“Leela’s Book” by Alice Albinia, was inspired by the British author’s three-year stint in Delhi and the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Sanskrit epic ten times longer than the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” combined. That tale of two warring families is written by Vyasa, but dictated by Ganesh. Albinia’s modern-day re-imagining (although a fraction of the size) tracks some of the characters and themes of the “Mahabharata.” Vyasa is the head of one family, the widower of Leela’s sister, Meera. Even Ganesh makes an appearance, taking human form to pull the strings of his puppets. “It happens to gods at strategic moments in history,” he says. “Krishna did it; Jesus tried it; and I, too, took my turn. In the beginning, up on Kailash, I debated with myself only briefly about the type of avatar I should choose. A holy man? A warrior? A merchant? No. I need to be able to influence events, to get my errant characters back on track, to wrest control from Vyasa. And how to do that? Through my pen.”
These male characters are conniving, somewhat rapscallion characters in “Leela’s Book,” but it’s the women whose humanity provides the power. Leela and Meera, explains Ganesh, have been reincarnated many times, sometimes finding happiness, sometimes misery, falling in the traps of Vyasa who seems to plague their every existence. In this instance, Leela has returned to India after a long absence, many years after her sister’s death, for a family wedding. Leela is related to both families—her husband is the uncle of the bride, and Leela’s sister was married to Vyasa, the father of the groom.
The two patriarchs are intellectual enemies on opposite sides of a scholarly debate, who prove that old adage of academia: the politics are vicious because the stakes are so low. On one side is Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, father of the groom and a well-known leftist Sanskrit scholar and professor. On the other is Shiva Prasad, father of the bride, a conservative nationalist Hindu who’s rejected one of his daughters for marrying a Muslim man, and goes so far as to request research on his family’s DNA to prove a link to the “race of Aryas.” Each thinks the wedding will promote his own selfish gains.
Drawn into the machinations of these men are their servants, seen as nothing more than the sum of their duties—house cleaner, driver, cook—but Albinia carries the reader into the kitchen and backrooms where their lives are so entwined with their employers, to their own worlds where they seek a greater autonomy. The second generation—the bride and groom, their friends and siblings, romantic partners, the servants—are the most fascinating, navigating the “new” India while the history and traditions of the past lurk ever-present around them.
At the wedding, while the wedding party sits on a dais, the sister of the groom boldly darts under a table and has sex with a relative stranger, bragging about being “polyandrous, like Draupadi in the ‘Mahabharata.’” Albinia writes like a cross between Zadie Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, creating her own epic while handily juggling a huge multi-generational cast of characters, all while weaving in arching themes of family, betrayal, and the repetition of history. The power of the written word, the importance of writing stories down, like her Ganesh’s desire for recognition of the true author of Mahabharata, mirrors the journey to finding and exposing the truth in this powerful novel. (Kelly Roark)
By Alice Albinia
W.W. Norton & Company, 432 pages, $26