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Archive for November, 2010

A Breathtaking Journey to Post-Colonial India

Think of Pearl S. Buck, and most readers will automatically think The Good Earth.  But the prolific Buck wrote of exotic places other than China. In Mandala, she takes us on a breathtaking journey to India as the country is transitioning to independence with a story of love, the clashing of cultures, and mysticism.

This is the story of Prince Jagat, stripped of his title and most of his wealth, who embraces the new independence of his beloved country, and Moti, his wife, who is terrified of the changes that have come to her homeland and her home. When their only son, Jai, is killed in a Chinese Border skirmish, Moti, convinced their son’s spirit still lives, sends Jagat on a quest to find Jai. Along the way, he meets a beautiful, exotic American, Brooke Westley, and the pair strike up a love affair that seems destined by the fates. With Brooke, Jagat learns the difference between sex and romantic love. In doing so, he also learns cultural traditions are embedded deeply in his soul, and wages a personal war as his love for this Western woman clashes with Eastern traditions.

Moti, always timid and shy, is bewildered by the changes she sees in her husband, and seeks solace in her friendship with Father Francis Paul. With the priest, Moti becomes alive as she struggles to understand and accept love can be platonic, not sexual.

The East-West culture clash also affects Veera, Jagat and Moti’s daughter, who flirts with the idea of refusing the marriage her parents arranged for her in favor of emancipation; Bert Osgood, the American businessman employed by Jagat, whose attraction to Veera is irresistible; and Rodriguez, the servant whose loyalty to Jagat and his family affects them all in a profound manner.

Along the way we are treated to the splendor and mysticism that are India: visits to the Taj Mahal, the opulence of Jagat’s palace, and the underlying certainty that what is, was, and will be again. The intimation that Brooke and Jagat may have been lovers in a previous life is subtle yet unmistakable, as seen in the conversation the pair have shortly after meeting:

       “The night (my grandmother) died she told me to follow the man I love.”

       “But if you do not know who he is?”

       “I think she will let me know somehow, when she thinks I need him…”

       “How do you propose to find this man you love when, or if, you need him?”

       “I’ll happen on him by chance—as I did upon you.” 

Brooke’s touching encounter with a young child toward the end of the novel is nothing short of magical. Is reincarnation real? Readers are left to decide this for themselves. 

Buck’s sympathy for and understanding of Eastern traditions are evident in this gentle book. Her handling of the border skirmish with the Chinese rebukes without criticizing, a difficult task. Sex is part of this story, but is handled delicately, not graphically. We know the act is taking place, yet we are not bombarded with graphic details of who did what to whom—a trend in modern storytelling that I often find cliché and borderline pornographic. 

And if the end of the story was not what I hoped for as I was reading, what I would have written had I been Mandala’s author, it is a fit ending, and the only one Buck could have written.  I loved Mandala, and from now on, when I hear someone mention the name Pearl S. Buck, I have no doubt it is the book that will come to mind before all others.

To read an excerpt from Mandala, visit Amazon at: http://amzn.to/bMz5Mq

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