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I am the keeper of a small guest house in the holiest city in India. For more than twenty years—all my adult life—I have lived here: my great weight sunk, torpid in the heat, into this sagged chair on my rooftop patio, or presiding downstairs at the table that guards the entryway: a once-American woman, taking down the passport number of each traveler, managing this inn for the Mohan Joshi family.
The newly arrived always stare: at my bloated flesh bathing in sweat, my fair coloring marked by freckles. I am not what one expects to find hidden away in Varanasi.
This is my home, though, the Saraswati, eleven rooms and a little restaurant, a view of the river, which at this moment burns with early morning light. From my roof, I watch it go by: the Ganges, Ganga it is called in Hindi by those who revere the river goddess.
I gave myself a Hindi name long ago, just weeks after my arrival here. I am Natraja. It has come to suit me well. I answer to it in my dreams; never mind that I was born Estelle, forty-odd years ago. Such an old-fashioned North Carolina farm-wife name did not fit me.
As Natraja, I have gained a modest fame. The Lonely Planet travel guide each year advises the adventurous to come to my table: "Mother Natraja at the Saraswati is worth a side trip. A one-woman blend of East and West."
What the guidebook does not mention is that I weigh perhaps four hundred pounds, twenty-five-or-so stone. I have more flesh than Ganesha, the elephant-faced god.Yet I'm told that, once on my feet, I move like an Indian, sinuous and flowing. I've darkened some from the sun, but my hair is still ashyblond, long and straggly with threads of grey, and my eyes are light brown to the point of gold. Having these eyes, this huge body, helps me: people keep their distance. In a place just next to the Ganges, close to the pyres of burning bodies, newcomers especially are careful of anything that might unsettle them more.
Even so, the tourists ask me their questions. I rarely tell them anything. They can fend for themselves.
What they want to know I tell again and again to the waters that flow below this perch, a new audience with every moment, or to Shiva, with his many aspects and faces. In a sense, I have named myself for this most seductive deadly god; Natraja is Shiva's dance, dance of the one who creates and destroys. The river itself springs from his brow, carrying both waters of healing and ashes of the dead.
From where I sit, my left leg gone prickly from the edge of the chair, I can easily see one of the phallic shrines to Shiva, the linga. It is below, there just at the edge of the water, the stone image of a penis, waist-high nearly and thick as an oak, a smooth pillar giving off a dull glow where it is touched by sun, garlands of orange marigolds looped at its base. A worshipper adds a fresh offering now—he hunches like a gardener tending a shrub, arranging the yellow flowers, pouring river water from a brass kettle over the rounded head.
The base of the shrine is a vulva, but people rarely notice the female organs, no more than grooves which serve as a drain for the pourings of water. On some linga, a serpent swims in the female canal; on others it may coil upward, winding itself about the phallus, or not appear at all. My shrine is too far away for me to see its details. But then, I require no reminder of the serpent within.
I see all I need to see, from this filthy rope-weave chair, l have planted myself at the city's center. Of the million pilgrims who come to Varanasi each year, many will stop first at this bit of shore. My house sits yards from Dashashvamedh, the main bathing ghat. The city's waterfront stretches out on either side, a long curve of riverbend made into a series of waterfront ghats, each a tall flight of steep concrete stairs climbing several stories from the river to the level of the city's winding lanes. The bank is a huge set of bleachers, facing the flow of Ganga, mobbed with bathers. I supervise them from my roof.
At the other side of my house, though I never look that way, is the city's complicated core: the galis, a great labyrinth of lanes so narrow a rickshaw can't enter. This maze guards my house—like a thorny hedge, or the moat around a castle.
I live my life here, sitting and watching, the sweat soaking my sari and strands of my hair. With Ramesh to do our shopping—and surely he is the one to know what he needs for his kitchen—a year and more can pass without my stepping beyond the scarred table downstairs by the entrance.
