I cannot deny it: I am an obsessive reader. I read for pleasure, I read to counteract misery, I read when I’m bored, I read when I’m not bored, I read while I’m eating (if I’m alone), I read while watching television (and miss most of what’s on TV), I read in the car during trips and, well… you get the picture. I like to think I don’t read just anything, and I don’t. I also like to think I am not one to read murder mysteries, but the number of them I have now read is mounting, and I’ll have to do some thinking about why I enjoy them occasionally. Oh, wait, I’ve got it: I like the ones written by people who can write. That’s it! That’s the ticket!
Recently, Joyce Yarrow came into my life through other avenues, and I just read her book with Arindam Roy, Rivers Run Back. I like Joyce a lot, and so I wanted to read her novel, although one can get into a LOT of trouble in reading the work of friends. In my case, the pile of stuff I have waiting to be read seems to constantly grow, and people don’t always ask you politely to read their stuff. A lot of them seem to simply assume that you will want to do them the favor of being a “test reader” for what they write. I tend to avoid those kind, through some cussedness of my own. I personally am quite hesitant to ask people to read what I write, but as usual, I digress: I want to talk about this book.
First, however, let me tell you about the pictures you are going to see here: they are the work, overall, of the Flying Birds of the Aseem Asha Foundation of India, and each one is a painting of one of the characters in the book. If you have some disposable income and want to feel you are contributing to a worthy cause, you should check out the work my good friend Aseem Asha is doing with the most marginalized of children in India: he is teaching them to make films, he is teaching them technical skills, he is teaching them to express their creativity, he takes them to museums and holy places and other places they need to know about in their own country. He is teaching them to improve the community they live in and he is teaching them to think. He helps them with their schoolwork, he helps them to learn English, he teaches them to minister to those less fortunate than they are, and he clearly loves them. He does all this on what is probably well below a shoestring budget. He started by opening his very own personal room in Delhi, and the children flocked to come to him after school, and more children kept coming and coming, Hindu, Christian, Muslim and all. Now, through the help of friends, he has a little more space and a bit more money, and they still come, increasingly. You can find the Aseem Asha Foundation on Facebook; they do not have a website yet, although that is in the works, and you can find Aseem here: (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m sure you can find some of the films the kids have made on YouTube, as well. Just do a search for Flying Birds. To get back to these paintings, they are the work of Aseem Asha’s “Birds,” and you will love them. See below.
Now, to the book:
In literature and mythology, a river signifies the flow of life’s journey. Ganga, the lifeline of India, flows back thrice in its course. It changes its flow from Dakshniayan (southern) to Uttarayan (northern). The title of this book, Rivers Run Back, is inspired by Ganga’s backward flows and introspections. Ganga changes its course first at Uttarkashi, Uttrakhand. Then it turns back at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and finally, it runs back at Sultanganj, Bihar. In India, the yearning of rivers to run back signifies the deep introspection experienced by all of us— male or female, Eastern or Western— during the different stages in our lives. A woman, on her life’s journey, looks back thrice. First, she turns back for a last look at her paternal home, when she leaves to start a new life with her husband. The second time she turns her life around to nourish a new life within her when she becomes a mother. Then, when her children leave, she again turns around to give a new meaning to her empty nest. She adapts to the transitions as she flows with life. As the characters in Rivers Run Back search for their identities, their journeys are within and without, spiritual and spatial, from one culture to the other. The narrative crisscrosses nations, histories, politics, and crime. It celebrates universal humanism, liberal democracies and the ardent belief in the goodness of life and living. Nothing remains the same. Everything returns. Everything changes! — Joyce Yarrow & Arindam Roy, Rivers Run Back (2015)
The mythos that I was raised on as a spiritual infant taught me that the rivers Ganga and Yumna are consorts that run each in its own direction, converging with the subterranean river Saraswati at the end of each aeon in Prayag, an ancient spiritual center, purported to have the most fertile land in India. Ganga, while the recipient of all kinds of filth created from the birth pangs of modern India, has a mysteriously pure water, a water that even scientifically holds up to scrutiny of its reputation. When a person dies, the Hindu custom is to put two drops of Ganga water in their mouth so that the soul may be cleansed of its sins and ushered forward on its journey. People continue to bathe in Ganga despite everything that finds its way to it, and somehow retain their health. It seems there is a mysterious “X-factor” in the water than ensures this (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17134270)
This is a story that sweeps across cultures, time, and spirit, a story that Ganga and its mysterious qualities runs all through. It is a story of the eventual outcome of will and the triumph of spirit. It is, however, even more: it is about about chance and change and who lives and who dies. The part of it that is a murder mystery is fairly minor, because it illuminates a number of different beings, beginning in India, 1960, which in itself surprised me–although not much–because the event that triggered all the rest, the birth of an illegitimate child, was set in the context of an entrenched Brahmin family for whom such an occurrence was quite unacceptable. The baby born was Narsimha, meaning Lion, and he grew into a force that seeded growth and tragedy both:
There was no naming-ceremony for the baby, born amidst strangers and unwelcome in the world. On the 12th day after giving birth, his mother gently inserted a betel leaf in his right ear and whispered across it, “Narsimha. You are called Narsimha Sastry. You will survive in spite of everything.” The first name signified man-lion. She wanted him to be fierce. The surname meant brave one. The naam-roop— name that shapes character— did its work. His baby cry was ferocious. Tulasi was proud of her baby boy, although his wails and cries forced her to relive the terrible events following the revelation of her pregnancy…. — Joyce Yarrow & Arindam Roy, Rivers Run Back (2015)
I am determined to write this response to the book without “spoilers,” as you may want to read it too. But let me say that as a psychologist, Narsimha presents a fascinatingly accurate portrait of a developing antisocial personality. On the one hand he has plenty of reason to go wrong, yet at the same time, he could have gone either way. I suspect in this day and age we would say he has an “attachment disorder.”
As Narsimha is growing up under the cloud of shame and outrage surrounding his birth, so is Shankar,
a boy growing up in wealthy circumstances, loved and cosseted, although with a controlling mother who places certain expectations on her only child. Eventually Shankar escapes to New York City to teach at a university, although he may only have dimly realized that was what he was doing. Shankar presents an interesting picture of a man who is in some way at war internally, a war between intellect (and its ambitions) and spirit.
Seven thousand miles away in New York, Marilyn is growing up in a similarly comfortable family, but one without the spiritual heritage that gives meaning and constriction both to Shankar’s life. Her demons are interior ones, but she has an uncle, Sven, who helps her to develop her talent, support her, and find meaning. However, the events of her life, combined with her own innate constitution, cause her to develop a severe bipolar disorder, a disorder to the point of psychosis. The lack of understanding of her parents, her own loneliness and the resultant lack of self-esteem have caused her to develop an interior “voice” that invariably works to undermine her self-confidence. As might be imagined, she and Shankar find each other, and eventually have two children, Padma and Leela, who constitute the main cast of characters of the book, although one of my favorite characters, Dusty, enters briefly at a later point. Padma, it seems, is her father’s child, an almost too-good-to-be-true character, while Leela is more similar to her mother in her inability to sacrifice her own individuality for the greater good of the family.
Thus, we have a family growing, both as individuals and a unit, and all the time their nemesis Narsimha, unknown to them, is growing in his own direction. Most of the book is constituted by the thought-provoking development of its characters, only turning into a real detective drama toward the end. It is, I think, far too intelligently written to be confined to that genre. It is a book about the growth of soul. Along the way, who lives and who dies? Or to use a better phrase, who prevails? This is a fascinating read that flows out of its origin–India–to the West and back again, illuminating the development of its characters in the context of their cultures and traditions, on the backdrop of modernity. I keep wanting to tell people: please do read this so we can talk about it!
I just didn’t want it to end when it did. Let me know what you think.