Two loners adrift in the mysteries of India – The Age

Posted: March 13, 2020 at 12:42 pm


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Sweetness and Light the title echoes Ruth Prawer Jhabvalas Booker-winning Heat and Dust is the story of two foreigners in India to find themselves only to end up getting more lost. Every human being has a choice, Pieper writes, to be a predator, alone and cruel, or to be part of something greater. This divide, between creator and destroyer, characterises the lives of Sasha and Connor, strangers who, through a cruel twist of fate, cross paths on a sleeper train.

Connor, an Aussie expat, fled his island home after a troubled upbringing reigned over by a father who drank wildly and developed delusions of grandeur about his sons chances to become an Olympic swimmer.

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Bitter and jaded beyond his 30 or so years, he spends his days in self-imposed exile in Shanti Beach, a little-known backwater town, thieving from women, alone, not too young who arrive on the rare tour bus in search of zen, beachside meditation or a shipwreck off the coast the towns sole tourist attraction.

But his knack for criminal deception has waned, and a combination of drinking to obliteration and working for his big-fish gangster boss, Baba, has turned him into a scarecrow, every day knocking a little more stuffing out of him.

Ostensibly, Connors job is to take tourists scuba diving, but his real business lies in persuading women hes the mistake they didnt know they wanted to make. Pieper sets this up in the opening pages, with a sweeping long-shot of Connor sitting on a hill, scanning the tourists that exit a bus for the Talent, meantime being kept at arms length from the Indian locals he lives among.

One day, however, his petty but elaborate scam goes horribly wrong, and he is blackmailed by Baba into a far more dangerous plot that coerces him to travel across the country, to Chennai on the east coast. Along the way he meets Sasha, wounded by her ongoing divorce from a wealthy surgeon. Back in New York state, shes left behind a medical career as tattered as her marriage.

After being gobbled up by middle-class ennui, shes been spat out craving intimacy and spiritual awakening. Thanks to her ex-husbands bottomless pockets, she joins an ashram led by a revered guru with a personality cult that could match Stalins. Her disciples live solitarily in a crucible in the jungle, building a kingdom of sweetness and light all at a handsome price thats deducted weekly from her bank account.

Pieper is an endearing and generous storyteller. He writes fully: nearly half the book gives us the earlier lives of Sasha and Connor, both of them plagued by some cliched trouble the Alcoholic Parent but does so with sensitivity and uniqueness to look beyond its hackneyed origins. Theres a flourish of dramatic irony, too, as neither character realises the eerie similarities between their upbringings.

Sweetness and Light gives the exhausted story of Westerners driven toward the spiritual world of India a bit of punky attitude. Its belief in the undertow of karmic cycles dances gleefully between Jonestown and nirvana, refusing to preach, or drench the reader in dull mantras. Its a far cry from the Big Indian Novels, the likes of Vikram Seths A Suitable Boy, Rohinton Mistrys A Fine Balance, or even Gregory Roberts Bollywood blitz, Shantaram, which are more bitterness and dark. Instead, in Piepers entertaining tale, two lost souls roam an ancient land they barely understand.

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Two loners adrift in the mysteries of India - The Age

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March 13th, 2020 at 12:42 pm

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