I have no reason to leave the house, though once or twice in these years Ramesh has led me down the gali for a glimpse of the market. But I will never re-enter the world. My conscience does not allow it. Those who come to me do so of their own will. And they bring me more news from outside than I wish to hear.
Fortunately, I have learned many ways to end a conversation. Should I simply start to rise from my chair in the dining room, the guests at my table will look away, embarrassed at my panting effort. I come up here, latch the door behind me.
It is different of course with Ramesh—I watch him as I sit here each morning.
He stands in my sight, waist-deep in the river, at a distance of perhaps a dozen lengths of unwound saris. From here, he is clearly visible, though the wet flesh of other bathers presses so close around him that the water does not shine between one person and the next. And I know him from the motion of his arms and head, he cups river water in his big wide-fingered hands, lets it stream down his face. I imagine it lukewarm, filmed with soap and oil like dishwater left standing. I feel it in my own hands, water that both soils and cleans. I feel it running down my face. I recognize his way of holding his shoulders, standing so erect that his shoulderblades nearly meet in the middle of his narrow back. I study him out of habit as much as anything; a mind cannot remain empty or unwelcome thought will flood in.
For the devout, this is the hour of the bath. The sun is just up. Prayer and singing are over. Ramesh scrubs up under one arm; he bends his knees to let the water rinse through his underwrappings. He and the others are simply washing now, ridding themselves of their dirt and their sins. What crimes could he believe he has committed since this time yesterday, my irascible old companion, fellow monastic? He and I have lived beside each other in this house so long: he sleeping on his servant's cot at the wall of the dining room, I in my cell of a room.
There is a rattling behind me—who is it? But the door to the stairwell is shut. No one here. Perhaps my eyes closed for a moment and I dreamed it. Though if I dozed, it was not for long; or else the sun is slow in its journey up today. There is Ramesh still at the water, brushing his teeth with a neem twig, finishing his toilette.
My eyes return to a waking focus.
Then from below—a thumping, something being dragged. It's a little peculiar, though not of sufficient interest to move me from my chair. Travelers do arrive sometimes with great trunks, bringing with them all they own, and enough pills to set up a hospital.
Most of that sort would never reach me, stopping, no doubt, when they take one look at the path that leads toward my house. The galis, even more than the cremation grounds or the river itself, unnerve a foreigner. They have a hellish feel. Not enough light filters down between the buildings; it's too dark at noon to take a picture. Newcomers think they have entered the underworld.
I laugh at the uneasiness of my guests, coming in at dusk their first day, white and shaken in a way that heat and dehydration don't account for. They've read on the train: this is the Hindu holy city, the place to die, to have the body burned and offered to Ganga, the place to bathe and be purified. Yet they don't know how it feels to walk into a lane only two sets of shoulders wide and look behind them to discover the exit is no longer in sight. A fear rises, of being buried alive. But it's the only way to reach this spot, either by river or through these galis.
That sound again—
Now it's like the wind moaning almost, but surely not in this stagnant heat.
It is a priest no doubt, blowing a long note on his conch shell, somewhere close by. Breath in a conchshell is an inhuman cry.
But Ramesh has stopped his washing. He stares toward a spot at the base of the building.
Pushing upward, I rock forward onto my feet.
Ramesh and so many around him, they are turned this way— something is wrong.
Close to the guardwall with my unsteady weight, I look over to the gali floor below, hear a scream.
The white-clad backs of two men, no three, running head-down for their lives—they disappear into the alley beyond the next building.
Below, a man lies fallen to the paving—his legs struggle, feet digging at the stone. His face, in the building's shadow, is cut off from view....
Where is Ramesh?
There—coming out of the water. Behind him in the water, parents huddle together with their children, faces averted so as not to have seen. Ramesh is hurrying up the steps though, wrapping his dhoti over his wet underbinding as he goes.
I wave at him to stop. He must stay where he is and not look.
He continues to climb, scowl on his face, lips pressed down hard. He comes up and up the steep steps, looking toward that same spot.
