However, the novel is unsatisfactory on so many counts, at so many levels. First it makes clear that Parvathi's husband was deceived in the marriage deal, and angered, he intends to send her back to her father. Without falling in love with her, even finding her distasteful, having relished the prospect of causing "pandemonium" by sending her back with a cryptic message of rejection, unaccountably he permits her to stay instead, accepting her as his wife, wholly unsuitable though she is in status and person. The only weak shadow of a reason provided is that Maya, the wise woman of the tale, a servant in the big house, may have worked some magic on her master which influenced him mightily. Throughout, Parvathi's husband is a most insatisfactory paper character, a mere puppet and a prop of the author's, despite the reader being told repeatedly that he is a highly successful businessman who is also a lover of poetry, music and reading. This novel has an unfortunate habit of claiming far more for its characters than they actually ever manage to be.
This novel appears to expect quite high levels of suspension-of-disbelief on the part of the reader. The reader is expected to believe that in mere months, certainly in not more than 3 years, Parvathi who had seldom ever ventured outside the tiny compound of her own house in her village in Jaffna, has mastered English and western manners to perfection, and is utterly self-possessed and poised, a polished gem in fact. All this by 18 years of age. But this is all of a count with the attempted beatification of Parvathi, whom the novel attempts to depict as innocent, appealing, pure, vulnerable, but strong, a snow leopard in fact, is what Maya insists she is, "Elusive, brave, mysterious, unknowable". Maya in fact calls Parvathi an "adored soul who has incarnated to experience love in the most unlikely circumstances". (Here I may add that for those readers who cannot stomach the combination of the sentimental and the trite, you may want to dodge this book - this kind of sentence is but a hint of the kind of writing the novel is typically crammed full of.) Parvathi, the reader is told, longs for love, and is herself passionate and sensual, but pure and principled, you understand.
As far as can be seen, however, she lusts for every man that crosses her path, however unlikely, however different in type each is, apart from her husband. First she tries to seduce the servant boy, then she covets an American businessman, and eventually, she takes the Japanese General as her lover. The pure, aloof, untouchable Parvathi whom the omniscient narrator attempts to ram down the reader's throat, is strangely at odds with the bitch-in-heat character the story actually depicts.
Maya, one of the novel's core characters, is given quite a write-up; she is portrayed as a healer, full of wise words, sound advice, and deep understanding; she is even portrayed as beyond-this-world, a superior kind of being who helps poor humans who cannot understand themselves or Life (with a capital L). She regularly gives out folksy advice: "In her clinic under the tree Maya told a woman who hobbled up to her on painfully cracked heels to soak her feet in her own urine for fifteen minutes at time. 'And you will see that they will close up in no time at all.'" Maya protects and nourishes Parvathi throughout, like the best of stereotypical faithful retainers; in fact, she'd give Scarlett O'Hara's own Mammy a run for her money. Maya is also apparently given the gift of prophecy: she prophesises in great detail events from globalisation to Indian resistance in 21st century Malaysia, but it seems a cheap trick to take the recent past and place it in the more distant past just to make a character seem prophetic. There is also some cheap melodrama in a totally unneccessary episode of Maya secretly confronting Parvathi's Japanese lover, unafraid of his sword. In fact, poor Maya's dignity is often cheapened by these unfortunate of writing devices. Even Parvathi's children who should have been central characters, seem little more than semi-failed writing devices; the character of the son in particular, adding little of value to the story.
Unfortunately, the novel tells little if anything of either Ceylonese culture or of Malaysian culture. There are a few dismissive generalisations, "You know how the Chinese are. Promise them a profit and they'll do anything", but nothing which handles or presents places, races, or sets of cultures in any meaningful way. In fact, towards the end of the novel, a whole load of racist comments are made through words summarily inserted into the mouths of characters, which sound out of character. The political discussions feels out of place, wedged in carelessly and hastily, without sensitivity or proper context. The novel indulges itself in its own dream world of magic and surrealism, sloppily attempting to locate itself within particular geographical and historical coordinates, but not even taking the trouble to illustrate those, merely exploiting their position to fix the story somewhere, someplace. The Japanese occupation of Malaya is treated in a shockingly trite manner, all mere background to the lust and satisfaction of lust Parvathi enjoys.
The novel began so promisingly, with the now aged Parvathi being requested by a young writer to talk of and record her experience of the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This perfectly good framework for a cracking story was then swiftly subsumed into the nonsensical and the trite, the supposedly magical and would-be spiritual. This novel is more than a disappointment, it is a waste of time. Manicka is by no means a poor storyteller, but it is unfortunate that she tells such a lame, improbable, badly developed story this time round
Book Description: Parvathi leaves her native Ceylon for Malaya and an arranged marriage to a wealthy businessman But her father has cheated, supplying a different girl's photograph, and Kasu Marimuthu, furious, threatens to send her home in disgrace. Gradually husband and wife reach an accommodation, and the naive young girl learns to assume the air of sophisticated mistress of a luxurious estate. She even adopts his love child and treats Rubini as her own daughter -- a generous act which is rewarded by a long-wished-for son. But it is a life without passion, and Parvathi dreams of loving -- and being loved -- with complete abandon. When the Japanese invade Malaya, in WW2, they requisition the estate. Marimuthu dies and Parvathi is forced to accept the protection of the Japanese general who has robbed her of her home. For the first time, she experiences sexual ecstasy. And gradually, her sworn enemy becomes the lover she has always yearned for ...
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