Goddess of Fire: A historical novel set in 17th century India

Goddess of Fire: A historical novel set in 17th century India

by Bharti Kirchner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847516596
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Bharti Kirchner is the author of five previous novels and four cookbooks. An award-winning cook, she has written numerous magazine articles and essays on food, travel, fitness and lifestyle. Born and brought up in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, she now lives in Seattle, Washington.

Read an Excerpt

Goddess of Fire

By Bharti Kirchner

Severn House Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Bharti Kirchner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84751-659-6


Village of Rampore, Bengal

The day after my husband died, my brother-in-law and his son came to my door. They dodged the copper bowl I had thrown at them and dragged me by the wrists to the funeral pyre. The blazing afternoon sun bore down on my bare scalp and oiled body as we headed toward the river. Tendrils of ochre dust, carrying the smell of death, rose from the earth around my bare feet. A dog howled in the distance.

Years later, I'd remember how I had winced from the clutching fingers of Bipin. "Take his land," I said, trying to pull away, "but please let me go. I will live as a ghost in my parents' home. I am only seventeen."

His skin rough as a tree bark, Bipin gave my forearm a vicious twist; his foul breath triggered a wave of nausea in my already queasy stomach. "Hold your tongue, Moorti. Now that I am the head of the family, I've decided you're going to be a goddess."

A fresh wave of humiliation coursed through my body. The voice of my schoolteacher father shot out from my throat. "You've twisted what our sages prescribe to serve your selfish intent. Abuse a widow, throw her into the fire, and take her property. You ought to be punished, not me."

Eyes red from the palm wine he'd drunk, Bipin once again tightened his grip. "You, the lowest of the low, a village girl who could pay no dowry, what do you know?"

My father had taught me at home. "You learn faster than the boys in my school," he would often say. To Bipin, I said, "Baba might be poor, but he's better educated than you are."

"You miserable little wretch!"

Bipin and his twenty-eight-year-old son Jadu were momentarily distracted by a procession of people at a distance — shadowy figures — beyond a bank of trees. Gritting my teeth and gathering all my strength, I kicked Bipin, yanked my greasy arm from his grasp, and kicked him again. He slipped and tumbled onto the ground. In trying to help him rise, Jadu, short and muscular, let go of my wrist. I ran along the rocky road. Bipin caught up with me, grabbed me by the neck with a fierce hand, and cursed me under his breath.

"Two days with you and my brother is dead. You're a bad omen. We want you dead."

Jadu plucked a white kerchief from his tunic pocket and stuffed it into my mouth. "Does that feel better?" He asked with mock concern.

I gagged and struggled to breathe as they pulled me by the arms to the public crematorium, a spacious open-air spot facing the river, surrounded by jungles and a few hills, far away from the residential section of the village. The place was bare save for burned logs, piles of ashes, and bone fragments. Several departed souls had recently been cremated here; the stench clogged my nostrils.

Father and son pushed me down onto a bamboo pallet placed on the ground, next to my husband's corpse. I was already dead and disposable. They stood there, muttering together, occasionally throwing malevolent glances at me. I pulled myself up into a sitting position, removed the handkerchief from my mouth, dabbed at my eyes with it, and tossed it to the ground. My feet hurt from the bruises, my stomach heaved, and eyes stung. Could I escape my fate? How?

A crowd of about twenty men had assembled around me. Where was my mother? She would have heard the news by now and do whatever she could to help me.

The solemn-faced men, huddling together, weren't here for the cremation of my husband. They'd come here to observe a young widow being burned alive in her husband's funeral pyre to join him in his next life.

Flee, I told myself again, slipping the cover of my white sari from my shaved head. Jump into the river and swim to the other side. Slowly, I stood and began to push away from the pallet, knowing my voluminous sari would hinder my attempts at swimming. Crocodiles infested the river. One could swallow me whole, like it might swallow a flower blossom or a sleek fish.

Holding a wooden rod under his armpit, Jadu advanced toward me. Any attempt to escape and he would tie my hands and feet. I sat down again.

This morning, in preparation for this forced cremation, my sister-in-law had rubbed my body with hibiscus oil and dusted it with sandalwood powder. Her two daughters had held my shoulders, pinning me down to the floor while she wiped the crimson vermilion dot from between my eyebrows and the black kajal from my eyes. Applying the kajal every morning had been a beloved ritual of mine; running a comb through my hair had always made me feel like a woman. They'd deprived me of that, my last shred of dignity, by shaving off my lustrous, waist-length hair. My husband's kin had also confiscated my colorful clothes and forced me to wrap myself up in a borderless, stark white cotton sari.

