The Temple Dancer: A Novel of India [NOOK Book]


India, 1657.
When Maya, a graceful, young temple dancer with a mysterious past, is sold into slavery, she enters a world of intrigue, violence, and forbidden love. Bought by a Portuguese trader and sold as a concubine to the dissolute vizier of Bijapur, she embarks on a treacherous journey.
In a caravan led by the dangerous settlement man Da Gama, she travels by elephant on the hostile road to Bijapur, joined by Geraldo, a Portuguese ...

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The Temple Dancer: A Novel of India

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India, 1657.
When Maya, a graceful, young temple dancer with a mysterious past, is sold into slavery, she enters a world of intrigue, violence, and forbidden love. Bought by a Portuguese trader and sold as a concubine to the dissolute vizier of Bijapur, she embarks on a treacherous journey.
In a caravan led by the dangerous settlement man Da Gama, she travels by elephant on the hostile road to Bijapur, joined by Geraldo, a Portuguese adventurer, and Pathan, a handsome prince who carries a dark secret. Together with Lucinda, a beautiful, spoiled young Goan heiress, and the manipulative eunuch Slipper, they climb the windswept mountain road through the Western Ghats.
When their caravan is attacked by bandits, the travelers’ lives are turned upside down. In the aftermath, Maya and Lucinda suddenly find themselves stranded in a strange, exotic world, a world filled with passion, romance, and deception, pure love and lurking evil, where nothing is as it seems and the two women are faced with great temptation as well as heart-wrenching decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.
Greed, politics, commitment, courage, love, and intolerance mesh to form a vibrant Indian tapestry. With spectacular settings, unforgettable characters, fierce sensuality, and intense scholarship, this adventure-packed novel marks the debut of an exciting new storyteller.
The Temple Dancer is the first volume of John Speed’s Indian trilogy, a three-book journey that will cover the final years of the Mogul Empire and the rise of the Marathis under the highwayman Shivaji. It will leave you breathlessly awaiting his next novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A melange of creatively imagined characters populates Speed's first novel (the first installment of a proposed trilogy), an entertaining historical saga that takes place in 17th-century India. At the center of the story is Maya, a Hindi slave who is being transported across dangerous terrain by a caravan of Portuguese settlers that includes the aging adventurer Da Gama and Lucinda, a spoiled but sensitive young woman. The most intriguing traveler is Slipper, a Muslim eunuch whose relationship to Maya serves as one of the driving mysteries of the novel. The fast-paced story benefits from intriguing characters and situations twisted just enough to keep them on the safe side of unbelievable. Though the story is sometimes beset by overexplanation and cartoonishly violent episodes, it's driven by a contagious enthusiasm for the people and places encountered throughout the journey. Speed, a longtime scholar of Indian history, takes more care with plot and cultural color than dialogue and style, but the result is an enjoyable adventure that still has respect for its characters. (Aug. 31) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A richly atmospheric debut, first installment in a projected three-volume saga, portrays the clash of Portuguese, Hindu and Muslim cultures in the waning years of India's Mogul empire. A reigning Portuguese family in Goa finds itself facing bankruptcy after the 1657 Dutch victory in the Pepper Wars. For protection, patriarch Carlos Dasana is forced to woo the widowed sultana of neighboring Bijapur, a Muslim country. Since the sultan's heir is only nine and the sultana is capricious, it's almost as important to woo Bijapur's grand vizier, Wali Khan, who's likely to become regent. Via caravan, Carlos sends the vizier an irresistible bribe: former Hindu temple dancer Maya, now a famous prostitute. The motley cast of characters accompanying the caravan includes Carlos's brash, profligate nephew Geraldo; dull and honest middleman Da Gama; Pathan, a self-important Muslim captain from the Bijapur court; and Carlos's niece Lucinda, who wants to see the world. The action tracks the caravan along its perilous journey from Goa to Bijapur; inside the howdah, atop the elephant, ride Lucinda, Maya and her escort, the plump, unctuous eunuch Slipper, who becomes an abusive master. While battling bandits, near-rapes and elephant breakdowns, the young women grow friendly. Maya reveals that she reluctantly left her temple, where she was a "vessel" for the priests, when her guru was swept away in floods and she was sold to raise money. She possesses a headdress of great value, coveted by the brotherhood of eunuchs led by Whisper, who is also vying for the regency of Bijapur. While making an extended stay in Belgaum, the idyllic palace of the sultan's former concubine, Lucinda falls in love with Pathan, whileMaya and Geraldo lustily go at it. In this cauldron of competing favors and a constantly shifting balance of powers, portents hint at altogether different fates for Lucinda and Maya. The author's fondness for his material keeps this convoluted romantic epic afloat.
From the Publisher
"The Temple Dancer sweeps the reader into an age of passion and danger, romance, chivalry, and high adventure—-an age when a bandit could defy an emperor and a dancing girl change the course of history. Set against the rich backdrop of Moghul India, The Temple Dancer's combination of history, intrigue, and forbidden love should appeal to anyone who loves M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon. In fact, it should appeal to anyone who loves a story that will totally intrigue them."

