As Sweet as Honey

( 6 )

Overview

In her latest novel, Indira Ganesan, a writer often likened to Arundhati Roy and Chitra Divakaruni (see back of jacket for reviews), gives us an enchanting story of family life that is a dance of love and grief and rebirth set on a gorgeous island in the Indian Ocean.

The island is filled with exotic flora and fauna and perfumed air. A large family compound is presided over by a benign, stalwart grandmother. There is a very tall South Asian heroine with the astonishing un-Indian...

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As Sweet as Honey

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Overview

In her latest novel, Indira Ganesan, a writer often likened to Arundhati Roy and Chitra Divakaruni (see back of jacket for reviews), gives us an enchanting story of family life that is a dance of love and grief and rebirth set on a gorgeous island in the Indian Ocean.

The island is filled with exotic flora and fauna and perfumed air. A large family compound is presided over by a benign, stalwart grandmother. There is a very tall South Asian heroine with the astonishing un-Indian name of Meterling, who has found love at last in the shape of a short, round, elegant Englishman who wears white suits. There are also numerous aunts, uncles, and young cousins—among them, Mina, grown now, and telling this story of a marriage ceremony that ends with a widowed bride who, in the midst of her grief, discovers she is pregnant.            

While enjoying their own games and growing pains, Mina and her young cousins follow every nuance of gossip, trying to puzzle out what is going on with their favorite aunt, particularly when the groom’s cousin arrives from England and begins to woo her. As Meterling—torn between Eastern and Western ideas of love and family, duty and loyalty—struggles to make a new life, we become as entranced with this family, its adventures and complications, as Mina is.

And with her we celebrate a time and place where, although sometimes difficult, life was for the most part as sweet as honey.   

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her third novel (after Inheritance), Ganesan returns to the island of Pi in the Indian Ocean, "the tiniest crescent-shaped bindi above the eyebrows to Sri Lanka's tear." Mina, now grown, tells the childhood story of her Aunt Meterling's unlikely marriage to a stout Englishman named Archer; that she was tall and he short was only the beginning of their differences. Vows were barely exchanged-she in a sari, he in a white suit-before the groom dropped dead. Amid her grief, Meterling discovered she was pregnant, a joyful, but problematic turn in her world of tradition. At the time, young Mina and her cousins barely understood the domestic drama unfolding before them; every overheard word was a puzzle. Meterling inherits Archer's fields and fortune in England, but is unfit to visit them when beckoned by Archer's distant cousin Simon. Instead, he comes to her and soon falls in love with his cousin's former bride. Ganesan spins the lush magic of island life out into the real world. Repercussions of colonialism echo for generations, but the women of Pi find opportunity in the tumult. In this enclosed world, Meterling was the first to dream a different life and her story inspires Mina's intimate retelling.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
 “The imaginary Indian coastal island of Pi, where Ganesan has set her previous fiction, works beautifully as the setting for this East Asian homage to To the Lighthouse, both the nostalgic recreation of a lost perfect moment and an exploration into Woolf’s ‘thousand shapes of love.’ The novel is masterful at exploring the difficulty of cultural identity and integration. There’s also a bit of magical realism in the shape of a ghost. But ultimately, this is a novel about the many permutations of both love and family. . . . The characters’ genuine charm and the girlish, witty energy of the storytelling are irresistible.”—Kirkus starred review

“This sweet, sun-drenched, lovely book is the perfect antidote to a long, gray winter.”––Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
 
“Whether she is describing verdant, lush Pi or bustling, crowded London, Ganesan brings two worlds, and [the protagonist’s] conflicted feelings about each of them, to vibrant life.”––Kristine Huntley, Booklist
 
“Beautifully crafted . . . A young woman living on a lush island in the Indian Ocean is torn between modern ways and her elders’ beliefs.”––People Magazine
 
