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Shiva's Fire (Definitions) Paperback – 5 Jul 2001
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Even as a toddler Parvarti was thought to have supernatural gifts. When she grows up and the master of Indian classical dance comes to see her for himself, he asks her to study with him. But then she meets a boy with his own powers and learns destiny can be a very elusive thing indeed.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Meenakshi arose early the day Parvati was born, for the infant in her womb had not allowed her to sleep during the night. Tiny knees and elbows thumped Meenakshis sides in an odd, slow rhythm: tai-taiya-tai, tai-taiya-tai.
She did not know her daughter would arrive amid a change in the course of natural events, that fish would swim among the stars and birds would soar beneath the waters.
Meenakshi yawned and tied her sari round her swollen middle. She moved quietly to let her husband, Sundar, and their sons sleep while she went to the temple to offer prayers. Flies buzzed lazily in the leaden heat, and a trickle of perspiration rolled down the side of her face.
On a metal tray she arranged a coconut, bananas, and a champakam blossom with a fragrance as delicate as the pink at the base of each white petal. She laid another blossom at the feet of the statue of the dancing Shiva, which Sundar had carved of sandalwood and placed in a niche in the wall.
Meenakshi arched her back to ease it, and a pair of hands clasped her from behind and quieted the thumping against her ribs.
You think hell arrive today? Sundar asked. Meenakshi turned and laid a finger against her husbands lips.
Shh-hh, youll wake the boys, she whispered, and pulled him out into the pale heat of the morning. I told you, she said, smiling, this ones a girl!
But how can you be so sure? Sundar asked, his head cocked to one side. Meenakshi smiled again and patted his cheek. He sighed and reached for the pail to milk the water buffalo while Meenakshi went to the temple.
For many weeks early in Meenakshis other pregnancies, she had felt ill and was unable to eat. But this time everything tasted sweet and delicious, and she felt especially alive and healthy. She found herself daydreaming as she worked in the fields among the other women of the village of Anandanagar, planting rice and sugarcane. And her eyes filled with tears every time she saw a particularly beautiful flower or an unusually magnificent sunset.
Often Sundar asked, Why are you smiling? Almost always she was unaware that she had been smiling. But throughout her pregnancy she had felt inexplicably happy.
Meenakshi hurried to the temple at the edge of the village to perform her puja before her sons awoke. She wanted to feed them and her husband before Sundar had to leave to tend the elephants. This was a festival day, but her husband was chief of the Maharajas mahouts, and he and a few other mahouts could not be spared from looking after the elephants while everyone else attended the feast.
It was the Maharaja Narasimha Devas birthday. While most ordinary people did not mark their births on a calendar, a maharajas birthday was one to celebrate. This year the Rajas birthday would be especially joyous, because the Maharani was expecting a child, and the priests had predicted a son. Meenakshi did not want to miss the feast, but she was certain this was the day her infant would arrive. The gentle thumping resumed against her ribs: tai-taiya-tai, tai-taiya-tai.
Before Indias independence some forty years earlier, the Rajas father had owned the forests of teak and sandalwood that spread from one end of Nandipuram to the other. The government of India owned the forests now that the rajas no longer ruled, and the Maharaja Narasimha Deva was the governments agent for the timber. As a religious leader and the beneficent employer of many of his fathers former subjects, he was supreme in the hearts of his people.
Each year the people gathered on top of the hill outside the Rajas palace as flutes warbled and the throaty voices of Mridangam drums answered each other back and forth across the tree-covered valley. The Raja was weighed in his ceremonial robes, and the equivalent in gold was distributed to charities and the poor, to schools and temples throughout the region.
According to legend, the first clap of thunder of each years monsoon was the signal that the gold had been fairly weighed and the gods were satisfied with the Rajas generosity. And the South of India, which had been parched through the long dry season, would prosper by four months of fruitful monsoon rains.
Meenakshi walked awkwardly, holding the offering before her. She smiled, thinking she must look as round as the gentle water buffalo she passed along the way. Monkeys scampered beside her, chattering and bickering over which of them should go first.
She arrived just as the priest, Mr Balaraman, rang the temple bell. He wore an unbleached dhoti of soft cotton on his hips, three sacred threads over his left shoulder, three stripes of pale sacred ash across his forehead, and his greying hair tied in a loose knot at the top of his head. On legs as gnarled and creased as the trunk of the sacred peepul tree by the temple door, he stood before the stone likeness of Nandi, the soft-eyed bull that carried Lord Shiva from place to place. Incense burned in a brass dish, and perfumed smoke filled the inner chamber of the temple.
The priest took Meenakshis offering and laid it beneath the kneeling Nandis nose. Meenakshi tipped her face towards the priest, and he dipped his finger into a pot of red powder and gently pressed a small dot in the centre of her forehead, a third eye through which to see the world more clearly. Meenakshi ran her hands through the smoke from the censer and rubbed it into her face, then turned to hurry cumbrously back along the row of coconut palms to her thatched house at the edge of the village.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
This book did not disappoint me at all. It took me a while to read it, for I had many things to do, and perhaps because the story did not pick at a quick pace anyway. But after the first chapter, everything flew quickly and amazingly. I was particularly amazed at how Suzanne Fisher Staples brought Shiva and His tandava (dance) to life through many levels: from the sandalwood statue that had captivated little Parvati since her first day in this world, through the veena that suddenly humming in every time Parvati lit a fire, and through Parvati's determination to dance. Having learnt Bharatanatyam myself (though, alas, I am by no means a devoted Devadasi), I am familiar with various dancing terms in the book. The book went further to evoke my longing for dancing, as I read how Parvati suffered through all physical and mental difficulties to perfect her dance. Learning Bharatanatyam is not easy, let alone mastering it!
I was a bit confused with the time frame of this story. First, I thought it was during the 18th century or something. Then, the cars and busses were mentioned, and I thought the story took time during the first days of India's independence. But then, much much later, I found out that the time frame was a few years after India's 50th independence, or about 1997-1999, about the same time the story was written.
As I said, I am very fond of India-based stories. Yet, though I haven't read a lot, I found that most of the books that I read would have an ample dose of irony and suffering in it; most probably because I didn't take the Indian chick-lit. Thank the Goddess that it was not the case with `Shiva's Fire'. It started with suffering, but it ended with happiness and liberation. When a boy named Rama was introduced into the story, I was bracing myself for another typical runaway-bride story: that Parvati would have to choose between dancing and the boy. Suffice to say that it did not happen that way; the authoress managed to avoid the cheesy tendency.
So, 5 stars for Suzanne Fisher Staples and her `Shiva's Fire'. And here's to the wish that Suzanne will write the sequel, for it would be fun to read about a 20 years old Parvati.