—-India Edghill, author of Queenmaker and Wisdom's Daughter

"The Temple Dancer is an ocean of a story, filled with adventure, passion, and heartbreak. It's compulsively readable and everything you want in a novel."

—-Michael Swanwick, author of Bones of the Earth

"The Temple Dancer is a lush, loopy, multicultural epic set in seventeenth-century India, like the cockeyed marriage of a Bollywood musical and an Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland movie, well-researched, playfully written, and highly entertaining."

—-Christopher Bram, author of Gods and Monsters and Lives of the Circus Animals

"The Temple Dancer is what reading is all about. This book upholds true literature, which is . . . the beauty of language. There is a wonderful world here full of enchantment and nourishment."

—-Daniel Ladinsky, translator of The Gift and I Heard God Laughing

"What an adventure! Two women, utterly different in culture and outlook, travel across seventeenth century India on elephant back and discover, in the face of betrayal, that they have a great deal more in common than they ever suspected. Beautifully researched, this novel has it all: heroes adept with sword and pistol, bold and independent heroines, corrupt rulers, treacherous eunuchs, slippery merchants, and bloodthirsty banditti. The author stirs them all together with a handsome dose of conspiracy, mysticism, and sensuality to create a splendid entertainment in the grand style. —Judith Merkle Riley, author of A Vision of Light, The Oracle Glass, The Master of All Desires, and The Water Devil

"A richly atmospheric debut." -Kirkus Reviews

"…a fun and suspenseful trip through 17th century India…John Speed introduces a smorgasbord of interesting and colorful characters…an absorbing adventure and love story…fast-paced and suspenseful."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429908979
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2007
  • Series: Novels of India , #1
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 891,752
  • File size: 828 KB

Meet the Author

John Speed began studying Indian history, art, and religion while still in high school. For more than thirty years, his explorations deepened as he became absorbed in tales of the fall of the Mogul Empire and of the rise of the rebel prince Shivaji. During his many visits to India, he has stood on crumbling battlements, crawled through lightless caves, bathed in sacred rivers, wandered through forgotten gardens, prayed at old mosques and ancient temples, joined in night-long kirtans and qwalis, cheered on ecstatic temple dancers, and laid his head at the feet of hundreds of saints both living and dead, Hindus and Muslims. Speed is a freelance political consultant and journalist who cofounded a successful on-line newspaper. He now lives with his dogs in a very small house overlooking Swami’s Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. The Temple Dancer is his first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Portuguese Cantonment
Goa, India

Satisfied that her face looked perfect, Lucinda Teresa Emilia Dasana dipped a pheasant's tail feather into a crystal vial and touched a milky drop of belladonna to the corner of each eye. "Aya," she said, dabbing at a tear before it stained her powdered cheek, "I can't find my arsênico."

Across the room, her maid folded Lucinda's dressing gown. "It's all gone, my bebê. I meant to tell you."

Lucinda, blinking as the belladonna blurred her eyes, bit her bottom lip in frustration. Then she smiled patiently at her maid, not knowing that one of her front teeth was speckled with vermilion. "Aya, the box was right here. Where have you hidden it?"

The maid, Helene, as if unaware that Lucinda could not see, shook her head and kept on folding. "You should not be using that terrible paste, little one. It is very bad for you. Better that it's gone."

"I'm not your little one anymore. I'm a woman. A lady. And you are my maid now, no longer my nurse. So bring me my arsênico," Lucinda said.

Helene, whose name before she became a Christian had been Ambalika, muttered something in Hindi. "I am not a bitch in heat," Lucinda whispered angrily. "And I have said, we will speak only Portuguese. Now bring it."