“Ms. Ganesan is one of several female novelists from India who trace the trajectories of middle-class Indians as they move between their own country and America or Britain. (Others include Jhumpa Lahiri and Sunetra Gupta.) This experience gives the writer and her characters critical distance from both India and the West, and nurtures clear-sightedness and irony, nurtures, in fact, the novel of manners. The considerable appeal of As Sweet as Honey is that East and West, romance and novel, coexist so enticingly.”––Claire Hopley, The Washington Times

Kirkus Reviews
The imaginary Indian coastal island of Pi, where Ganesan has set her previous fiction (Inheritance, 1998, etc.), works beautifully as the setting for this East Asian homage to To the Lighthouse, both the nostalgic recreation of a lost perfect moment and an exploration into Woolf's "thousand shapes" of love. The novel opens with a wedding and a death almost in the same breath. After a brief but romantic courtship, 6-foot, 28-year-old Meterling (thoroughly East Asian despite her eccentric German name) receives permission from her Hindu family to marry Archer, a dapper 4 foot-7-inch Englishman in his 40s. During their first wedding dance, he suffers a fatal coronary. Meterling is naturally heartbroken; she is also pregnant. The narrator of the aftermath, Meterling's much younger cousin Mina, lives with a passel of cousins, aunts and uncles in her grandmother's household of joyous pandemonium, which is not unlike the genteel chaos of Woolf's Ramsays; coincidentally, Mina's is a family of well-read Anglophiles, not unaware that Pi is a little like Prospero's enchanted island. Looking back from her own adulthood, Mina describes growing up in an innocent but not unsophisticated world in which people really do take care of each other and where what is meant to be happens. So her family accepts the scandalous fact that Meterling had sex before marriage and adores the resulting baby, Oscar. But Western influence is unavoidable. Mina lives with her grandmother since her parents are getting Ph.D.s at Princeton, and eventually, she ends up in America. Yet Mina still manages to tell the story of Meterling's unexpected second romance and marriage to Archer's cousin Simon, with whom she moves to England. The novel is masterful at exploring the difficulty of cultural identity and integration. There's also a bit of magical realism in the shape of a ghost. But ultimately, this is a novel about the many permutations of both love and family. Despite some slightly strained plot twists, the characters' genuine charm and the girlish, witty energy of the storytelling are irresistible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307960443
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.48 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Indira Ganesan was born in Srirangam, India, and moved to the United States as a child. She graduated from Vassar College and received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her previous novels were The Journey and Inheritance. She currently lives in Provincetown, MA.
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Read an Excerpt

As Sweet as Honey


By Indira Ganesan

Knopf

Copyright © 2013 Indira Ganesan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307960443

Chapter 1

Our aunt Meterling stood over six feet tall, a giantess, a tree. From her limbs came large hands, which always held a shower of snacks for us children. We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals, and her green shawl made for a roof to cover our play forts. We loved Meterling, because she was so devotedly freakish, because she rained everyone with affection, and because we felt that anyone that tall had to be supernaturally gifted. No one actually said she was a ghost, or a saint, or a witch, but we watched for signs nevertheless. She knew we suspected her of tricks, for she often smiled at us and displayed sleight of hand, pulling coins and shells out of thin air. But that, said Rasi, ­didn’t prove anything; Rasi had read The Puffin Book of Magic Tricks and pretty much knew them all, and was not so easily impressed.

What was interesting, and never expected, was that Aunt Meterling married the littlest man she knew. He was four feet seven, dapper, and jolly. The ­grown-­ups were embarrassed and affronted, for like Auntie Sita said, it was bad enough having a freakishly tall woman in the family. Yet, they were all relieved that Aunt Meterling found Uncle Archer and he, her.

The wedding was a small enough affair as weddings go, but the bridegroom rode to town in a white baby Aston Martin decked with garlands of roses and basil, and the first marriage rites took place at dawn.

