s many forgotten heroines. However, with historical fiction, it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from invention, and some readers might find Rama’s ready dismissal of Hinduism and the Brahmo Samaj to be a tad too easy and glib. The pacing also suffers at times in this long work, particularly near the beginning, when the Shastri family’s peregrinations from town to town become tedious and repetitive. Also, the relentless, starry-eyed focus on Rama becomes claustrophobic and doesn’t adequately place her story against the larger historical context. As a result, some elements of the country’s history remain largely under wraps.
Instructive historical fiction, even if it views its subject through rose-colored glasses.