Helene looked suddenly very old. Lucinda, her eyes blurred by belladonna, did not see this change, but she heard Helene's weary sigh. Lucinda's heart ached, but she remembered herself, and her new station in the world, and said nothing. Helene, meanwhile, reached beneath the feather mattress and brought out a tiny silver box. "Don't use too much, please," Helene said in Portuguese.

"I'll use what I want," Lucinda answered, and took such a large pinch of the red paste that Helene gasped. Having gotten the effect she wanted, however, Lucinda only touched a little to her tongue. "There."

"You shouldn't take this poison. If your mother were here! That red stuff only will make you sick and you are so beautiful without it."

"You only say that because you love me. I need it---I must not be seen with dark skin."

"What's wrong with dark skin?"

Lucinda lowered her eyes, regretting her words, for of course Helene was dark as shadow. "I'm sorry, dear one," Lucinda said in Hindi, and though she could not see it, Helene smiled. "You know my cousin has just come from Macao. I haven't seen him in years," she went on in Portuguese. "I must look my best. It's fashionable to be pale. All the Lisbon ladies use arsênico these days."

Helene snorted. "So they are pale, yes. But they are not pretty, not like my bebê. Why all this fuss over a cousin? What would your mother say, our lady rest her soul? You are pledged! If your father were alive . . ."

But Lucinda had stopped paying attention. Through the window that looked to the sea, a salt breeze carried the sounds of Goa: the cries of street merchants in Hindi and Portuguese, the blare of gongs and drums from a nearby Shiva temple, and on top of all, the golden cathedral bell of Santa Catarina, tolling the hour.

The breeze whispered through Lucinda's upswept hair. She swirled a stiff silk shawl over her shoulders. "How do I look?"

Too young, thought Helene. Too young to wear a corset laced so tight, or a bodice cut so low. Oh, what will people think? The pupils of Lucinda's eyes, now huge from belladonna, glistened: dark, inviting, like hidden pools lit by moonlight. "I suppose you look all right," Helene said at last.

But Lucinda had not waited. Already she had found the door, already reached the stairs to her uncle's office. Until her father's death the year before, the halls had glowed, bathed in lamplight. But the arrival of Uncle Carlos changed all that. He hated waste; he would stamp through the halls, snuffing out candles with his fingertips. "Thrift!" he'd shout to anyone in earshot. "Economy!" But in the dimness, Lucinda's deliciously dilated eyes could see perfectly. Still she edged forward with one hand pressed against the wood-paneled walls, for the arsênico was making her feel light-headed.

Carlos Dasana glared across his table, awash with papers, and wagged a heavy finger at his nephew. "Don't you realize the trouble you are in?"

Geraldo Silveira shifted in the hard wooden seat---perhaps to adjust his coat, perhaps to hide the amusement in his eyes. His long fingers played with the lace cuffs of his shirt. "I apolgize, Tio Carlos . . ."

"Don't insult me with your apologies! You killed a man, Aldo! You can't apologize for murder! Dueling in the streets! They hang men for this!" Carlos pounded on the heavy wooden table so hard that a pile of papers bounced into the air. "And the husband you killed was your own cousin!"

"I only found that out after, Tio. I apolog . . ."

"For the love of God, hold your tongue! If it had not been for me, Aldo, you'd be locked in the stocks, getting your feet roasted. And then to Lisbon and the gallows, that's what. You owe me a debt!"

Carlos drummed his fingers on the dark wood table and considered his nephew. "You're too handsome. You've been spoiled. All mothers spoil their children, but my sister went too far, rest her soul. And your useless father . . ."

"He was a good man, Tio." Geraldo's eyes flashed, but he kept his voice calm. "You can't blame him."

"Did I ask your opinion? I'll blame who I wish! Your father was a rounder and a fool. Like you, too handsome for his own good. Learn from his mistakes, Aldo." The older man stopped glaring at his nephew and tugged his mustache. "But I blame myself as well. I have indulged you too much. I should have . . ."

Carlos Dasana stopped short, rubbed his brow with his heavy fingers, and sighed. "You can't live like you have no future, Aldo! Keep your fonte in your pants. You can't bed every woman you see just because you get a tingle. Not if they're married, for the love of the virgin! Those you keep your hands off! Otherwise people end up dead!"

"With luck, only the husband, Tio."

