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The title of the book did not appeal to me. The “divine” had me worried. Was it a Deepak Chopra-style new age book on holistic wellness? The “elemental” was no help because I could not bring myself to think of it as anything but an adjective, so it skulked around with no noun to qualify. But an entire chapter is devoted to this baffling beast— Elemental.
Supposedly the oldest of the imperceptible things, the elemental remembers a time before men, before Homo erectus might have hunted and destroyed its robust manlike cousin Zinjanthropus out of fear, before Alexander the Great conquered the world, and before all pockets of the Earth were stuffed with chattering messy human beings weaving history and folklore like some great pied and mismatched quilt.
So we have on our hands a good old ghost story. The reference to the conqueror is deliberate. The hero of this novel is Iskandar Diamandi, a Canadian graduate student in entomology, who is interested in his namesake’s Indian campaign. Iskandar has keenly felt the presence of a particular “unseen” all his life. A fig wasp becomes the focus of his academic thesis.
Subodh, his laid-back co-worker, is headed to his ancestral estate for a short visit and Iskandar accompanies him. His destination, a village in Bihar, is ecologically the home of the fig wasps, Iskandar’s destiny. Another visitor to the household is Subodh’s attractive Canadian cousin Kalya, who becomes Iskandar’s romantic interest. According to her grandmother, Kalya could be the descendant of a forest fox that took human form to seduce the zamindar. This is Kalya’s connection to the elemental.
The preponderant Yggdrasil stands at the edge of the estate. Under this fig tree—home to Iskandar’s symbiotic wasps—the zamindar once held a mirror to his vulpine seductress. Currently Kalya’s friend Eunice, an unlikely Caribbean sadhu, lives under its canopy, charging a fee for her services. “Me tell you what you need fo’ know.”
A philosopher among entomologists, Iskandar believes the insect “is the path to the divine, the bridge between the programmed life of the beast and the social and the sporadic lives of people.” Mythology from all cultures hint at biological truths. Perhaps a common sleeping God dreamt up this universe.
An entire chapter is devoted to this God who integrates science, religion, and all human attempts at understanding nature. You can skip this interesting detour and not miss a thing as far as the story is concerned, which is a pity. “The pieces are well-forged but hang together badly,” as far as the narrative is concerned. (The author uses these words to describe a book published in India.)
It is not easy to write convincingly of urbane, sophisticated characters in rural Bihar even if they are supposed to be “foreign-educated,” but the author pulls it off. Tennyson, Norse— mythological references in a North Indian village—no problem. Subodh, with his wry observations, seems quite uncorrupted by any education, but comes across as charming nevertheless. The dialogs, across generations, are dead on. Kalya and Iskandar come through with their outsider perspectives on India.
The Elemental itself turns out to be a damp squib; its motivations and activities remain unknown even within the book’s confines. When Iskandar’s secret stalker, his Bucephalus, leaves him finally, he is also rid of pretensions of “The Man who would be King.” As Eunice once says, “De ghost not important.”
Divine Elemental remains a good read despite that. —Vijaysree Venkatraman
SATYAJIT RAY: THE INNER EYE by Andrew Robinson. I.B. Tauris. Paperback, 420 pp. $19.95.
First published in 1989, this definitive Satyajit Ray biography, by Briton Andrew Robinson, has been released in an extensively updated paperback on the 10th anniversary of the renowned filmmaker’s death. This personal account covers all aspects of his life, particularly his films. The writer’s affection for his subject is evident, and it is fascinating to learn how these masterworks of cinema came about. “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” said Akira Kurosawa, the great filmmaker from Japan. This book paints the fullest and most engaging portrait yet of this genius.
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TIGER ON A TREE by Anushka Ravishankar. Illustrations by Pulak Biswas. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Hardcover picture book, 48 pages. Ages 3-6. $15. www.fsgkidsbooks.com
It’s a tiger. He is on a tree. But how can that be? Precisely that is the quandary of the villagers who find him perched atop a branch. What happens next? Do the villagers let him be? The book urges one to read on. Written in lyrical, rhyming verse, Tiger on a Tree reminds one of Dr. Seuss. However, the story and illustrations—of the tiger, the villagers’ pot-bellies, and their lungis—are distinctively Indian in flavor.
Ravishankar uses simple words, encouraging a young, beginning reader to turn the pages on her own. At the same time, Biswas’s illustrations, in the bright orange and black colors of tiger skin, do a good job of visually stimulating a young child. This is a nice book to read on a day when your youngster is brimming with questions and an active imagination.