I cursed everyone present; I cursed my fate. Why me?

I looked at my deceased husband's body. Clad in a white cotton cloth and garlanded by white flowers, he, a broad-nosed, fifty-year-old groom with a weak heart, rested on a bed of sandalwood next to my pallet. I could have shown everyone the swelling on my left eye and the scar on my right cheek — beatings from him. An odd blend of sadness and disgust arose in me. Again, I looked around. Perhaps I could stand up and sprint into the woods.

Two young boys who stood nearby at the water's embankment stared at me and at the still body of my husband. "He died, that rich man, because of her," one boy said. "She killed him."

Not true. I could have related the full story. How my ill-tempered husband came to me the night after our wedding; drunk, naked, drooling, unsteady on his feet.

I was standing by the window. Turning, I saw his manhood flaring at me like an animal's tongue, and I pulled backwards. How could I feel amorous toward someone so crude? A stranger, he had practically bought me from my poor parents who couldn't feed and clothe me. In his dull monotonous voice, he'd told my father, "We'll forgo the dowry. I want her."

My husband, that foul-smelling man, leaned closer and fondled my breasts, his eyes bulging like those of a dead fish. I pushed him away. He spat on me, shoved me against the wall, and slapped my face. By the time I recovered, flinching in pain and feeling small, he had struck me above the eye with the back of his hand. I had barely regained my balance when he leaned over me, poised to strike again.

I turned into stone.

"You bitch," he murmured. "I'll finish you ..."

Much to my relief, that third blow never fell, nor did he finish the sentence. His face first turned copper, then purple, and finally a sickly black. Veins bulging and throbbing, he struggled for breath and collapsed on the floor. His chest heaved for a few seconds, then became still.

I stood horror-struck, called for help, but by that time his heart had failed him. On that dark moonless night, the eighth day of the month of Baishakh in the Bengali lunar calendar, only the second day after my marriage, I became a widow. My husband's family blamed me for his death; I trembled at the ominous looks they gave me.

My husband's body, lying on top of a stack of fragrant sandalwood logs, was now ready for cremation. Why had I been given in marriage to a man so much older? Did I not deserve a better life? A longer life? Panic gripped me as I envisioned the terrifying prospect of what awaited me: blistering skin, burning hair, disintegrating bones, unimaginable pain, screams that would shake the hills, and then, death. A horrifying end. I was only seventeen. I had to find a way out. If only my mother would reach on time.

On my left, the Bhagirathi, a stretch of the River Ganges, flowed. O, dear River Mother, please take me away from here. I want to live. The river meandered on.

A row boat glided by. Leaves quivered on trees. A kingfisher dove into the water, intent on an unwary small fish. That's when I noticed the silence that had fallen over the spectators in anticipation of the approaching hour. The last few moments of my life. Would I be able to see my mother, hear her voice one last time?

A devout elderly kinsman, dressed in fine white garb, stepped forward, stood a few feet away from me, and began intoning words of praise in anticipation of my status as sati: "Our girl Moorti, pure, brave, and beautiful as a champa blossom, will ascend to heaven. Because of her sacrifice her husband, too, will be ushered into paradise. Her ashes mingled with his will cure ailments. The ground on which she's walked will become hallowed. On the anniversary of her death, we'll float oil lamps on the river in her name." He closed his eyes and chanted whole-heartedly. "She's a sati. She's a devi."

The chant sickened me; it was taken up by the crowd. "Sati devi sati devi sati devi sati devi ..."

The kinsman continued, "Sat truth. And sati flesh purified by flame, leaving only blessings behind."

The chanting grew louder, the sound pressed on my chest. The frenzied spectators raised their arms to salute me. What glory was there in such worship? How much more insulting could it get? Again, I turned toward the river. Ma Bhagirathi, please protect your daughter. Please. Hurry. The river flowed on, calm, blue, impassive; a vulture flapped its wings, circling overhead, a crane stood on the bank.

"Lagao!" Someone shouted in the distance. I heard the splash of an anchor in the water.

A wooden houseboat, curved and wide, moored on the shore. A boatman hurled a long rope with bamboo stakes to the ground. My heart leapt foolishly at the sudden arrival of the newcomers.