Carlos Dasana's eyes bulged, and a vein began to pulse across his forehead. Geraldo leaned forward, worried that he might have a fit, when Dasana burst out with roaring laugh. "Only the husband, eh?" He struggled to frown. "Why not take a bayadere, for the love of the Virgin? They're cheap enough and better than any wife, eh?"

Geraldo leaned back and looked straight into the older man's eyes. "Where's the sport, Uncle?" His sharp face slowly opened into a sly grin.

Ah, he's a Dasana, all right, his uncle thought. "Look here, Aldo, I've intervened on your behalf. You've been placed in my custody. Sent to Goa instead of to the gallows."

Geraldo lowered his head. "Tio Carlos, I wish to thank you . . ."

Carlos snorted. "Don't. Before you're done, you might wish for the gallows! To be frank, you couldn't have come to Goa at a worse time." He leaned back in his chair. "After twenty years of combat, the Pepper Wars are over, Aldo, and the blasted Dutch have won."

"You can't be serious. Surely the Portuguse fleet . . ."

The old man sputtered. "The fleet? Have you looked in the harbor? Do you see a fleet anywhere? They're gone! Gone to Brazil! We've handed all Asia to the Dutch, but now, now we do must everything to save precious Brazil! Face facts, Aldo! Lisbon has abandoned us! Goa is lost! The Dutch have strangled us. Only a few dhows will even try to run that blockade."

Carlos Dasana shook his head. "Our countrymen flee like rats. They take what they can carry and run, the cowards. Only a few hundred Portuguese remain in Goa. Even the goddammed priests have gone, most of them."

Dasana hesitated, as if his next thoughts were too painful to voice. Geraldo seemed to sense this. He leaned across the table. "Come, Tio. I am not a child to be toyed with, nor did you bring me here from kindness. What do you need of me?"

Carlos blinked and bit his lip. "You're right. I need someone I can trust. Someone of my blood. The Pepper Wars have wiped us out. The Dasanas are near ruin."

It took a moment before Geraldo could reply. "I don't believe it!"

"My brother, rest his soul, made a mess of things. I don't know if I can repair them. We're out of cash. We have goods, Lord yes! Factors full of goods. But the Dutch have us by the balls. We can't trade, Aldo, and without trade we're dying." Dasana leaned close to his nephew, his voice now a harsh whisper. "How much do you know about the country of Bijapur?"

"Those Muslim devils? Only that they have been our enemies for a hundred years. First those infidels surrendered Goa to us, and then they attacked us! They massacred our colonists, and they slaughtered our women . . ."

Dasana waved his hand. "That's in the past. Forgive and forget."

"Tio Carlos!"

"Enemies are a luxury for the rich, Aldo. We're broke. We'll take all the friends we can buy. Now, listen, Aldo, listen well. We have one chance to change things." Carlos glanced around the room, as though spies might be anywhere. "The sultan of Bijapur died about a year ago. His heir's only nine years old. Bijapur's gone mad. The widow queen, the sultana, has come out of the harem to try to rule. It's unheard of . . . a complete disasater. So now the sultana has agreed to appoint a regent, and there lies all our hope." The older man arranged himself in his chair. "This is why I have brought you here. I have a job for you, Aldo."

Geraldo sat up straight, eyes hooded and watchful. Carlos noted this, and continued: "The Dasanas have one final throw. If our man becomes regent, he'll give us a trade monopoly in Bijapur for eight years."

"Our man? Who is our man?"

"Wali Khan, the grand vizier of Bijapur." Carlos bit his lip. "He should get the regency. He should---but it won't be easy. He's got the sultana to contend with, and she's a handful. And then there's the army---armies are always a problem---but this is even worse because the commander's a Hindu, and Hindus are unpredictable. Worst of all: eunuchs. The Khasjwara is a eunuch. He'll have all his brothers plotting for him. Even so, despite it all, Wali Khan will win. He should win. He must."

"What have you done to persuade him, Tio Carlos? How have you brought him to our side?"

"Do you think it was easy? Baksheesh. Bribing. There is no other way. . . . Wali Khan is too powerful to threaten. So it must be a bribe, and a great one. The man has refined tastes. The bribe must inspire him, not insult him." Carlos allowed himself a small smile. "We've managed to procure a certain item for him---something unique. Something he covets. Aye, something he covets more than life. A half a lakh of hun we paid---that's equivalent to forty thousand rials," Geraldo's eyes grew wide.

