Newcomer Ali’s hand is heavy in concocting the story of a Victorian woman looking for love.
The story’s takeoff point is the historic 1838 durbar (state meeting) between Lord Auckland, the representative of the Raj, and the powerful Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The British need Singh’s help against the Russian threat and want him to sign a treaty, but the dying Singh delays. A large contingent of soldiers and officials—as well as Lord Auckland’s two spinster sisters—accompanies the British force to the meeting. There to help Auckland’s sisters translate Urdu is the fictional 20-something Mariana Givens. In India for a year to find a husband, Mariana has already learned Urdu and is predictably bold, energetic, and deeply taken with all things Indian. As the tale opens, the mother of toddler Saboor has been poisoned by a jealous wife of the Maharajah. Saboor, grandson of a famous Sufi mystic, Shaikh Waliullah, is reputed to have strange powers, and with his mother he has been held hostage in the palace because the Maharajah believes the child’s presence ensures his survival. When Saboor is spirited out of the palace, Mariana becomes involved in keeping him safe from enemies. Even though Mariana has fallen for a British officer, Saboor’s supporters (who have had visions in which Mariana figures as his savior) enlist her help in rescuing Saboor and returning him to his grandfather, the Shaikh. The Shaikh wishes her to marry Saboor’s father so that her protection of Saboor might be continued, and Mariana, who dearly loves the boy, participates in a wedding ceremony. As she tries to extricate herself, she is pursued by the followers of the Maharajah, who want Saboor back; the British are shocked at her seeming to go native; and Mariana is not sure what she wants exactly—but she’ll do anything to protect Saboor.
A colorful muddle not improved by a strained plot.