Sister India


Sister India

By Peggy Payne '70. Riverhead Books, 2001. 275 pages. $24.95.

Sister India is written in the shadow of one of the darkest episodes in postcolonial India--the destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu fanatics in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. The event reverberated all over India, with riots breaking out in innumerable cities and towns. As state agencies colluded with the fanatics, the majority of the dead and injured were India's minority Muslims. Set in the holiest city in India, Sister India's narrative seems to overturn all the familiar tropes associated with exoticized descriptions of Varanasi as the land of Hindu spirituality, where all, including the alienated Westerner fleeing the materialistic and cynical aspects of his or her culture, can find Nirvana.

In Peggy Payne's story, Varanasi is a city on the edge of searing communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The main drama in the novel is simultaneously enacted on the streets of the city and in the small guest house, Saraswati, run by the forty-something reclusive, obese, "monstrous" Nataraja, for mostly foreign tourists.

In her former life, Nataraja was a North Carolinian named Estelle. The Lonely Travel guidebook recommends her place strongly, calling her "a one-woman blend of East and West." Saraswati is at the center of the city, the river ghats on one side and the labyrinthine galis of the city on the other. So though Nataraja has chosen an existence cut off from the world outside, she can't help witnessing the death in the street with which the novel opens. Her servant, cook, friend, and soul-mate, Ramesh, attempts to save the life of a man being assaulted, but fails.

It is this failure on the part of people to save the lives of innocent others, and the guilt of witnessing such crimes, that splits apart the novel's main characters. It is experienced as a "betrayal" in a world already without guarantees. It is a world, in fact, in which "calculated butchery" reigns.

The main reality that Payne wants her characters to confront is the impossibility of being "immured from the world." For that is what had brought Nataraja to Varanasi in 1971. Like other children of the 1960s, she had seen India as a refuge. Her search for an escape from America was fueled by the racist violence of the American South, where her black lover had been murdered for daring to touch a white woman. This parallel narrative of violence between communities, based on racial and religious difference, undercuts the simplistic narratives of the Third World as a place of darkness. The ultimate lesson seems to be that there is no escape from violence anywhere, unless one confronts the brutal realities of our own communities and nations--and of our own spirit.

This lesson seems applicable to the host of characters in Nataraja's guest house, most of them American. These characters, however, seem all too familiar, and constitute a weakness of the novel. There is Jill, from Atlanta, single and in search of sexual fulfillment, fleeing an uninspiring and artificial relationship with Ben back in America. There is T.J. Clayton, there to study water-quality management, father of two girls, and alienated husband of Jane. And there is Marie Jasper from Cincinnati, a figure recalling Mrs. Moore from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Her grieving for the death of her husband brings her, like countless other Hindu widows, to the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. When, after a week of violence on the streets, most foreigners are seeking the first flight out of Varanasi, Marie discovers that she must stay on--that India is where she belongs.

The novel works its way to a return to peace and harmony, and to a mystic reunion of Ramesh and Nataraja. The union exceeds the available frameworks of understanding and reading relationships--it is both sexual and asexual--at the same time. As the characters emerge from the "curfew" that has scattered them in different directions in the city, the novel ends with the celebration of the Kartika festival, and with Shiva's dance of birth and death. This, again, recalls the climax of that great Forster novel that ends with the festival of Krishna's birth, another instance in which Sister India fails to speak in its own voice.

But the narrative is beautifully paced, and the humanistic commitment to unraveling the violence that undergirds modern life is impeccable. The setting of the story in Varanasi also provides an opportunity to interrogate the clichÈd readings of the city as the space of spiritual attainment, or even as a corruption of the possibilities of Nirvana. Sister India veers from the shadow of the Babri mosque only to echo, without drastically changing the tune, some of the older, more familiar narratives about Westerners in India. In spite of these lingering echoes, this is a highly readable novel.

Varma teaches English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor