Cover image for The journey
The journey
Ganesan, Indira.
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New York : Knopf, 1990.
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After a decade in a suburban American world of shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, sisters Renu and Manx return to their childhood home, the island of Pi. A chunk of India that is not quite India torn free to float in the Bay of Bengal, Pi is an alien and yet strangely familiar landscape where gardens and hillsides blaze with surreal foliage, and ceiling fans circle endlessly in the background. The sisters and their mother have returned because cousin Rajesh, affectionately known as Renu's twin, has died. His death and their return mark the beginning of a curious journey, leading to unexpected routes toward revelation.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Sensitive Renu, her younger, Americanized sister, Manx, and their widowed mother leave their home on Long Island to return to their native island off the coast of India for the funeral of Renu's beloved cousin, Rajesh, who has died in a train accident. On the fictitious island of Pi--a place of overwhelming beauty, gods, and ghosts--the sisters find themselves swept back in time, to a place rife with mysticism and the secrets and eccentricities of an extended family. Many journeys are taken in this inventive, captivating, gently humorous tale--journeys instigated by wanderlust and curiosity, journeys that are escapes and quests. Ganesan masterfully contrasts cultures and explores repercussions of the past. A lyrical and spell-casting debut. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a nation of immigrants, the story of arrival and adjustment is a perennial fictional favorite. Fewer writers address going home again, but Ganesan's delicately constructed first novel originally published 11 years ago by Knopf and now out of print, but to be reissued (after Inheritance) just in time to take a turn under the Indian fiction spotlight does. It follows 19-year-old Renu Krishnan, her mother and her 15-year-old sister, Manx, as they return to their family home on fictional Prospero's Island, or Pi, in the Bay of Bengal. It is 1980, and the Krishnans, who have been living on Long Island for the past nine years, are returning to Pi because Renu's cousin Rajesh has drowned. Conceived on the same day as Renu (even born on the same day), Rajesh is considered to be her twin; according to village lore, if he dies by water, she should die by fire. In Ganesan's scheme, Rajesh also seems to be Renu's doppelg?nger: he remained at home while she and her family settled in the United States, and his death marking the death of her childhood and perhaps even the death of the Hindi in her provokes a crisis in Renu's life. Other characters also make journeys: Renu's mother, her aunt, her sister, her grandfather. Ganesan relates the complex stories of several striking characters and examines many of the ironies of cross-cultural life in the United States and especially back home on Pi. But this complexity comes at a cost. Despite her turmoil, Renu remains obscure, difficult to picture and understand, as do many of the other characters. Readers who need to know a character thoroughly to love a book will find this novel frustrating, but those interested in a subtle sometimes touching, sometimes comedic tale of our nomadic, crossbred lives will be happy it is now available in paperback. (Apr. 13) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Ganesan has produced quite a jewel in this first novel. The Krishnan family, mother and two daughters, return to their native Pi, an island off the coast of India, for a family funeral. The girls, 19-year-old Renu and 15-year-old Manx, were born on the island but have been living for the past ten years in the United States, where their parents pursued scientific careers. Renu is quite willing to go back to traditional ways while she mourns her cousin, but Manx is thoroughly American and is as confused by the actions of her sister as by those of the older relatives. Ganesan warmly portrays these cultural differences and offers surprising insights into the bravery of the girl's mother, who left behind all that she knew for a strange world in America. Recommended.-- Debbie Tucker, Cincinnati Technical Coll., Ohio (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The women of her mother's village say that if one twin dies by water, the other will die by fire. Renu's cousin Rajesh died on a train. During the crossing from Madhupur to Chombatore, a storm swelled and rode in from the coast, stripping leaves off drenched branches, tangling long-armed bushes and shrubs, uprooting entire palms. The bridge swung back and forth, the rice paddies flooded, and the train, soot-covered and mud-splattered, trembled its way forward, shuddered, and slipped off the tracks into the water below. Her cousin, the Gogol diving from his pocket, his ugly slippers crushed, must have spun like a Catherine wheel in the air, tumbling, his glasses flying as the train fell. It took two days for the news to reach the family in America, two days for them to untwist his body from that unholy and anonymous death. Renu's mother wept and kept her away from the stove all day. They had always said Rajesh was her twin. Renu's mother and her aunt discovered they'd conceived the same day, and watched over each other's pregnancies. They would untuck their saris and stand naked in front of the mirror, examining their round bellies, comparing the fullness, the smoothness. When their time came on the same day, they kissed each other and held hands during the deliveries. "Rajesh and you were identically wrinkled," said Renu's mother. When the