Someone said how sad it was that Meterling’s parents could not be at the wedding, but neither could Archer’s. I wondered what Meterling’s father had been like. He had named her, after all. Who had he been? A man smitten with the German language, it seemed, for her name sounded German, and smitten, too, with his family. A man who died, with his beloved wife, in a car accident, all those years ago. A man who loved his daughter enough to name her something special. A man who must be still alive in Meterling’s heart, I thought.

And her mother? A small, sweet woman who must have loved her daughter, even as she might have seen something in her that marked her for a fragile future. Also absent, also loved, also missing the wedding. I could comprehend Meterling’s longing for her family, because my own father and mother were in America, land of dreams and snow. But lose a mother and ­a father—­no, that was impossible! I could only imagine so far.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, straining to see if my aunt would change somehow after the fire ceremony, the part where she walked seven steps hand in hand with Uncle Archer, but she kept her eyes downcast, as became a modest bride, while the priests chanted all around her. She wore a ­reddish-­pinkish gold sari from Kanchi, with twelve inches of gold jhari on its border and thirty-six on the paloo; she had mendhi on her hands and feet, aglow from a bath of turmeric and sandal. In her hair was jasmine, rose, and tulsi. She wore an engagement ring, and during the ceremony she’d get a gold ring on her third finger, left hand, and a ring on her toe. Uncle Archer would get a ring as well. He wore a white pajama suit of heavy material all the way from Bombay, a pink tie, a boutonnière, and sandals. That he was wearing a suit instead of a formal dhoti was radical enough, whispered the aunts, but to hold hands before the ceremony was too much. We knew something was afoot but were not quite sure what the problem was. He’s being intimate, giggled Sanjay, stamping his feet while Rasi and I pretended not to know him. We just shook our heads as our aunts ­did—­we were smart enough to know that rules were being broken left and right, and ­didn’t need Sanjay to tell us, even if it appeared that he did know more than us. Afterwards, Auntie Pa (her real name was Auntie Parvati, but Sanjay started saying Pa when he was two and could not roll his r’s, and the name stuck) said that she had had a funny feeling in her heart that something was not right, but at that moment, when they were simply standing at the ceremony and later at the reception, everything was fine and there was plenty to eat and drink and toast the couple’s happiness. He was now our uncle. Auntie Pa smiled and playfully tugged Sanjay’s hair.

But no one could have predicted what happened next. One minute Uncle Archer was laughing and dancing with the littlest cousins, and then he took Aunt Meterling out to the dance floor. She had gone to Western dance classes, whispered an aunt, just for this moment. No one doubted Uncle could dance; he was born to wear a suit and tails—in fact, he bore more than a striking resemblance to the Monopoly man, with a full white mustache and a round tummy. A Western waltz was struck up, and everyone left the dance floor. Some of the elders among the guests frowned and turned away, because touch dancing was severely looked down upon, even though we lived in town. As my grandmother would say, this was not Delhi, not Bombay, but Madhupur, a town on the island of Pi in the Bay of Bengal: a place as sweet as honey, where people lived decent lives. Touching was meant for procreation, nothing else. Once, we had looked up “procreation” in the Animal Encyclopedia, but ­didn’t learn much except about the mating habits of the stickleback fish. But there she was, Aunt Meterling, swathed in gold tissue silk, and there was he, monocled and marvelous, and the music from the hired band began. One turn, two, three, and he was down. Uncle Archer was on the ground. A flurry of activity, then a scream, and we children were pushed aside. The youngest of us ­didn’t understand but started to cry anyway. Rasi, Sanjay, and I ­didn’t ­really understand, either. When it was all over, no one had any appetite for the plates of round halvah and sugared grapes.

We were stunned into silence. We had not been paying attention. We never would have believed it if someone told us. We grew still with shock. We were eleven, nine, and ten. Plus all of our other cousins. All of us kids. It was the worst thing we had seen, or nearly seen. He had died in an instant.

