Fiction | Ballantine Books | Trade Paperback | December 2005 | $13.95 | 0-345-48315-4
Amulya Malladi website
Read an excerpt
India has exported many things around the world - some tangible, like curry spices, mangoes, Pashmina shawls, Bollywood movies and even doctors and software engineers, but some exports are not so tangible, like Yoga, Gandhism, its spiritual traditions and so on. What India also has, and which is coveted not only by her own people but by those living outside of India, is a multitude of holy men and women, Gurus or Swamis. These holy people are usually housed in ashrams, the upkeep of which is paid for from generous donations by besotted devotees.
The main protagonist of this book, "Song of a Cuckoo Bird", is not a person, but one such ashram called "Tella Meda" or "House with the White Roof". Tella Meda is not your regular, big ashram with a well-photographed, miracle-performing Guru at the centre, rather, it is a small house on the banks of the Bay of Bengal in the south of India which functions as a shelter for outcastes (mainly women) of society.
Ramanandam Shastri, is Charvi's father and a well-respected author with female equality being his favorite topic to write about, however, it seems likely from his actions, that female independence and emancipation were lofty ideals well worthy of being written about, but not practised, atleast not in his household anyway.
Then there's my favorite character, Kokila, who came to the ashram at the tender age of 11 as a child bride. Tella Meda was supposed to be only a temporary abode for her (she was supposed to go to her husband's home after puberty), but when the time came she rejected her inlaws and elected not to leave the ashram. In India where the status of a woman is dictated by marriage and children, Kokila's decision to stay on in the ashram might appear to have been a foolish one.
There's also Chetana who was the same age as Kokila. She was brought to the ashram as a toddler by her mother who was a prostitute and didn't feel at all maternal towards her. Like they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and Chetna grows up to have so many characteristics of her mother, but thank goodness for that because she brings life and drama to the ashram!
Subhadra, one of the oldest members of the ashram is the cook and her food is compared to ambrosia or nectar for the gods. She came to the ashram after finding out she couldn't conceive a child for her husband. As was tradition then, her sister became the second wife of her husband and Subhadra who couldn't bear to see her sister take her place, left home and came to the ashram for solace.
There's also Ravi, Mark, Manjunath, Shanthi, Renuka, Bhanu, Meena and a whole host of truly wonderful people that populate the ashram but I will let the book do the rest of the introductions.
The novel spans 40 years in the life of the ashram (1961-2000) and before you reach the last page of the book, its inhabitants will have become your intimate friends. You will have been privy to all of their years spent in the ashram - celebrating with them when things were good and commiserating with them when circumstances were dreadful. Best of all you will have seen how with the years came progress especially with regard to the status of the women.
Amulya Malladi can be very proud of this finely crafted novel. I think it's stupendous piece of writing. You can tell that a lot of thought and creative energy has gone into the formation of each character and even though there are so many of them, each one has been given a very unique personality and a very distinctive voice. Through the characters, the ashram and the landscape, she has also very cleverly detailed the social and cultural environs of the mystical land that is India and we come away feeling just a little more enlightened about Hinduism as a way of life, social ostracism, the caste system, the role of marriage in a Hindu woman's life, the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India and so on. A truly enlightening reading experience.