news arrived, only Renu and her mother were at home. Everyone shouted on the phone. Renu's aunt Chitra said one word and began to weep. Aunt Bala took the receiver from her to bellow, "It's all so horrible." Grandfather Das asked about the weather in the U.S., and no one knew what to say. As Renu watched her mother on the phone, she knew preparations were being made for a flight out of New York. Soon they'd be back, back in the insufferable heat, back in the lazy ripple of an afternoon breeze, back on the streets which smelled of dung and dirt. They would light a fire, they would cast her cousin's body on a pile of sticks, a momentary prince atop a pyramid. But Renu has already left. She's in the gardens, in the dusty paths between the banyan groves, the cool sleeping mats, the netted beds, the circling ceiling fans of their grandfather's house. Renu's grandfather's house was named "Nirmila Nivasam" after her great-grandfather's wife, a woman who died on a pilgrimage to Benares. Her grandfather, too, wished to die on holy land, and the minute his throat scratched in an unfamiliar way or his head throbbed in a rhythm he couldn't identify, he would demand to be placed on a boat to sanctified land. For years, Bala ignored him, administering balms and medicines. The summer Renu turned ten, though, Grandfather caught a sickness that would not go away, and some actually spoke of taking him to Benares. Bala said he wasn't well enough to travel and persuaded everyone to visit as usual. When Renu's holidays came up, the only other guests at the house were a distant aunt with her baby, her cousin Anu, and Rajesh. She could hardly wait to see Rajesh, having missed him at the last family reunion during Diwali; his parents had taken him to Delhi and he'd promised to bring home an accent.     He was waiting at the station, skinnier than ever. He looked like a starved stray cat, hunching his shoulders, pushing back his broken glasses. Renu taught him an Orissan song she'd learned, and he taught her the words of a new pop tune. Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie they sang in the taxi. Grandfather Das always insisted they pack their schoolbooks with them whenever they visited, "to review for the new term." It never did any good to explain that grade school wasn't made up of accumulated knowledge, that each year was sharply separated. The weight of a previous term dragged Renu's bags to the ground. After their first meal, he summoned the twins to his sickroom and asked them to name the principal river systems in India, the important dates in the French Revolution. Jumna, Godavari, Krishna, Ganga, Renu recited slowly while Rajesh sped through the formations and dissolutions of assemblies and the major beheadings. Their grandfather listened with his eyes closed, frowned at their mistakes, and abruptly dismissed them. They left him as he let go of great coughs. The summer seemed endless, and the stillness of the long, hot days was broken only by their grandfather's coughs; even that had an ordered meter of its own. But everything changed at night. It wasn't only the dark that descended uneasily but the strangeness. Out came the bats, the snakes, the creatures whose names Renu didn't know, but whose forms she imagined into horrible shapes, unfathomable eyes. Nirmila's ghost was said to visit the garden nightly; she was seen gliding in and out of the trees, the sound of her bangles and anklets distinctly jangling. Sometimes there would be snatches of music, of bells and light drums, and the unmistakable noise of dancers coming from the dark depths of the trees. The aunts gathered on the porch in the evenings and talked of devils and demons who lingered around the earth. They spoke of Kali-worshipers, mad women with matted hair and skull necklaces, possessed by the powerful goddess. The twins knew that no matter how much they were interested in the stories, they could not ask questions; even to say the name of the goddess was to curse themselves.     The privy was located in the back of the garden, and an older cousin or aunt used to walk Renu there at night, carrying a flashlight. Renu hated it when Anu walked with her, holding her hand firmly in her own sweaty one. Anu was the Toad Cousin, with a small, squat head and bulging eyes, the ugliest girl in town. She studied anthropology at school and recited aloud from her Tribal Cults of the Western Ghats late into the night. She told stories Renu didn't want to hear, stories Renu recounted to Rajesh, adding gory details at will. If a monster had two heads, Renu would give it six and tremble at her own invention. The summer in daylight blazed gloriously. Even Anu couldn't stop their happiness. That, though, was checked by the Sanskrit master. He was their grandfather's idea, but they knew Anu must have had a sneaky hand in it. One day the twins tried to climb coconut trees in imitation of the man who eased up and down the burlap trunks to knock down fruit. Grandfather saw them straddling a tree, thought they were in need of civilizing, and hired Mr. Ramdas.     There was nothing the twins dreaded more than the sound of Mr. Ramdas's umbrella clacking on the cobbled street. His step was light, quickening as he approached the porch, a swift figure in a spotless dhoti with a pinched-in pockmarked face. He was bursting with brains. He permitted only slates, refusing them paper. They each had their own thin chalk pencils which broke as easily as sandstone.     