"Ramesh," I call out.
He glances once my way, but keeps climbing. I know he has seen me. "Ramesh!" I scream. My voice has gone shrill "Go back!"
But he does not.
I feel myself swaying. I must get into the house. The ends of my fingers hunger for the cool walls.
Lurching toward the door, I am seasick — where is the doorlatch? Inside all will be as usual; I'll find him downstairs in the kitchen.
Q: When the twenty year-old Estelle flees her American life to live in India, she selects a new Hindi name for herself: Natraja. What does this choice say about the way she sees herself and her future? Does having this name influence the course of the life she makes for herself? Can you think of a counterpart in Judeo-Christian culture to what the name Natraja signifies to a Hindu?
Q: What part does the river Ganges play in the transformations of the people in the guest house? How is the effect different for each character? How do other religions make use of water as a symbol or a sacred entity?
Q: What physical elements of the city of Varanasi make the spiritual transformations in this story possible? Are any of these seemingly negative or frightening, perhaps dangerous? Does the nature of the physical environment in the story seem to shift in any way as the novel progresses? How so?
Q: Do you think Natraja would have changed if the terrorist violence had not broken out around her? What similarities do you see between the psychological effects of terrorism in the story and those in the real world?
Q: Do Ramesh's feelings for Natraja evolve during the course of the story? What drives him? What are his passions? Is he a happy man?
Q: Did the young Natraja's love affair with the princely Bhushan turn out as it should have? Do you think their romance was based mainly on the temptation of forbidden fruit? Or were they true soul mates, kept apart only by their cultural differences?
Q: How are Hindu rituals and images pivotal in the characters' lives? By what method do these outward signs of Hindu belief lead to inner change?
Q: What are the stages in Natraja's emotional decline? What triggers the changes in her state of mind and how do these show themselves to people around her? How does Natraja inadvertently alter the emotional lives of the other characters?
Q: What makes a city or a place holy? Is a pilgrimage site essentially different from other places? How?
Q: This story takes place in India with flashbacks to the American rural South. Do you sense some kinship between these two very different parts of the world? What would you identify as the source of any similarities between the two regions?
Q: Do you think there's a way to end the cycle of retaliation in this story, or will both groups attack each other until one or both fall from exhaustion and depletion?
Q: What part does love, romantic or otherwise, play in the outcome of this story? If Dr. Rai were to vanish, could T.J. and Mrs. Rai live together happily ever after? How do you think the tie between Natraja and Ramesh will evolve? Will Jill and Marie ultimately find happiness in a romantic partnership?
Q: Jill appears at times to be tightly wound and at other times to be crazy. Does her obsessive-compulsiveness have a solution? Do you believe she would seek help, or content herself with an emotionally constricted life?
Q: What might Marie realistically accomplish in the years she has left? Do you think she has made a good choice at the story's end? What might her children have to say about her decision to stay? What would be the wisest stance for them to take toward their elderly mother's behavior?
Q: What is the place of hunger in this story? Will Natraja remain obese? What do each of the characters hunger for? Must a profound longing be satisfied for a person to lead a happy life?
Q: Why do you think the novel is called Sister India? Is there more than one way to understand the title? Does it fit the book?
