BLIND FAITH by Sagarika Ghose. New York: Harper Perennial. March 2008. Paperback. 228 pages. $13.95.

2001 was an apocalyptic year. It began with two fires in Goa: a plane that exploded in mid air and plunged into the Arabian Sea and Sharkey’s Hotel, which went up in flames on the shore of a seaside village, Alqueira. Eight months later, several continents away from the site of this catastrophe, planes torched tall buildings, and caused untold destruction of life and property. Thus begins Sagarika Ghose’s second novel, Blind Faith. After graduating from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Ghose went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. She joined the Times of India and Outlook Magazine, for which she has covered politics and society. Her first novel, The Gin Drinkers, was published in 2000 to critical acclaim. Ghose is currently working as a senior editor and prime time anchor for CNN-IBN, taking on controversial heavyweights like Ram Jethmalani, who defended convicted murderer Manu Sharma in 2006.

In “A Conversation with Sagarika Ghose,” a feature included at the end of the novel, Ghose says that she was influenced by the Advaita philosophy of Sankara when writing Blind Faith and “tried to build a metaphysical undertow in the book.” The novel seems like an ironic interpretation of the Advaitic concept that truth is ultimately non-dual.

The principal characters in the novel are challenged by an internal struggle and are searching for something. Mia, left directionless after her father Anand’s alcohol-induced suicide, feels depressed and angry that he had not left a single clue that he was going to take his life. His suicide is a form of betrayal. Mia had been so dependent on her father that life now seems a void without him. Mia is a TV reporter for Sky Vision; she leads a very uneventful, rational life. Before his death, her father had analyzed what ailed his daughter: an overload of instant knowledge, pictures, and words, which stifled her ability to express herself. She must, he thought, move beyond her robotic life and rediscover faith. Mia meets a man named Karna in Hyde Park and is struck by his eerie resemblance to a young man that her father had depicted in his painting of the Kumbh Mela. Karna is also unhappy with the present state of the world and is on a journey, the Purification Journey, with the aim of restoring the peace, love, and simplicity of a bygone era and to bring back Woman to her natural state as Mother, embodying selfless love. Karna is rebelling against the physical and spiritual degradation of the world.

The novel is structured on the principle that truth and reality are multi-faceted. A single individual may be full of contradictions and may even have a split personality. Karna is also known as “Vik”; the two are the same individual, although he is able to dupe Mia into believing that they are two different people. Karna’s schizophrenic mindset seems to result from his not having had a nurturing family: he is the illegitimate son of Justin, an American doctor, and Indi, a blind, brilliant, extremely beautiful IAS officer.

Indi is a fascinating character. She has distinguished herself academically and professionally but has failed in her personal life. Her parents hate her for having been born a daughter and not a son, and so she is promiscuous and self-destructive. The only person who loves her unconditionally is Justin, for whom Indi is an instrument of guilt expiation for all the exploitation and cruelty that America had inflicted on the third world. Indi never wanted to be a mother; she believes that motherhood is a category “without change, without dynamism, without democracy.” She takes her revenge for having been ensnared in the trap of motherhood by emasculating her son, shaming him before peers in school, and preventing him from knowing who his father is. Vik hates his mother equally, and the novel charts their race toward mutual destruction.

Mia embarks on a pilgrimage to test her father’s hypothesis that there is unknowable mystery that can only be grasped by faith. And initially she, too, is deceived by the duality of the world. She falls in love with Karna but marries Vik, moving to India with him, not realizing that they are the same person. Finally it is the Kumbh Mela that illuminates her. In the book’s concluding “Conversation,” Ghose says that the Kumbh Mela, which she covered for Outlook magazine in 2001, had a profound impact on her and was a “revelation.” It is a revelation for Mia as well—not simply the exotic spectacle of naked sadhus, but rather it’s deeper meaning. India is not two-faced: the corporate India represented by Vik and the transcendent spiritual India portrayed by Karna are both reconciled by the Kumbh Mela.

Blind Faith is a disturbing novel that traces the idealism that motivates a terrorist. Death is the final act of “male potency, of the proof of heroism.” Indi loses her lifelong battle against her son because he must use “death as his ultimate weapon against her—against she who had given him life.” The novel is rich in mythological and literary symbolism, though in places the flashbacks read like a crossword puzzle, with many complicated clues to the parts of the whole.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.