"Our bribe comes all the way from Orissa, Aldo---that's the length we've gone to get it---and arrives by dhow today if the wind is right. Then off to Bijapur within the week. I want you to go with the caravan. We've hired the best settlement man in Hindustan---a fellow named Da Gama. You may have met him, he's a distant relation." Geraldo shook his head. "Well, Da Gama's the best: he's honest, he's dull, he has no imagination or ambition, but he's deadly and ready for violence."

"He sounds a perfect fit, Tio."

"Dammit, Aldo---I'm relying on you! I need you to keep your eyes open."

Geraldo lowered his head so Carlos could not see his smile. "I shall study him, Tio."

Carlos gave his nephew a withering look, as if doubting that Geraldo had ever studied in his life. He sighed. "I'm going to have to shut down this house. For a while, at least. We'll lose face, of course, but it can't be helped."

"You're returning to Lisbon?"

"Not to Lisbon. To Bijapur. Like it or not, the fates of the Dasanas are intertwined with our old enemies." Carlos looked into his nephew's eyes with unexpected frankness. "I don't know how I'm going to tell Lucinda. She's lost her mother, her father---now to lose her home . . ."

"But isn't Lucinda pledged to be married?"

"That's off!" Carlos barked. "The bastard heard about our business problems and . . ." Carlos's voice broke off suddenly. Geraldo thought he was choking. "I love that sweet girl," Carlos mumbled. He tugged a dark kerchief from his sleeve, wiped his eyes, and gave his nose a shaking blow. "You must not say anything to her, Aldo. Not a word about the bastard dropping the engagement. I'll tell her when the time is right. And nothing about moving to Bijapur, either! She'd rather die than leave Goa." Carlos examined the kerchief and then wiped his eyes. "Keep your mouth shut around her, do you hear? She's fragile. She's become as a daughter to me."

Again Carlos blew his nose, but this time, to Geraldo's relief, he stuffed his kerchief away without a glance. "Well, it's business. It can't be helped. In the meantime, you'll accompany the bribe to Wali Khan. You and the settlement man. That's why I brought you here. Don't fail me. Earn my trust. Succeed and you'll have my gratitude. Fail, and I'll send you to Lisbon and the gallows. Do we understand each other?"

Geraldo nodded.

"Very well. I'll say no more. You're my sister's only son. Who else can I trust? We need that monopoly . . . and the bribe is the key! Our only hope is getting her to Wali Khan. She's worth a fortune, so keep your eyes open! Tell Wali Khan that if he becomes regent, then she's all his."

Geraldo's brow furrowed. "She? Do you mean a ship, Uncle?"

"Not a ship---what gave you that idea? I mean the bribe! She's a bayadere, boy . . . a nautch girl, the finest whore that's ever been!"

The door opened and as a wave crashes on the shore, Lucinda burst in, her white dress an explosion of brightness in Tio Carlos's dark office. A fragrance of jasmine and roses surrounded her as she floated across the carpet on silk-slippered feet. At the door, a sheepish-looking secretary lifted his hands hopelessly and Carlos shook his head and waved the man away. They had as much hope of stopping a cyclone as Lucinda.

"Uncle, dearest!" Lucinda sang, swirling toward the table. The old man rose and placed a respectable kiss on his niece's proffered cheek. "And this must be Geraldo!"

"Yes, I've just come from Macao," said Geraldo, standing.

"This is your cousin, Lucinda Dasana," Carlos said formally. His brow furrowed at seeing them together.

Geraldo swept into a bow. Lucinda returned a long courtesy, but though she lowered her head, her eyes stayed fixed on her cousin's face. Her vision was still blurred by the belladonna, but in the dark room she noted that he was tall, that his shoulders were wide and his hips narrow, that his face was tanned but his eyes sparkled, that his teeth when he smiled were brilliant white.

"I should never have known you," Geraldo said, his gaze roaming over her. "You were six when last we met. I put a toad down your dress, if I remember right." His eyes gleamed when he said this and she blushed.

"I'm sure you never did, or I'd remember and hate you. Anyway I'm grown now." Lucinda laughed, turning so the pale light of the office's single window caught her face.

"Remember, she's pledged," Carlos said pointedly, "so don't get any ideas."

"Uncle!" cried Lucinda. "We're cousins."

Geraldo seemed to have thought about the question. "Technically, he's right---we are cousins, but many, many times removed. We might even marry if we wished." His dark eyes peered deep into Lucinda's.

"I said she's pledged," Carlos said firmly. "Remember what I told you!"