About ten men, young, strong of build, spilled out of the vessel. Some were clothed in long tunics, skin-tight trousers, decorative vests, and round headdresses. Muslims. Others, Hindus, wore white cotton dhotis, like my father did. They each had a shawl thrown around their shoulders, as people did on social occasions. Among them was a tall Ingrej, Englishman. Dressed in tunic and trousers, his complexion white as the daylight, he moved with grace and ease. His eyes scanned the land, as though dazzled by its beauty, as though he wished to claim it as his own. As I sat staring at him, a distant hope fluttering in my chest, he looked toward me several times.

The Englishman and his crew strolled in my direction. Did they know they'd soon witness a young girl being burned alive along with the remains of her husband?

The voices of the villagers soared and fell over the chant, "Hari, Hari," until the words throbbed in my head. Holding myself rigid, still hoping for my mother's arrival, I tried to suppress a wave of nausea, but the spasms shook me and I couldn't calm the urge. Vomit welled up out of my belly and gushed onto the ground, a sickly yellow liquid with a rotten smell, the poison of an undesirable marriage.

The Brahmin priest, the most respected person in the village, made his way to the forefront. He wore a saffron loin cloth, his upper body bare save for a matching shawl and a three-strand sacred string placed diagonally across his chest. Everyone bowed to him. Stern-faced, eyes half-closed, his forehead marked with sandalwood paste, the priest chanted in Sanskrit, the sounds delivered in an ominous tone. The crowd fell silent. A drummer thumped a dholak. My heart beat fiercely. My schoolteacher father had educated me at home in the ancient rituals. I could pick up much of what the priest uttered. He was performing the last rites of a person. A chill coursed through my body.


Hope flooded over me as I heard the familiar plaintive voice.


At last! Ma had come here to save me. I saw myself in her — fair skin, big dark eyes, a small forehead, a tiny chin. Accompanied by a young cousin of mine, she pushed through the crowd, her threadbare blue cotton sari slipping off her shoulders. The creases on her forehead showed the strain of walking a mile from our house in the adjacent village of Kadampur. At home, about this time of the day, I would always massage herbal oil on her scalp to provide relief from frequent migraine attacks.

Weeping and shaking, standing behind the crowd surrounding me, she extended her spindly arms. "Please, have mercy," she gasped as she spoke to Bipin.

Glaring disdainfully at my mother, Bipin caught hold of her upper arm and thrust her back. "Women aren't allowed at a cremation," he growled. "You very well know that."

"Don't speak to her like that!" I shouted.

Mother lost her footing, but managed to grab the arm of a man standing nearby. "My only daughter," she wailed.

A murmur of uneasiness went through the crowd. Some shuffled on their feet, as though swayed by what she said. Others continued chanting. Bipin, sensing the slight change in the crowd's mood, passed an angry glance at me, then at my mother, and motioned to two men.

They stepped toward her menacingly. "You've gone too far," one of them said, grasping her arm. "We'll take you home."

"In the name of Goddess Durga," Mother said, "I refuse to go." She bit his hand.

He screamed; a dot of crimson appeared on his hand, and he yelled, "Miserable hag," and reached out with a fist.

The pair, now even more vengeful, pulled Mother along the dusty path. Her feet twisted on the rocks, loose pebbles rattled; the crowd was silent. I feared the punishment she would have to face when she reached home.

"Ma!" I shouted with love and desperation, wanting to protect her. "Ma!"

Mother turned back, eyes swollen, face pinched. "Moorti!"

For the last time I took in Mother's tormented face — the anguished eyes, puffy lips, high cheekbones bathed in tears — as much of it as I could store inside me. Soon she disappeared down a pathway, a blue speck through the green filter of the peepul trees, and then I could no longer see her. Only her laments echoed from the foliage.

The Englishman and his companions had positioned themselves at a discreet distance from me. Were they simply being respectful of the sati ritual and leaving me to burn or had they heard the anguished cry of my mother and felt motivated to act?

I strained to hear above the crisp, clear sounds of the drum as the Englishman asked Jadu in broken Bangla, "What's going on here? Why did you drag that woman away?"

"Moorti has decided to go to heaven with her husband," Jadu replied, pointing at me. "It is her dearest wish and it will soon be fulfilled. Her mother is the only obstacle. We had to send her back."

