So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Sister India

Sister India by Peggy Payne
In Sister India Peggy Payne masterfully mixed her travel writing background into a novel about three guests and their fateful week staying at The Saraswati Guest House alongside the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Each is new to India. Marie Jasper is 75 and, after the death of her husband, is seeking peace in her soul. Jill Thornton is a young businesswoman doing some sightseeing after a business meeting, and T. J. Clayton is a married man from Florida on a grant to study river pollution. The Saraswati Guest House is considered to be a worthwhile experience for adventuresome travelers, largely due to the unique perspective of the massive proprietor Madame Natraja, a 300-400 pound blonde practicing Hindu from North Carolina, who has spent the last 20 years of her life in Varanasi.
The story of the week is told from the viewpoint of Madame Natraja who has spent the past 20 years turning herself from thin to obese suppressing her feelings by stuffing herself with Indian sweets. My favorite sentence in the book is on page 271 when Madame Natraja muses to herself: "Surely there is in each life a natural process of unfoldment, like the gradual bloom and ripening of the papaya, which even the most skeptical will agree is foreordained." Maybe Payne puts these words in the book to explain why it has taken 20 years for Natraja to face her inner demons. She, her Indian cook Ramesh, and these three guests will all take a new look at their lives after the killing of a Muslim man by two Hindus just outside the guest house leads to a week of retaliations and curfews.
Sister India is a short book that provides great detail without overdoing it. While experiences are related carefully and accurately, the background details of the culture and conflicts in Varanasi are given sparingly so as to not bog the reader down in history or theology. I found myself often looking up things online that Payne mentions but does not explain. While this is not necessary to understand the story line, I found it useful to see how much research Payne did in writing this work. I recommend Sister India to those who like stories about the natural healing power of the human spirit and who enjoy a novel set in a distant place.

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