Indira Ganesan, who lives in Massachusetts, taught English at Southampton College for several years, including a course called “Wild Women,” which Canio’s Books co-owner Maryann Calendrille described as a “series of presentations by edgy, extraordinary women writers.” To judge from Ganesan’s new book, As Sweet As Honey (Knopf), while she herself would not seem to be one of these “edgy” authors, her unusual protagonist Meterling (“Meti”) qualifies. A tall, striking presence (“We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals,” the narrator says), Meti ignores traditional Indian island customs about how women should behave and moves, with quiet, confident determination, according to the dictates of her heart. The narrator, Meti’s much younger cousin Mina, adores her, as do all the girls in her family, as well as her friends. This is a warm, nicely written tale and an informative one, full of interesting Indian lore.
The book opens with Mina looking back on her idyllic childhood in a large and loving family that lives in Madhupur, the largest city on the fictional island of Pi in the South Indian Ocean. It’s an enchanted kind of place, full of marvelous scents, colors and sounds, a place “As Sweet As Honey, where people lived decent lives.” Allusions to Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest are hardly accidental, as Mina loves to read English literature. Setting is clearly Ganesan’s strong suit, though it should be noted that she has a good ear for dialogue that has a slightly formal feel, suggesting Indian-inflected English, but also slang. Words from Tamil and Hindi, mostly about food, wisely get translated.
The story itself, though, does strain credulity at times, starting with Mina’s recollection of 28-year-old Meti meeting Archer Foster. Though Meti is over six feet, she falls for Archer, a well-off visiting Anglo businessman (the family money is in gin), who is 4’ 7,” wide and several years older than she. Mina’s family, headed by a stern but loving grandmother, is astounded at the match, but Meti is her own woman. Even her Germanic-sounding name sets her apart, but more than that, her manner, tolerance, sensitivity and courage mark her as a model for young Mina and her cousins. Despite their obvious differences, the love between Meti and Archer is genuine. The wedding takes place but at the reception, Archer collapses and dies. Meti, it turns out, is pregnant. Devastated, she somehow perseveres. And then she meets Archer’s English cousin Simon, who has come to pay his respects to the widow. He, too, falls for her and she for him, and…well, another true love match is under way. They get married, even before Oscar is born. Meanwhile Archer’s ghost, in a white suit, turns up from time to time to haunt (in a friendly way) his widow—an odd infusion of magical realism in an otherwise realistic story.
Although Pi is not South India, where the author is from, Ganesan does not avoid noting disturbing facts, such as references to bullying of girls and the violence against women, including rape, by Indian men—a subject much in the news. In fact, it’s just because the media are focusing on disturbing conditions in India, including hunger so great that fathers break their children’s limbs to have them go begging, that Ganesan’s book takes on significance. Neither political nor religious, As Sweet As Honey offers a look at an idealized Indian culture where love and family triumph. Of course, a cynic might say that such sentiments are possible in families as close and as economically comfortable as Mina’s. Though her parents are abroad, working on their doctorates in Princeton—they will soon be together—Mina has loving relatives who care about her. Pi is not Delhi—girls are relatively safe, professional opportunities beckon, collisions of East and West or class differences may cause some dissension but they leave no lasting marks or pain. In interview Ganesan has said that she’s always been attracted to stories of “love as defying personal expectation.” What would she want people to do after reading the book? “Smile, be satisfied.”
Indira Ganesan will be reading at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, March 16 at 5 p.m., caniosbooks.com