MAYA: A meditation on existence and identity
[Wisdom Books, 315 pages]
As Alice has her Wonderland, Stanley, protagonist of C.W. Huntington’s novel Maya, has his India to stretch and boggle his mind. The locales and situations in the book gift the reader with vivid evocations of the Asian subcontinent. Fully as distinct as the human characters are the diverse settings: dishevelled Agra and political Delhi; ancient Benares; Manali, a peaceful town in the Himalayas; and remote Corbett National Park.
The country itself is practically a hallucination. In its midst, Stanley sits meditating and poring through ancient Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan, seeking a Rosetta Stone that will bring liberation. Beginning his sojourn as a Fulbright scholar, he experiences dissonance when he encounters academics who are simply using the art, culture and spiritual literature of India to play “the Indology game” and jostle for professorships, publication and status. A sincere seeker of truth, Stanley risks much in order to continue his search authentically. By dint of character, he can settle for nothing less.
As Stanley makes decisions in order to follow his own course, he encounters a rich cast of native characters. The colonel who administers the national park affects an actual raj-style swagger stick. The park also harbours a jungle sadhu who has lived there alone for decades after a tragedy destroyed his family. Stanley’s esteemed Sanskrit teacher holds down a day job as a clerk so that he can afford to do his real work. A scholarly Tibetan Lama, even amid the musk of his old books, emits “crazy wisdom.”
Additionally, Stanley crosses paths with many Western expatriates. Indeed, the novel has many layers. There’s the world of Stanley’s former life with a now-estranged wife in Chicago, and the world of Indira Gandhi (the first Indian female to serve as prime minister), bringing in its train a domestic political crisis that intrudes now and then. Yet another rich layer of the book is derived from the urban monkeys of Benares, who are like the “low” characters in Shakespeare, hilariously and mischievously mimicking their human neighbours as they prowl the rooftops.
Huntington has a true gift for bringing the clamour, colour and contradictions of India alive, invoking all the senses through the medium of words:
My rickshaw departed from the station, bumping along the streets through markets where cows feasted on vegetable refuse, while troops of monkeys, fuzzy orange acrobats, swung through a tangled maze of electrical wires. It was early morning. Here and there men dressed in brightly patterned lungis stood idly massaging their gums with twigs from the neem plant. The smell of chai and incense and hot vegetable puri seemed to emanate from the earth itself. Razorback hogs and furless, skeletal dogs skirmished over heaps of garbage. Untouchable sweepers, their heads wound in grimy scarves that left no more than a thin slit through which they glared out at the world, waved their straw brooms in wide arcs, as if they were sorcerers who had conjured up this fantastic scene and could just as easily cause it to vanish.
Described on the back cover as “an extended meditation on the unraveling of identity,” Maya takes the reader through so many permutations of “reality” that he or she too ends up recognizing that the substance of existence can appear in many different forms, just as an egg can be fried, hard-boiled, pureed, souffléd, baked, poached, or stewed; and, in the end, its true nature may be unknowable.
BHAJAN: A story of spiritual rebirth and renewal
[Blue Bus Books, 392 pages]
Tim Garvin’s novel, Bhajan, also tries to bridge the elusive gap between the everyday world and ultimate Truth, and conjectures whether the two can be merged in human lives. The unlikely, but utterly charming venue for his drama is a travelling menagerie. The Santa Rosa Exotic Animal College, a school for zookeepers, has gone out of business. Something needs to be done with Demijohn the lion, Bump the ostrich, Thane the mandrill, Shindig the spider monkey and all the other animals.
Protagonist Bluey MacIntosh has envisioned an educational enterprise. Going on the road to county fairs and such places, it will help instil respect for Earth’s vanishing and endangered species. Eventually, the animals will become a permanent exhibit at an eco-park in Tennessee, on land that Bluey has bought.
Bluey is a mystic and a poet whose late wife was a devotee of a silent Indian spiritual master named Meher Baba. As his travelling caravan is about to begin its journey, Bluey learns of an extraordinary tiger that may be available for purchase. The tiger’s name is Bhajan. It’s said to have been raised by a mast in India.
Bluey—unlike most zookeepers and most Americans—happens to know what a mast is: someone who is “God-Mad” and appears to be insane, since to him or her the spiritual is real and the world, a mere vacant dream. He has read about this in a book given to him by his wife before she died. The book, entitled The Wayfarers, focuses on work that Meher Baba did with masts during his life on Earth. This work involved balancing them and helping them utilize their vast energies to lead humanity into a new Age of Intuition.
Not unexpectedly, the tiger does join the caravan. After this, unexpected things begin to happen. Hearts of crew members seem to open up in an inexplicable way. The animals too, behave strangely. Little by little, a small colony of Love is born. When looking for the cause of this transformation, the finger is pointed at the work of a certain silent Master.
Both the human and animal characters within this book are “people you’ll want to meet!” As the story expands in wider and wider circles, and lives are renewed and even reclaimed, the reader is able to feel the spiritual Birth taking place. I, for one, was thrilled to be along for the ride.
TOTEM: A glimpse into Hopi mythology
[Fantasy Books, 313 pages]
Hopi Indian mythology and cosmology have always seemed both fascinating and forbiddingly difficult to “grok.” Until now, I remained content with mental tags like “peaceful” and the fact that in the ‘60s, there was a “Hopi-Hippie Be-In.”
Though Totem is an action novel written by a Caucasian, author Eruch Adams grew up in New Mexico and has done excellent research. After reading his work, I feel much less ignorant about Hopi-related topics, and have an appreciation of the kachina figures and the tribal secret societies that I didn’t before, as well as a better picture of Pueblo life itself.
It seems to me quite brave for an Anglo to write a novel that takes place mainly in a Hopi village. I’m curious as to how the tribe itself might be receiving the book. What I can say is that the characters, including Tosh, the protagonist; his brother Calvin; his female friend Hanovi; his grandfather and the other tribal elders; and even the “bad guys,” a group of Native American activists whose energy has become misdirected, truly come alive throughout. The book becomes more focused on character than mere action, and I both enjoyed and appreciated being in its world for several weeks.
As the novel opens, Tosh, the protagonist, and his brother Calvin are both living in Seattle, having left their reservation. Tosh is an “outsider” and must re-enter tribal society when events make that necessary. This re-entering is an archetypal characteristic of epic narratives.
Near the beginning, Adams narrates a scene involving a political demonstration close to the University of Washington campus that protests the dumping of waste materials on Indian land. The scene seemed so real that when the militarized police charged the nonviolent protesters like giant robots gone mad, because of the actions of a few radical agents provocateurs, I felt sick and almost stopped reading. However, the vividness of the writing enabled me to suspend disbelief and go on with the book.
Tosh enters the Seattle underground, in a way reminiscent to me of parts of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As the story unfolds—and I believe reviews should not give away the entire plot of a book—he returns to his village, passes tests, and emerges—well, ready to continue the story into two more projected volumes.
In a brief interchange, the author wrote me that he has tried to appeal to a wide audience. I believe he’s succeeded at this. Although in some ways certain “powers” won by the characters remind me a bit of Spider-Man comics, I would have put down the book if that had been its only dimension. The supernormal works well to illustrate the mythology, and furthermore, as it says on the About the Author page at the book’s end, “Eruch can’t seem to shake the feeling that magic is real, if you know where to look for it.” This reviewer will most likely be among those seeking more magic in Volume Two.