Monday, July 22, 2002

coming to a terrible end

The Road to Maridur, By Christopher New. Asia 2000, Hong Kong, HK$195 ($25)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2002).

CHRISTOPHER NEW'S fifth novel, The Road to Maridur, tells the story of a young Englishman who travels to India in the late 1970s to recapture the memories of his grandmother, who was the governess for a princely Indian family in the last days of the British Raj.

Staying in the fading ancestral palace of the former raja, Jonathan Kelley discovers that the family, caught between the pressures of modernization and the legacy of ritual and caste, faces financial ruin. Because the raja's eldest daughter married a man from a lower caste, the labourers have refused to work the family lands, their only source of income. To appease them, the raja's family has disowned the daughter who married outside the clan and intends to ensure second daughter, Sakuntala, marries within the caste -- to the feeble-minded son of backward fundamentalists. Though Kelley believes he loves Sakuntala, he cannot prevent her from sacrificing herself. Unwilling to marry the man chosen for her, Sakuntala commits sati, burning herself alive.

It is difficult to imagine why New -- whose China Coast trilogy is justly regarded to be among the best post-colonial novels written about Asia -- has devoted his considerable talents to this melodrama. The fat, juicy book has some of the pleasures of the first book of the trilogy, Shanghai, which remained on The New York Times' best-seller list for eight weeks. But in his latest novel the understated beauty of the writing and the evocative portrait of India only camouflages the overblown romance. While Shanghai also trafficked on the stereotypes of the exotic Orient, its setting was far enough removed in time that its focus on devious opium dealers and sing-song girls did not seem like the selective obsessions of the West. The Road to Maridur's catalogue of inscrutable sadhus, deposed princes and distressed damsels is more problematic, given the contemporary setting and Western writers' reputation for noticing the snake charmer pulling tourists instead of the automobile factory behind him.

Those concerns aside, and doubtless some will dismiss them as the tyranny of the politically correct, it cannot be denied that The Road to Maridur is a fun summer read. New also deserves credit for an evocative portrait of India. But fans of his more literary work will wonder why he chose this melodrama, when with the book's final ritual suicide a week of guilty pleasure ends with a cringe.