"Who is the lucky man?" Geraldo asked. His eyes danced so when he asked that, his question seemed impertinent. Lucinda turned away again, her face burning.

"Marques Oliveira, a former minister to his majesty," Carlos answered for her, a hint of warning in his voice. "A great man."

"I hope he is handsome," Geraldo said. "A woman like you deserves a handsome husband."

"His portrait is handsome," Lucinda stammered. "We haven't actually met."

Carlos didn't like the turn of this talk. "Of course he's handsome! He's rich, isn't he?"

"My very best wishes," Geraldo said. But this time when he bowed he fastened his eyes on her, and this time, through her misty eyes, she looked back. As he swept upward Aldo grasped her hand like a tiny bird in his long fingers and gently brushed it with his lips. "Let us be good friends, cousin, now that we have found each other once again." She felt his mustache tickling her knuckles. "I'm about to go to Bijapur. Would you like to come along?"

Carlos sputtered as he leaned over his desk. "What are you saying, Aldo? I never . . ."

But Lucinda had already heard, and when she turned to Tio Carlos, her face pale with arsênico and her eyes limpid with belladonna, beseeching him, it was more than any uncle could resist, even an uncle as strong-willed as Carlos Dasana. "Please, Uncle, please. You promised I could visit Tio Victorio!"

It was a good idea, Carlos had to admit: sending her to Bijapur now would make it simpler to close down the house. But he disliked any idea he had not thought up himself. So of course Carlos said no at once. Then no again, and then once more, no.

The trip would not be easy, Carlos warned. And Bijapur was not like Goa. Victorio, her uncle who managed the Dasanas' Bijapur factor, was old now and often ill. These objections merely fired Lucinda's resolve. One by one Geraldo countered them, and each time Lucinda would beg again, each time more plaintively than before.

"Very well, little one. You may go. But you'll do what you're told, yes? And follow orders for a change?"

"Oh yes, Tio Carlos," Lucinda answered, tiptoeing to kiss his rough brown cheek.

Then the arsênico, or her corset, or the excitement seemed to overwhelm her, and her pale face grew even paler, and her eyes fluttered, and she fainted into her uncle's arms.

My God, thought Carlos as he caught her, she looks pale as death. By the Blessed Virgin, he thought as her breasts heaved, and her dark curls spilled across his arms. She's a grown woman. You truly are a Dasana, my dear niece, he thought; and the Dasana women are as dangerous as gold.

He glanced at his nephew, and then back at Lucinda who even now was stirring in his arms. What have I agreed to? Carlos thought.

May the Blessed Virgin save us from our relatives.

The shallow-keeled dhow scudded over the gray seas, clinging to the rock-edged shore. The captain's eyes were everywhere: to the dark and threatening sky and the twisting monsoon winds, then on the steersman beside him, pressed hard against the shuddering rudder, to the triangle sail that furled and luffed as his sailors heaved the boom, and again and yet again upon the thirty-gun privateer at the harbor mouth, its tricolor flag bright against the black clouds.

Would she follow? Would she fire? As the dhow swung into the harbor and the waves of the Arabian Sea tried to hammer it against the moss-furred rocks of Arguin, the captain peered at the warship. If she was turning to fire, there was little he could do. The Goans wouldn't help him---they had no ships to fight her.

Copyright © 2006 by John Speed
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Interviews & Essays

A Message from the Author

I'm sometimes asked what inspired me to write my novels.

I had studied India since high school, and finally scraped together enough to make a visit. I traveled to many spots far from the standard tourist corridors by booking a private car and driver.

One day my driver, Ali Akbar, insisted that I go to the tiny town of Khuldabad so I could visit the Mosque of the Hairs where two whiskers of the Prophet are enshrined. A big funeral procession prevented him from driving in, so he pointed me toward the mosque, and waited outside the town.

Everyone was busy with the funeral procession, and there were no signs in English, so when I found a large, official-looking entryway, I stepped through. As fate would have it, I had made a wrong turn.

I entered an elaborate gateway and found myself in an open-air courtyard surrounded with Mogul-style jali-screens of white marble. Big marble tiles made a floor that surrounded a large patch of bare ground, which had been spread over with a plain green blanket now littered with a few dried flower petals. I prowled around, expecting to find some entrance to the mosque, but there was only this: this marbled courtyard and this blanket-covered patch of ground.

