SHIVA’S FIRE by Suzanne Fisher Staples. First Harper Trophy edition, 2001. Harper Trophy, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York. www.harperchildrens.com. Ages 10 up.
Such a beautiful child,” Priya said softly … “Born on such a day … her life will be either extraordinary or terrible,” the old woman muttered, thrusting the infant back into her mother’s arms.
Blessed, cursed, mystical, and innocent, Parvati was born to dance. This young girl from a village called Nandipuram began life in a whirlwind, one that propels her throughout the book. Born on the day of her father’s death—the same day that a cyclone destroyed her village—Parvati is regarded as the cause of all grief, and the villagers shun her out of fear and superstition. Their fear, however, is not entirely without basis. Just as Shiva’s dance is the life and death of the world, Parvati wants nothing more than to dance like Shiva. Possessing strange powers of her own, she is, indeed, an unusual child who remembers everything since birth, dances in fire without harm, and communicates with animals—fish, birds, serpents. She knows that she is different, and she accepts this without protest. Her mother loves her but is uncertain about what to do with her until a famous dance guru arrives.
Guru Pillai offers Parvati the opportunity to study at his gurukulam in Madras where she will become a devadasi, a servant of the gods dedicated to dance performance and teachings. Unwilling at first to give up everything and leave her family, her decision to accept comes with the knowledge that all will benefit. Dance will be the focus of her education, and her family will profit financially in return. At the gurukulam, Parvati quickly excels as a dancer, marveling even her teachers.
Eventually, she is invited to perform for Maharaja Narasimha Deva who oversees Nandipuram. The honor is a great one, and the former village girl is treated as royalty at the palace. While there, she makes the acquaintance of the Maharaja’s son, and his boldness and attention excite and confuse the young girl. Once he has won her confidence, he reveals that he has always been viewed as different, cursed and blessed by strange powers because he was born on the day of Nandipuram’s destruction. Parvati and the yuvaraja realize they are of the same clay, and when he proposes marriage, her whirlwind changes direction yet again.
The story is clearly Parvati’s from beginning to end, but there is a subplot that temporarily intrudes. Another student at the gurukulam strikes up a relationship with a Veeruppan-like character that seems too coincidental and newsy for the story. When this thread is revived later in the book, it works only as a contrivance of convenience. A second but more minor quibble with the book is the concept of the villagers’ reliance on the Maharaja. It seems out of place in modern society, but the author manages to use it to add the romance of the past to compliment Parvati’s near-divine powers.
Overall, Shiva’s Fire is captivating and magical without neglecting reality. There is just enough mystical sprinkling about Parvati to turn this poor village girl into a strong and colorful devadasi. Parvati is well-drawn as a focused, dedicated, selfless young woman, a heroine who accepts her “differentness” and celebrates her abilities.
A glossary of Hindi, Tamil, and Sanskrit words is found at the end of the book.