I locked my gaze with the Englishman's and screamed, "He's lying!"

His blue-green eyes first brimmed with concern, then his face became a mask of fury, the corners of his mouth tightened.

Above the priest's chanting, I heard Jadu ask the Englishman, "What are you and your men doing here?"

"We're here to buy jute and cotton and have a look around. You have a pleasant little village."

"Our market is closed for a holiday. This is a private event. You're not welcome here. Go!" Jadu turned and joined Bipin a short distance away.

Years later, sitting under a Neem tree in a garden far away from this burning pyre, he would speak of the thoughts that troubled him as he stood undecided by the pyre.

Should he, a foreigner, get involved in a dispute over a local custom, however barbaric the practice appeared to him? For a moment he listened to the rhythmic chanting: sati devi devi sati ... Why should he risk his life to save a stranger, even if she was a beautiful young girl whose eyes pleaded with him? The crowd could easily kill him. He had glanced back at the girl on the chita and realized that at that instant he was her only hope. The realization had galvanized him into action.

The Englishman stepped back and spoke in a whisper to his people; they turned and walked back in the direction from which they'd come. He stood nearby, strong, as though he had every right to observe the proceedings and question them. I'd seen English traders before. They would arrive in our village with their bodyguards and escorts, mostly native personnel, to shop for silk, jute, cotton, spices, and vegetables; at the village market, they'd haggle and pay ridiculously low sums for bundles of goods. Afterwards, they'd carouse and sing and march through our quiet streets, disturbing the peace. They come here to steal, a few elders insisted, but they tolerated their presence. They're our guests and all guests are divine beings, declared some others.


Excerpted from Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner. Copyright © 2015 Bharti Kirchner. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd.
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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Goddess of Fire: A historical novel set in 17th century India 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
One of the most reprehensible customs of old India is the practice of Sati. This is where a widow, no matter the age, is forced by family (usually the deceased husband's relatives) to throw herself upon the burning pyre while her husband is being cremated. This is how GODDESS OF FIRE opens. As 17 year-old Moorti is about to be placed upon her husband's funeral pyre, she is rescued by an Englishman named Job, an English trader. They escape the village and Moorti enters a new life, one that is filled with hard work and poor surroundings. She is passionate about learning English and son, Job falls in love with her, and she enters a new, more exciting, more privileged life. But this too, brings great risk for the couple because of racial and cultural prejudices. The best part about this book is that Goddess of Fire is based on real characters. It makes a strong statement about the prejudices and turmoil between the English and Indians while giving readers a detailed glimpse into the more exotic India of old as the nation and its people must come to terms with tumultuous changes set aflame by English traders. Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
As Indian custom dictates, 17 year-old Moorti awaits being forced to join her husband’s funeral pyre in the practice commonly known as Sati. There she will be burned. If she were to refuse, she would literally be considered a “non-person,” dead to all. Moorti’s young blood and intelligence know better but how does one breach the custom and tradition of thousands of years? In a vividly frightening scene, Moorti is placed on the pyre with her husband and the fire is added to her area. Before she can realize what is happening, she sees a white man approaching. Not only does he approach, but he actually forces his way toward her and rescues her from the funeral pyre. Imagine her reaction. Then imagine her fear when she realizes she has defied tradition and is truly a woman without a home or respect. Job Charnock takes Moorti to safety, where she lives as a servant amid the English traders. Although she’s certainly grateful, she is bored and develops an interest in learning English. In the meantime, Job shows Moorti nothing but respect and affection, even at times stopping others from abusing her. This then is the story of two momentous happenings, both very gradually evolving. The first is that Job and Moorti fall in love with each other. This at first must not be publically shown, for it would place Job’s job in jeopardy. At the same time, he knows that Moorti is a useful peer in their job of obtaining trade deals in the middle of what is fierce competition. But how will she be accepted by the Indian trade leaders? Goddess of Fire is based on real characters, especially Job Charnock. The novel reflects the prejudices and fierce conflicts between Indians and white traders, while at the same time profiting from each other. It is only the latter bond that keeps the white traders alive but treachery and extinction are also possible from their own people. The beginning of one transaction that could change everything for Job is smoothed into reality by the bargaining and language skills that have made Moorti into the respected and equal partner in the trading world. Money and trade do rule the day! The romance side of this story is compelling reading as well! Nicely told historical fiction, Bharti Kirchner!