Posted December 3, 2001
Peggy Payne's latest book, 'Sister India,' leads you into a hidden corner of the continent that few tourists ever encounter. You experience India through her empathy for the people and with her eyes. I now feel as if I have been there: sensing the eroticism that always is present in Indian culture, living with that clammy heat and becoming so engrossed in Sister India's personal life that I didn't want the book to end. We need a sequel; can we petition the author?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 27, 2001
(Please note: this is a revision of the review I sent in yesterday.) Before and after my three extensive trips to India I read a number of novels. The best was E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam New York). It is anything but a turgid read. In fifty-seven short chapters Payne evokes the steamy heat, smells and sounds of cities along the Ganges. The plot is simple--four characters inhabiting a guesthouse in Varanasi and how they cope with a mandated curfew. The pace is fast but there's nothing superficial about this accomplished novel. NO WONDER IT'S A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK FOR 2001.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 14, 2001
I read Sister India while traveling in Florida. As a result, I missed all the palms of Naples and found myself, instead, transported to the holy city of Varanasi. I stayed at the Saraswati Guest House managed by the weighty Madame Natraja, an American with North Carolina roots. 'I can stare at whatever comes my way,' she says to herself after more than 20 years on foreign soil. Other guests include Jill Thornton, a young single woman who is returning home after a business trip to New Delhi; TJ Clayton, a county-government middle manager with a grant to study the pollution-plagued River Ganges; and Marie Jasper who comes late in life with her 'spotted stick of a wrist' in search of a meaningful experience. We, the readers, are guests, too. We ride the open-air rickshaws that clash together in traffic jams. We see saris swirling with color, we smell the oily frying of puffed bread, and we hear holy men chanting at dawn. We sit on rooftops, and we stand on riverbank bathing ghats. After reading Sister India, we will remember always the continuously burning funeral pyres on the Ganges shoreline. We will never forget our walks through those narrow, shadowly lanes 'only two shoulders wide.' This novel not only perks the senses, but it also stimulates the mind with engaging aspects of Hinduism. Peggy Payne confronts religious violence through her depiction of friction between the Hindu and Muslin. We, like Marie, experience the painful silence that comes after the bomb in the box of sweets. We share the experiences of all the guests, and we appreciate how Marie feels about her time in Varanasi: 'Yet the week, the mere week, she had spent in this city was seven lifetimes, each day so intense. At her age, there was nothing more valuable than that.' Read Sister India. Savor some days in Varanasi, and tell Madame Natraja I think of her often.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 26, 2001
The reader smells, tastes, hears and sees India through the beautiful descriptions of the author. I was transported to the narrow streets of Varnanasi, to the steps leading down to the Ganges, to the palace of Indian royalty, to the shops where I could buy sweets and beautiful silks. I was involved in the mystery surrounding Madame Natraja and the guests in her inn.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2001
The author may have done a lot of research on how the ashes of dead bodies are mixed with the river Ganges, but she doesn't seem to have selected the right name for her main character: 'Natraja' is an out-and-out male name(Its the name of one of the forms of the Hindu God Shiva), whereas its been assigned to a female!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 4, 2001
Just as there are formula Bollywood movies from India, now there is American formula 'literature' written about India, in which one of the common and over-done themes is about abused Indian woman. Bad mother-in-law, abusive husband, dowry and maybe even death, superstitious and backward Hindu practices and beliefs, poverty and pollution (viewed as a sort of chronic feature that was always part of India), and general social backwardness - in other words, badly in need of being rescued. Of course, the cure to this plight is held by one or more of the following privileged groups: Western Feminists; 'South Asians' since they already escaped into Westernization; and Proselytizers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
For over two decades, American Madame Natraja managed the small guesthouse Saraswati. When she lived in segregated Nevus, North Carolina in the 1950s, people knew the three hundred pound plus woman as Estelle. A scandal forced Estelle to leave town and she kept moving until she settled in India's holiest of cities, Varanasi. <P>Her adopted home city has racial problems too as violence periodically erupts between the Hindus and Muslims. When someone murders a Muslim near Saraswati, the city leaders impose a strict curfew with no one allowed to leave their homes. The guesthouse visitors see a side of India they never expected to observe and learn how precious life truly is. Madame Natraja never veers from her set course until a friend vanishes. <P>The Lonely Planet tour guidebook lists the main protagonist as a 'one woman blend of East and West'. That is a very insightful look at Madame Natraja, who understands her western roots even as she embraces aspects of eastern culture. The story line is intriguing and complex, as Peggy Payne has written an intense novel with many layers of interpretation available to the reader. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.