I have been deliberately trying to read more non-American, non-Canadian, non-British writers for a better world perspective. Notice I didn’t say ‘foreign writers’, because we are all foreigners somewhere, right?
This absolutely wonderful book is by an Indian writer who lives in Copenhagen. How’s that for diverse, eh? It is set in an ashram which is in an old and crumbling house by the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh, India. The ashram is headed by a young woman guru, whose father had declared when she was a small child that she had the goddess within her. The young woman always says she is not a guru, but eventually begins to believe her own publicity. lol A wealthy man builds this huge house but his wife dies, so he never lived in it. The guru’s father convinces him to allow his daughter the guru to live in it rent free. The group living there survives on donations from visitors who come to consult the guru.
An eleven year old girl, Kokila, just promised in marriage, is orphaned, and comes to the ashram to live. The infant daughter of a local prostitute ends up abandoned at the ashram and the two become fast friends. There is the cook, faithful to the guru, a housekeeper, the brother of the guru comes in summers, and other come and go. It is the emotional story of the flotsam and jetsom (don’t you just love that expression) that come to live in the ashram, with its guru who is not quite a guru and all of the characters surrounding her. The principle character is Kokila, and we follow her life for about 50 years, from the late fifties into the early 2000.
Kokila refuses to leave the ashram to go live with her adolescent husband when her menses begin, as is the tradition. Her decision changes the trajectory of her life, as she becomes little by little the business manager of the house, and has a two year affair with the father of the guru, who is by then quite an old man.
One day, a wealthy man shows up with a ten-day-old infant who is the child of a maid in his house. He asks the ashram to raise the child and sends a substantial amount of money monthly for his care. Kokila falls immediately in love with the infant and adopts him as her own.
She spends some time helping in a leper colony, turns down the offer of the doctor of the colony, learns typing and works as a secretary and a typing teacher, and through it all, we see what I think is a real look at the every day India. But then, how would I know? I’ve never been to India.
I loved this book. It is basically just a story of a diverse group of people, but set against the backdrop of a foreign-to-me country with its very different traditions, customs, and politics, which made for some terrific reading. and what is every story but that of a group of people, right? This was so good.
And just to make sure you have the meanings of flotsam and jetsom straight, flotsam is the debris of a ship and its cargo usually from a shipwreck. Jetsom is stuff deliberately tossed overboard to improve stability and it sinks where tossed or is wash ashore. Have you ever heard or seen those words used alone? Just flotsam or just jetsom? I don’t think I ever have.
Anyway, go read the book. You will love it.