Thursday, March 24, 2016

A woman reborn: Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner, set in 17th-century India

Many English-language historical novels set in India take place during the British Raj in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bharti Kirchner’s Goddess of Fire, however, looks further back in time to the mid-17th century, when British and Dutch traders were making early incursions into the Indian economy which set the stage for later colonial rule.

The opening scene is tense and dramatic, and it’s based on a real-life incident. Moorti, a well-educated Bengali woman left a widow at age seventeen, is forced by her late husband’s relatives to ascend his funeral pyre in a ritual known as “sati.” After her last-minute rescue by a tall European man named Job Charnock, a trader with the English East India Company, she’s transported to the distant town of Cossimbazar, renamed “Maria,” and installed at his trading station (called a Factory) as a cook.

This forces her into unfamiliar situations, and the novel details her plight as she adjusts to her new role as a servant working among men who, although friendly, don’t share her Brahmin caste or Hindu religion. As she says: “In order to survive, even in my constricted role, I needed to figure out what really went on here, and as I could already understand, proficiency in English was the key to everything.”

An appealing heroine, Maria is a hopeful dreamer who aims to help ease the transition for her people into a future she sees as inevitable. Her increasing fluency in English puts her at the center of conflicts at the Factory and political negotiations. She greatly admires the man she calls “Job sahib,” though knows she has little chance of winning his heart due to her low position and darker skin tone. However, her cleverness and ingenuity lead him to see her in a new perspective.

The romance between the pair (again, historically-based) feels like a sudden development on his part. In addition, although Maria narrates most of the novel in a lively, open voice, occasional segments break away to show Job’s internal thoughts, which seem awkwardly inserted. Still, it’s refreshing to read a novel focusing on this period of Indian history, and which imagines the life of a historical woman about whom little is known. Her culture and traditions come to life beautifully, as do her struggles and triumphs.

Goddess of Fire was published in hardcover by Severn House in February (288pp).  Thanks to the publisher for enabling my NetGalley access.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting facet of history. I read in another book how an Englishman saved a woman from sati but that was by shooting her as she sat at the pyre! This period in Indian history was very complicated but intriguing.

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  2. That book was "The Far Pavilions" by M.M. Kaye, one of my favorite books set in India. He is an Englishman raised as an Indian, so the situations are somewhat reversed. Highly recommend it.

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  3. Thanks for that information! Far Pavilions is one of those novels I always meant to read.

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  4. Far Pavilions was one of the books that got me hooked on books set in India. You'll like it, Sarah. It's old-school, but in a good way.

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    1. I love reading about historical India. I'll have to make time for it!

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  5. There was a TV mini series of FP in which Ben Cross played the role of the Englishman.

    And then there's Jules Verne's delightfully funny Around The World In 80 Days in which the servant, Passepartout, a former circus acrobat, uses his acrobatic skills to rescue the lovely widow Aouda from sati! ;-)
    This one sounds fascinating!

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    1. That's the TV series that had Amy Irving, too, isn't it? An odd casting choice. If I saw it, it was so long ago that I don't remember more than that. It doesn't look like it got great reviews.

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