Set in southern India in the second half of the 18th century, this novel is woven around the character of Maya. At the age of nine she undergoes an initiation ceremony to become a devadasi – a temple dancer married to the Hindu god Shiva. Her exceptional dancing ability means she is trained by Palani, a renowned devadasi and courtesan adored by the king of Tanjore.
Alongside Maya’s story of loss, love and motherhood twists the tale of Reverend Walter Sutcliffe, an English clergyman who arrives in Tanjore and sees Maya on her way to the temple to be initiated. They both move to Madras but are unaware that their lives will intersect again, and that it will be Walter’s hand that plays the last decisive card in Maya’s destiny.
The word pagoda at the time meant both a temple and a gold coin, and shaking the pagoda tree was an expression used by English people seeking their fortunes in India. Maya becomes a mistress to a successful Madras trader, Mudalier, and then falls in love with a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce.
Meticulously researched, this gripping book is a brilliant and evocative portrayal of India in the late 1700s. It paints a vivid picture of the spiritual devotion and mesmerising movements of a Hindu temple dancer, the trading world in Madras and the British encroachment on India. This first novel by travel writer Claire Scobie (author of Last Seen in Lhasa) would make a spectacular film.
Published by Viking
Reviewed by Rosamund Burton