From two to four, when the day was brilliant and inviting, they sat straight-backed and cross-legged on the porch. They'd start off with the alphabet and then go through vocabulary and declensions while Mr. Ramdas offered interruptions, elaborating clausal dilemmas and refining pronunciation. As the twins wrote their lessons, Mr. Ramdas talked god. He spoke of the creation of the world, the creation of death to balance good and evil in the newly created world, the composition of the strands of matter, which are good, evil, and passion. He warned them of the anger of the gods when balances were disturbed, the celestial wrath that caused the earth to split open, fire to consume everything in sight and spit out ash, draping the world in darkness. That such terrors could run out of his mouth so rapidly without his face losing its placid expression filled them with awe.     Comic books provided solace after their lessons. On the cool floor of the storeroom, next to sacks of rice and flour, bins of dried lemons and peppers, Renu and Rajesh spread their comics and read as lizards darted noiselessly across the walls. Rajesh read with his chin cupped in one hand, thin bangs falling over his eyes. Even at ten his hair was falling out, a sign Bala said marked him for the gods. Renu's hair was thick and nothing she did, rubbing bitter roots onto the scalp or merely tugging at it, made it any thinner.     In the comic books, they found a wider range of evil and its manifestations, superbeings who turned cities into powder, sucked away oceans, held back comets and meteors in a breath. This world's laws were defined by Green Lantern's Code and the Justice League. In their games, Anu, Grandfather, and Mr. Ramdas were adversaries as fierce as Black Widow, Magneto, and Doctor Doom.     Eventually came the day when Mr. Ramdas had to visit relatives in another town and classes were canceled. When their aunt told the twins the news, they looked at the ground as if seeking irregular verbs in the grass, but when she told them there would be no work to make up in the master's absence, they could no longer contain their joy. They raced around the courtyard in mad circles, shouting "pow!" and "zowie!"     Archery was their passion those days. Grandfather Das himself had taught them to bend bows from skinny mango branches. They tied the ends with string and peeled long sticks for arrows. There was nothing like the smell of young green branches, a tantalizing moment of expectation, like the first anticipated bite into dark, purple sugarcane.     They chased the monkeys off the roof as they clambered up. The mango and sapota trees trailed their leaves languorously over the red tiles and whitewashed walls. The curved arrows spiraled onto the roof of the porch below while the straight ones, which they named, clattered on the tiles in front of the house. The twins began to compete and drew arrows at the same time.     Renu knew she heard a thump or a thwack , some unnatural sound. One of the arrows had found a mark. It was a tree trunk, perhaps, or a gold-brown coconut husk, but even at that distance, even through the clump of trees, they saw the fall, the swift, graceless descent of something unknown.     Hurriedly, they made their way down the house, across the yard. There, at the far end of the courtyard, at the foot of the holy jasmine tree, on top of a few crushed flowers, lay a monkey. A young monkey, hunched on its knees with its rear up in the air, much like their baby cousin in sleep.     "It's dead," said Rajesh.     "No, it's just asleep," said Renu.     "It's dead."     "It's just hurt."     "It's dead."     "It's dead," repeated Renu, for so it was.     They were dazed with horror. How could one arrow have killed a monkey, an arrow without a point, an arrow with only a name? What was to be done with it? Should they bury it or merely toss it on the refuse pile like a dead rat? They could not find the arrow anywhere.     "What's happened here?"     Chandran, the gardener, had come upon them so silently they were startled.     "It's dead," blurted out Rajesh.     Chandran clucked his tongue sympathetically and shook his head. Taking a stick, he gently turned the monkey over but found no wound.     "How did it happen?"     Renu and Rajesh were silent.     "It's not hurt--did it just fall?"     "Yes," said Rajesh as Renu vigorously nodded.     And suddenly, incredibly, Chandran's face began to change. His eyes widened and his mouth struggled to smile and form an O at the same time. He began to tremble. He clapped his hands together and shouted for their aunt.     Bala huffed over, her large body heaving under twelve yards of sari. Chandran told her that the monkey had fallen by itself, that the children had discovered it, that it fell near the holy jasmine tree.     "It's Hanuman, it's the god himself!" shouted Chandran.     And to the twins' amazement, Bala's face began to change as well. She underwent the same transformation Chandran had, and the two of them stood shaking and chanting, their hands clasped in devotion.     Hanuman! Hanuman the monkey god, big, strong Hanuman who could carry ten people on each shoulder, whose tail lit up with fire to raze an entire city, who was once sent to fetch a certain herb from a mountainside and brought back the entire mountain--was this Hanuman whom they'd killed? Bala ran to tell Grandfather Das, saying that Hanuman must have meant the young monkey as a sign, and who needed Benares when the god himself had come to restore his health? Renu and Rajesh stood as still as stone, struck by their spontaneous lie. They had killed an emissary of the gods. Word got around that Hanuman had visited Nirmila Nivasam, that the god had enjoyed some fruit from their garden. "For who has better mangoes than us?" reasoned Aunt Bala. A stream of people came by to see the body, to visit the holy ground, to touch the walls of the house. Bala was enraged and ordered Chandran to lock the gate, but that didn't stop anyone. They, the curious, the enraptured, hung onto the gate to peer through