Debut novel of sibling rivalry, set in contemporary India but weaving in mythology and epic poetry.
Koonty, a high-caste, sexually innocent adolescent living in a village outside Calcutta, is raped by a visiting film star. The resulting baby, Karna, is set afloat on the river by his panicked mother, who is about to be married, with an engraved gold necklace around his neck. A year later Koonty, still racked with guilt, bears a legitimate son, Arjuna, who is raised in the lap of luxury by her husband’s aristocratic family. Meanwhile, Karna is rescued and adopted by a childless young widow who adores him but can barely eke out a living. Before her death she makes six-year-old Karna promise to find his mother. But Koonty turns him away, not believing he is her son until it is too late. Unbalanced further by her husband’s death at the hands of a local Communist rabble-rouser, she commits suicide. Her sister Shivarani, a political activist in love with lower-caste man, then sets out to find Karna. He’s become a street urchin and juvenile delinquent, but Shivarani (who serves as the story’s heart) brings him to live with his brother Arjuna and their family. Karna and Arjuna share the terrible loneliness of being orphans; both crave love, but their mutual jealousy drives them apart. They fight constantly, first viciously and then in more athletic and organized ways. They become film actors vying for the same parts and the same woman, then run against each other for political office. Their final competition, a car race, ends tragically, although at the close each finds a degree of redemption by recognizing the possibility of love and acceptance. More “exotic” than most current Indian fiction, this first by a British artist who lived on the subcontinent creates romantic characters of fascinating, painful depth.
The Mahabharata meets Bollywood to powerful effect.