I sat beside the bare ground and experienced an odd emotion. I come from a typically dysfunctional family, and the feeling that came over me reminded me of the feeling I often had when I visited my parents' home: that strange mixture of apprehension and ill-ease mixed with a deep sense of familiarity and comfort.

Now I think I must have fallen asleep. I think I must have dreamed. Because it seemed to me that a shaft of light had penetrated the top of my skull like a hypodermic needle. A brilliance exploded behind my eyes. I jerked up, shaking. I had an odd thought: "You've been here before." I suddenly felt extremely anxious, so I left immediately, running through the jostling crowds back to my car.

Ali heard my account, and told me I had visited the tomb of Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul emperor, who had been buried according to Sharia law in an unmarked grave, open to the air. Aurangzeb, Ali informed me, was Shivaji's great nemesis, and the two had fought battles all around this area over decades.

As we drove away, I became aware of unusual thoughts. I could envision a sort of brilliance behind my eyes, and if I focused my thoughts on it, I would see unexpected images. The focal point reminded me of a tiny pearl onion, glowing as it spun off scene after scene: like someone else's memories; like someone else's dreams.

The scenes -- the memories -- were of a eunuch, a servant of Aurangzeb's sister Princess Roshanara. Without yet having seen them, I had clear memories of the Taj Mahal, and Agra Fort, and the Red Fort of Delhi, of Shalimar and Srinagar. I saw them all through the eyes of a plump, anxious servant, with the unfolding clarity of a remembered dream. If I concentrated I could see more and more detail: beading on a slipper, or spittle on a lip. Some memories were so intense that I could make out smells like dark rose oil and dung fire; sometimes I remembered crisp embroidered silks rubbing my round belly as I walked.

It was then that I began to write my tales of India.

John Speed

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Reading Group Guide

1. From the first line of the The Temple Dancer to the final scene, poison plays a central role. How many different ways do the characters use arsenic? For some characters, poison represents power. In what ways does simply possessing a poison affect their actions? What other poisons are at work as the story unfolds?

2. The author says that the Hindu concept of Dharma figures highly in The Temple Dancer. Dharma is "individual conformity with the principles that govern the universe." Dharma doesn't necessarily mean "goodness" in the typcial sense. The dharma of a thief might be to steal. Part of the human condition is to try to understand one's dharma. Which Temple Dancer characters follow a path of dharma? How do their fates differ from those that fail to follow dharma? Does a character's dharma change as the story progresses?

3. Evil plays a key role in the action of The Temple Dancer. How does evil differ from misfortune? Which characters are truly evil? Which characters are most affected by evil?

4. Some of the cultures and classes of The Temple Dancer are obvious: Hindus, Muslims, Portuguese; rich and poor; men, women, eunuchs. Others are less clear: classes defined by family, vocation, and so on. As you read The Temple Dancer, what classes and cultures did you encounter that were new to you? Which seemed familiar? Most Temple Dancer characters fall into numerous classes. How do the cross currents of class and culture affect their interactions?

5. All the primary Temple Dancer characters are transformed. Which characters grow, and which merely change? Which character do you believe undergoes the biggest transformation? What accounts for this change? Will the change be permanent?

6. Women are often seen as passive, but in The Temple Dancer, women take active roles. How do the actions the of women characters compare to those of the men? In what ways are the women more restrained? More free? When she reviewed one of his earlier works, Speed's agent, Jean Naggar, complained that "those women are made of cardboard!" Speed says he felt compelled to write The Temple Dancer in part to prove that he could write "believable women". Can any man really write "believable women"? How well does Speed manage to accurately reflect the thoughts and feelings of women?

7. The Temple Dancer went through a number of title changes. Some of the earlier titles considered were: The Settlement Man, Poison, Web of Light, and Bijapur. How does a title affect a story? How would The Temple Dancer seem different with one of the rejected titles?

8. Novelists use Point of View (POV) to guide the reader through a story. In The Temple Dancer the author carefully chooses which characters think, and which characters sense. With Da Gama and Lucinda, for example, the story describes both their thoughts and their sensations (what they see, hear, etc.). Some characters have their thoughts described but not their sensations; others have sensations but no thoughts. How do you think the author chose the characters that would think and those that would sense? How do those choices affect how the story is told? Would the story be different if it were told from the point of view of Geraldo and Pathan? What about Maya? She first expresses her thoughts quite late in the story. Why did the author choose that moment to begin to reveal her thoughts?