There was not even a chance to see where exactly he came up to measure against her, someone said, in a ­half-­giggle or cry, whether to her knee (“That’s silly,” said Rasi), her elbow, her chin. In truth, most of the guests hardly knew him, had only seen him once or twice, and mostly from afar. And it was hard for us to see much during all of the ceremony, because Sanjay started chasing Mani, who had swiped his spin top, and Rasi joined in to help Mani, and she dragged me with her. Mary Angel from two doors down called to us to share her caramels. We forgot about Mani and Sanjay as we ate the caramels. Rasi said we had to avoid her schoolteacher. She did not look so menacing to me when I saw her, a perfectly nice woman with her husband, who smiled broadly, making me think Rasi ­hadn’t done some schoolwork, or had skipped out on a class. All in all, we hardly saw them wed.

But their love was palpable, like a color that was visible, almost heard. Their arms reached for each other with the sweetest sigh. Fingertips touching, swish of gold, monocle flash. One step, two step, three, gone.

Meterling sobbed in a corner. She sat right down, three feet of her against the wall, another three and more stretched on the floor. Her crying was fraught and unabashed, and no one seemed to know what to do. No one had ever seen her cry, because her height made her seem protected from whatever ill might befall ordinary women. Grandmother, no slouch, sharply spoke to anyone who said “It’s too bad,” and gave them work to do. The other aunties crowded around; some, you know, were waiting for a moment like this, because Meterling, that awkward fish, had landed a man before they did. But others, like Nalani, just burst into tears for the loss and grief.

The marriage hall quickly cleared, and they took Uncle Archer’s body away. Uncle Darshan and Uncle Thakur ushered Aunt Meterling out. I looked back at the decorated hall, the garlands of pink, white, and orange flowers trailing from the ceiling, and those crushed on the floor. A funny feeling filled my stomach as I stared at the trampled blooms. A handful of cooks and cleaners began to clear up the food and sweep up, while a priest continued to pray, and there was a loud murmur of voices all at once as we exited. Outside, the musicians bowed their hands to our grandmother, offering condolences.

We gathered on the veranda that evening, not sure what to do. In an instant, our house had gone from celebration to mourning. The family doctor had been a guest, and now she was in charge of the body. Was it a heart attack? An attack on the brain? All we heard was the muffled crying of Meterling, which made Auntie Pa want to have us stay with neighbors, but my grandmother decided we should stay home and not cause trouble.

Chapter 2

Our family is ­medium-­sized. I used to wish for sisters and brothers, but ­really, having Sanjay and Rasi and all our other cousins was enough. My grandmother had four daughters and one son: Rema, Parvati, Jyoti, Chandra, and Tharak. Rasi and Sanjay are my cousins closest in age. We all lived in Grandmother’s house, along with Auntie Meterling and Nalani. ­Rasi’s father, Uncle Thakur, is usually in Dubai or Singapore for business; but her mother, Auntie Pa, lives in Madhupur. Uncle Darshan, Sanjay’s father, lives nearby, a few districts over, and is a college professor. His wife, Chandra, who was also the sister of my mother and Auntie Pa, died giving birth to little Appam, so Sanjay practically lives with us as well. Appam stays with Uncle Darshan’s sister and her husband, who have no children and are looking after him like a mother and father would. Rasi (whose real name is Rasisvari) has two sisters who are much older than her, both already married and living in India. Nalani (who we call just Nalani, not ­Nalani-­Acca, or Elder Sister, because she is still unmarried and young) says there are enough kids for everybody. She is the daughter of my mother’s sister Rema, who died with Nalani’s father, both of them on a hiking trip in Ooty, while Nalani was in school, long before Rasi, Sanjay, and I were born. Meterling is the daughter of our uncle Tharak, my mother’s brother, but we still call her Aunt even though technically she is our cousin. My mother and father are Jyoti and Jai, both in America, working on their PhD’s in astrophysics and organic chemistry. I’m Mina, and at the time of the wedding I was ten, Rasi was eleven, and Sanjay was nine.

