Maya was born to dance. When she dances to tell the stories of the Hindu pantheon, she loses herself and taps into something holy. Unfortunately for Maya, being a devadasi also requires finding a wealthy male patron who will expect certain favors in exchange for financial support. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, in the mid-1700s, the traditional role of the devadasi is being twisted to cater to the men of the East India Company. In Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree, we follow Maya and two East India Men whose lives collide in Tanjore (now Thanjavur) and Madras (now Chennai).
The Pagoda Tree unfolds slowly over more than a decade. We meet Maya when she’s nine years old and about to be dedicated to Shiva as a devadasi in Tanjore. She’s already learned the basic forms of temple dancing, but she still has a long way to go to perfect her training. Meanwhile, Walter has recently arrived in the same city to serve as a chaplain for the soldiers of the East India Company. It isn’t until much later that we meet Thomas, the man who will truly disrupt Maya’s life.
The three characters only bump into each other until the latter third of the book. They meet and talk, of course, but mostly their stories are on separate but thematically parallel tracks until a grown up Maya and Thomas begin a liaison. Until then, we see Maya learn about the less holy aspects of her career. Walter has a similar journey, though he has very little of Maya’s resignation and endurance. Thomas, meanwhile, is on a quest to make his fortune to pay his family’s debts only to suffer repeated setbacks.
I most enjoyed reading about Maya. Despite some clunky dialog with her devadasi guru about Hindu theology, I was fascinated to read about eighteenth century life in southern India. Scobie packs The Pagoda Tree with sensory details, including sound and smell. That said, with Walter and Thomas’s stories, the book feels overstuffed. It isn’t until relatively late in the novel that the three characters really get tangled up in each other’s lives. I understood only then why we needed to see how Walter and Thomas developed their opinions of India and Indians. Still, I wish that The Pagoda Tree was wholly Maya’s story.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. This book will be released 1 June 2017.