9. John Speed was an actor and a playwright before becoming a novelist. He says he was inspired by Shakespeare's history plays, which borrow freely from other sources. Can you identify books, plays, or movies that might have influenced him as he wrote The Temple Dancer?

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent historical fiction

    In 1657 Goa, India after the Dutch win the Pepper Wars, Carlos Dasana worries about his Portuguese family so he courts widowed sultana of Muslin Bijapur. However, Carlos also understands who the current power is as the sultan is a preadolescent he insures he stays on the friendly side of the Grand Vizier Wali Khan by sending him a former Hindu temple dancer sold into prostitution Maya to do whatever he wants. --- Carlos dispatches his dissolute nephew Geraldo and his niece Lucinda to oversee the caravan delivering the human gift to the vizier. Along the treacherous trek in which bandits attack and assault the two females, Lucinda and Maya forge a friendship as they share their recent history especially when their elephants have accidents. At a stop in Belgaum, Lucinda realizes she loves traveling companion Da Gama while Maya and Geraldo seem to want one another though they must show caution as the Vizier has sent Captain Pathan to protect his present from other males. --- Though in some ways a historical romance, THE TEMPLE DANCER is much more as three ways of lives clash on the journey serving as a microcosmic metaphor of the larger battles between Portuguese, Hindu and Muslim cultures during the final age of the Mogul empire. Each key player and several support characters (for instance the Vizier¿s former concubine who runs Belgaum) are distinctive, which adds to the reader understanding the differences between the three people. Though the ensemble cast leads to complicated subplots that compete for supremacy (paralleling the underlying theme of a clash of civilizations) making for at times a difficult read, fans of historical tales will want to join the caravan riding the elephant on this insightful journey into mid seventeenth century India. -- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2006


    Genius! Pure Genius. John Speed¿s The Temple Dancer is not only a modern-day page turner, but it is also a literary work in the classical sense. Speed¿s novel is vivid and cinematic in scope. His vibrant descriptions of India during the 1600s bring this historical time and place to life. He transports the reader to a far off past civilization, and we fly there naturally, as though we have just stepped off a jumbo jet and landed in an exotic culture. Although Speed is a historian, his real brilliance lies in magically creating characters that pop off the page. He does his magic through clever, witty dialog, and through an amazing ability to capture and express subtle nonverbal communication. This is Speed¿s genius. Like Tolstoy, Speed reveals to us his characters¿ hidden subconscious thoughts and feelings. Speed¿s vivid descriptions of the nonverbal - facial expressions, tones of voice, postures - reveal his characters¿ inner life, illuminating the reader with elevated awareness. The result is the infusion of life into ink, the birth of complex characters in the reader¿s mind. The effect is psychedelic. The plot keeps one on the edge of one¿s seat, with many twists and turns that propel one to turn the pages. But these twists of fate are not arbitrary or forced. Rather, Speed invokes the Indian law of karma - fate is determined by character - to eventually dole out justice, making for a most natural and satisfying conclusion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2006

    Makes the juices flow: Adventure, romance, intrigue and exotic sex

    I had expected yet another romantic historical novel, but the Temple Dancer reminded me of the Great Historical Novels: books like Shogun or Ben Hur or The Three Musketeers that keep you turning pages long after you should have gone to sleep. This story epic in scale, wide, rambling, and dense with plot, filled with richly drawn characters that grow more complex with each chapter. Maya, the Temple Dancer, is a wonderful mix of innocence and eroticism, a slave being used as a pawn in a business deal between a fading Portuguese trading house and the new Sultan of Bijapur. She's paired with Lucinda, a flightly Portuguese heiress, and Slipper - an unctuous, duplicitous eunuch -traveling by elephant through central India in 1657, a time of turmoil and treachery. Of course, attractive guards travel beside them, and of course there are bandits, and langourous evenings at lake palaces. But unlike most modern historicals which are pretty thin gruel, this book has plot, plot, and more plot. And characters who develop and change as the plot twists and turns. There is adventure on an epic scale, great forces driving headlong against each other, and a young, innocent woman caught in the middle. Along the way the author provides brilliant descriptions of such sensory impact you feel that you're there. And his depiction of the period, clearly highly researched, left me fascinated. I've already lent this book out, and I can scarcely wait to get it back so I can re-read some of my favorite parts (the elephant's death, in particular).

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    Posted July 28, 2009

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