Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Pagoda Tree

Title:  The Pagoda Tree
Author:  Claire Scobie
Publication Information:  Unbound. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1783523719 / 978-1783523719

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Maya stopped when she saw the splashes of blood around the well."

Favorite Quote:  "There are some things that are not easily understood. Once you have a better grasp of our language, it will open the door to our customs. They are not based in ignorance, although you might think so ... You talk of your god, of Christ ... What is that? I do not cast it as idle superstition. I see it for what it is, a story of rebirth, an allegory of the continuation of live. Even after we have created our last, our spirit, our soul - whatever you wish to call it - continues to live on. There are many ways ... to tell the same story."

To understand the background of this book, you have to understand the history of devadasi in eighteenth century India. A devadasi was a young woman dedicated to the worship of a Hindu god. The girls were given to this service in a ceremony that resembles a wedding. In that sense, this concept was similar to young women joining a convent to one day become a bride of Christ.

Among many, it was considered an honor for the girl and the family to be selected to join this elite group. Girls as young as eight or nine were given to the gods; they then lived and trained in the temples to fulfill their role. Many girls often ended up with wealthy patrons, becoming influential in economic and political decisions. In that sense, this practice was similar to that of a courtesan or a geisha.

India's history as a set of city-states and even as a nation commingled with the history of devadasi. Under British rule, many of the wealthy kings and patrons of the small scattered pieces that made up India began to lose their power. As such, devadasis lost their patrons and were left without temple or support. Political machinations and violence entered the once sheltered lives of the devadasis, forcing them into alternate paths of survivals. Note that, in recent history, devadasis have all but disappeared as the practice was outlawed under Indian law in the 1980s. This piece of history is not directly relevant to this story but provides context of the change India has undergone. over the centuries.

The pagoda tree itself has significance. Called plumeria or frangipani in English, it is a tropical plant with beautiful fragrant flowers. It is also known as the temple tree, with its flowers being used as tribute to the Hindu gods and goddesses. The implication of course is both literal and metaphorical.

This cultural context is the heart of this book. This history and culture is brought to life through the eyes of young Maya, who begins the book as a child near a temple in Tanjore, India. She is chosen for the role of devadasi and gets a tastes of both the luxury and the constraints of that life. As the story progresses, Maya evolves into a woman whose quest for survival takes her down many paths and many roles.

Through Maya's story, Claire Scobie brings to life India at the time - the British rule, the infighting amongst the small kingdoms that make up India at the time, the trade, the poverty, and so much more. Maya's story becomes a vehicle to narrate the history rather than the history forming a background to Maya's story. The further the book progresses, the more this feeling permeates. The conclusion to the history is understandable, but the conclusion to Maya's story feels incomplete.

The historical detail is fascinating and includes much I did not know about devadasis or about British rule in India. Maya's character, particularly her introduction as an innocent child, is an engaging one. The strong woman Maya grows into is a sympathetic character. The history scatters the personal story a bit, but an engaging piece of historical fiction nevertheless.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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