We had heard snatches of their story before, of how Meterling and Archer met at a party thrown for a local nawab, minutes before Meterling was to leave to go home. A Cinderella story, only they ­didn’t live happily ever after. And no glass slipper. Instead, Archer and Meterling spoke, captured each other’s hearts without intending to, and went home determined to meet again.

“He wore funny socks,” said Meterling. “Imagine wearing socks in this heat.” Meterling had worn yellow and looked like a radiant flower, said Grandmother.

They met at the train station next, where they nodded hello, and Archer asked Meterling to another party. This was a more awkward situation, because Meterling was, despite her height and name, a proper girl of specific caste and region, and Archer was an unknown. Marry an unknown to a known, and who knows what the net result might be! But marriage ­wasn’t in anyone’s head, merely social edification, so Meterling was sent to the party—a reception, ­really, for one of our neighbors who came back from the States with a degree. The grumbling was minimal, more or less, but two chaperones were provided, just in case. Meterling was ­twenty-­eight (too old already, according to our ­town’s standards) and as such was ripe to marry a fat ­fifty-­year-old from a neighboring town, Mr. Govinda, but as fate would have it, she fell in love with Uncle Archer, who was only Archer at the time, fat enough himself and close to forty.

At the second party, the hostess had decided on a theme of jellyfish to honor the local marine biologist, and served vegetable cutlets with ketchup and multicolored badushas. Meterling stood in front of a punch bowl full of seashells, and looked for something to drink. Archer offered her a cup of something ­sea-­green, tasting like a little of this, a little of that, with the tiniest kick thrown in between.

“Vodka?” she wondered out loud, before accepting.

He shook his head, saying, “Seven-­Up with food color.”

Meterling had never tasted such a fizzy drink before and immediately burped. Archer let one out too, to save her embarrassment, and ­that’s how their fate was sealed. They decided to go outside to see the roses. Mrs. Mohan’s roses were famed all over the district; it was rumored she ordered them direct from ­En­gland. They were large, immensely fragrant, and individually named.

Meterling smiled.

“How complicated it must be to live here as a foreigner,” she said.

“How hard do you think it is to grow roses?” he asked in reply.

Riddles, they both thought, feeling awkward.

Then Archer looked away a bit.

Then he held her gaze.

She felt embarrassed, and wondered if anyone could see. Who was this man anyway? A footfall prevented intimate conversation, and they went back inside.

In the American films we were not allowed to see, couples fell in love at first sight. In fact, they did in Hindi films too. One of my grandfather’s friends fell in love when he saw a girl on a bus, and married her within a week. My aunt did not fall in love with Uncle Archer so quickly. She said he made her laugh, but she could not take him seriously at first. In fact, only when the entire family had fallen in love with him could she entertain the notion of marriage.

He was easy to love. He came to our house bearing small, funny gifts, and flirted outrageously with our grandmother and Auntie Pa. He complimented them on their saris, spoke knowledgeably about market prices for potatoes and string beans, and knew the words to old filmi songs. He made them smile. With Uncle Darshan, he was more reserved, but only in the beginning. He soon cheerfully played and lost game after game of Parcheesi and cards, and sometimes he and Uncle Darshan retired with glasses of gin.

Continues...

Excerpted from As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan Copyright © 2013 by Indira Ganesan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    Brat

    I never wanted to put it down! Love It!

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2013

    I loved this novel! This was such an easy book to read, I just e

    I loved this novel!
    This was such an easy book to read, I just enjoyed the story, the Indian culture is very interesting, the different faiths, family customs and of course the food, I find it so interesting, cannot wait to read Indira Ganesan's other books. I will pass this book on to the Senior Center Library in my neighborhood, they always appreciate good books!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    IM SO CONFUSED PLZ EXPLAIN

    Im so confused what is this place?

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    Foxheart

    Hiya Shimmerheart. I waz campin.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    To Foxheart

    Hey i havent seen you in a while :D and Nightkit go to the next result.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Frostshine

    Whatever Cloudfur said for the first time.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    Peachstar

    Makes a nest

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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