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The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie review: Go East, my hearties

The winds they are a-blowing around the fabled Pagoda Tree of gold and silver. Or, to paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, For the wind is in the palm-trees and the temple bells they say — ‘Go east me hearties, that’s where the temple dancers sway.’

It’s early days yet in this opulently imagined world that Claire Scobie creates in a first novel that circles around the life of Mayambika, a temple dancer in 18th century Thanjavur, and later Madras. Just when we thought that the need for stories set in the India of princes, priests and the lure of the East were done and dusted, Scobie brings them to life with a rattling good tale.

She presents the reader with the hot winds blowing across the Coromandel Coast just as foreign merchants and mercenaries are getting a toehold on its often-treacherous sandy shore. For European merchant adventurers, the phrase, ‘shaking the Pagoda tree’, was a euphemism for keeping a percentage of the loot.

In 18th century Thanjavur

In her earlier award-winning travel book, Last Seen in Lhasa, Scobie describes how she had journeyed into the more remote regions of Tibet in search of a rare red lily.

In the course of more than half a dozen treks she formed a special bond with a Tibetan nun named Ani. It would not be wrong to suggest that some of those mystic moments — the sense of searching for a higher purpose, the dissolution of the ego in a momentary shifting of boundaries of the self, of seeking salvation through journeys — also appear in the telling of The Pagoda Tree. It gives Scobie’s tale a certain resonance that goes beyond the rhetoric of two cultures chasing each other in the labyrinth of

The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie review: Go East, my hearties

insatiable greed and doomed desires.

Things are falling apart at the royal court of Thanjavur in 1766 when Scobie begins her story. The Maratha ruler is being besieged on all sides. Nine-year-old Maya, the daughter of an accredited temple dancer, is to be initiated into one of the most sacred rituals of a young dancer’s life.

She is to be married to the deity at the Big Temple at Thanjavur in a suitably barbaric ritual that involves burning the imprint of a trident into her tender flesh.

Secretly watching the ceremony is Walter Sutcliff, a padre newly arrived from England. He is also an artist. He creates a portfolio of sketches of Maya dancing, which he thrusts upon her.

These become an invisible bond that links their fates together, somewhat artificially, it has to be said, in the second part of the story, when all the main characters find themselves in Madras with the fall of Thanjavur.

Forced to relocate to Madras, Maya has little choice but to seek the protection of a wealthy dubash named Mudaliar. He deals in the fabled textiles of the Coromandel in concert with a lowly clerk named Thomas, who morphs into one of the nabobs as the story progresses. It’s in the Thanjavur first half that Scobie excels. She credits her inspiration to real-life sources, for instance, the diaries of Reverend Schwartz (1728-1798), the Lutheran missionary who lived in the Thanjavur area for three decades. There is also the testimony by the Dutchman Jacob Haafner of his love for a dancing girl called Mamia. Both appear in Maya’s life as she flees from her predatory lovers.

Hurled away

There are also beautifully evoked images of a court dancer named Palani at the fag end of her tenure. Scobie attributes her poems to a real-life figure named Muddupalani. There are also references to the poems of the 12th century mystic, Akka Mahadevi, and to Mutta, a nun, whose verses Palani repeats in these lines: “Freed from rebirth and death I am,/ And all that has held me down/ Is hurled away.”

Palani sees the young Maya as her successor at the Maratha court of Thanjavur. As she grooms her in the 64 arts that define a temple dancer, we are reminded of the similar training process undergone by the Japanese Geisha in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha set in early 19th century Japan. In both cases, the suggestion is that a former highly evolved way of life is debauched by the entry of outsiders, who hasten the women’s descent into prostitution.

At the end, Chiyo, the Geisha, and Maya, the temple dancer, are forced to make similar choices. They become pale shadows in the West, performing services that have no bearing on their lineage as custodians of a lost culture. It makes one wonder: Did the Pagoda tree ever exist?

The author is a Chennai-based writer and critic.

The Pagoda Tree; Claire Scobie; Unbound; ₹699

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