A BEGGAR AT THE GATE by Thalassa Ali. Bantam Dell. Paperback, 320 pages. $14.00. www.bantamdell.com

The interaction between India and the West has not always been inspired by economic and political motives. Romance has also been an underlying motive in the East-West encounter. Bharati Mukherjee’s Hannah Easton escapes repressive 17th-century New England, marries an English trader to experience exotic India, and ends up becoming a Hindu prince’s mistress in The Holder of the World. The Raj Era has also fascinated Western novelists, notably M.M. Kaye.

Thalassa Ali, daughter of an American father and British mother, has revived this interest between East and West in her second novel in a trilogy, A Beggar at the Gate. Ali married a Pakistani and lived in Lahore for 12 years, and on her return to the United States, converted to Islam. She used to be a stockbroker and started her career as a novelist at age 61.

A Beggar at the Gate occurs during 1840-41 when the work of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in unifying Punjab was unraveling because of infighting. Russell Clerk, the British political agent, tries to fish in troubled waters and annex Punjab to the British territories. The British had set up a puppet king in Afghanistan, and found Punjab to be strategically important. Mariana Givens, an Englishwoman, rebelling against the constraints of Victorian society, travels with her Uncle Adrian and Aunt Claire to India, accompanying Lord Auckland, the governor-general. This also gives Mariana, her uncle, and aunt hope to find a husband from among the British officers stationed in India.
Mariana is caught in a tangled web of political intrigue, much against her wishes since her sympathies are with the Indians. At the beginning of the novel she is already married to Hassan, the son of Shaikh Waliullah Khan, a respected spiritual leader, and is given custody of 2-year-old Saboor, Hassan’s first wife’s son.

Mariana is not your average Englishwoman interested in silks and laces. She is an ardent student of Indian languages, military strategy, and the exotic healing arts known to Waliullah and his sister Safiya. Mariana takes Saboor with her to Calcutta for safekeeping. The women in the English community in Calcutta give Mariana and her family a hard time because of her interracial relationship. All the racial prejudices of England are transplanted to India. Aunt Claire springs a surprise on Mariana one day, informing her that Uncle Adrian has been posted to Afghanistan. On the way they would stop over in Lahore where Mariana should give up Saboor, and seek a divorce from Hassan.

Ali’s portrayal of Islamic society is nuanced and sensitive. Intellectually, Mariana feels that her marriage to Hassan cannot last because of the cultural differences, but emotionally, she cannot resist him. She makes the ultimate sacrifice of leaving her husband in order to save him, by pretending to be a British spy. The verse from the Quran on the gold medallion that Hassan sends her as a token of his love sums her up. It reads: “An olive, neither of the East, nor of the West.” Two human beings from totally different cultures, one from a culture that was practical and rational and the other, non-rational and mystical, were united in love, though physically separated, both bonded by a child. —Lakshmi Mani


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