the bars while Chandran repeated the story as if it were he who had discovered the monkey. And in that crowd of worship, in that frenzy of belief, someone suggested a shrine be built, that the occasion not be let by so casually. Renu and Rajesh felt sick at dinner. Bala recalled the time she had had a vision of god when young. "I myself have seen Krishna in the banyan grove. He was standing right there with his little finger cocked and his peacock feather askew. And you know," she said, swallowing a mouthful, "I have never slept well since." Renu knew then that she too would be plagued with insomnia. Grandfather Das insisted on eating with them, declaring he felt better already. "The last time there was a visit from a god in town was when Sri Venkateswara walked through the old market, where Lolly's Emporium is now. That was long before Independence," he said, his voice raspy. Bala finally noticed the twins' flushed faces and sent them to bed. "Too much excitement," she said. "Why can't we tell them?" asked Renu.     "We killed him, we can't tell anyone," said Rajesh.     They consulted Anu's textbooks and learned that an animal's unnatural death usually foretold disaster. In some tribes, people were stoned for killing an ox or a goat.     "They won't throw rocks at us--that's stupid," said Rajesh.     "We should run away," said Renu. Renu slept fitfully that night. She heard her grandfather and her aunt arguing over whether he should be allowed to smoke. She dreamed of being chased by monkeys. She saw Brahma opening and closing his mouth as cities slipped on and off his tongue. She dreamed of being whirled away into nothingness, that awful place Mr. Ramdas spoke of. She realized she was without hope. Renu shared a room with Anu, whose very snores sounded ominous. A collection was taken and builders were contracted. The masons came over to discuss the type of stone to be used for the shrine, the color, the texture. It was to be a small one, on the corner of Beena and Victoria, across the street from Roy's sweetshop. Their grandfather believed that walking would help his illness, and stopped to inspect the work every day. The twins accompanied him on these junkets, urging him to slow his pace, rest a while, all of which he ignored. As soon as they neared the construction, Renu and Rajesh would mutter excuses to their grandfather and run on to Roy's store. There they would sit on the ice cooler, sucking at orange Fantas, reading comics until Grandfather Das was ready to leave. But not even the Phantom offered them any sanctuary. That purple-skinned mystic seemed to point a finger at them as he admonished his readers to turn in thieves, government spies, liars of all kinds. In the days that followed, Renu was filled with a desperate sense of foreboding. She and Rajesh had tampered with a divine scheme and they would be punished. At first, they worried about their grandfather, who was determined to recover as rapidly as possible. One morning Renu heard him bathing without waiting for someone to heat the water. She banged on the door, terrified he would collapse to the floor. "Go back to bed! The gods are looking after me," he thundered. It seemed they might be, for he did look better. Maybe they hadn't really hit the monkey, maybe it just had had a heart attack. But they had seen it fall, they stepped in by not telling the truth, they upset the balance, they were causing the world to totter dangerously. Renu sighed. Nothing could be hidden from the gods. What everyone took to be a good sign she knew signalled doom. The builders were fast, and in a week the town had a new shrine. Everyone was going to be present at the shrine-initiating ceremony. The house filled with the sound of rustling silk as the whole family prepared for the event. Renu had to have her hair washed and anointed with oil, stand still as her aunt stretched and pulled it into braids with new ribbons.     "Why are you squirming? We're going to Binder's after the prayers."     But Renu knew she'd never make it to Binder's Hotel, where they served real American sundaes. Whatever punishment the gods meant to deliver would arrive at the ceremony. The twins were miserable on their way into town.     Renu tried to imagine the horror that awaited them. The earth might break open, swallowing the shrine and them with it, or maybe there would be an awful moment of communal truth, when all fingers would point to them in anger and outrage. Maybe there would be something even worse. She tried to think of something worse as she prepared herself for death. A small crowd had already gathered in front of the shrine. A flat-bellied priest was accepting flowers and fruits for sanctifying. Renu and Rajesh tried to linger behind, but Bala grabbed them firmly by the shoulders.     "Think of it, you're heroes in a way. Don't be shy," she said, her grip, falcon talons.     Renu wondered if they were destined for reductive reincarnation, if they'd be turned into moths or spiders. Maybe it would be only Rajesh who'd get into trouble, since he had lied first, but since they were twins, Renu thought in a rush of loyalty and melodrama, she shared in his fate.     The priest began the prayers. A baby started to cry and her mother shushed her. Renu wondered if they'd be struck mad. "Rama-Rama-Rama," chanted Chandran at the edge of the crowd, nearly drowning out the priest's words. Maybe they'd be turned into stone. Rajesh stuck his hands in his pockets and refused to look at her.     Hungry village boys stood in a group, waiting for the coconuts to be broken so they could steal the pieces home. A woman brought her baby, green with colic, to be cured. A blind woman touched her eyes in silent supplication. Two armless men worked their way to the front of the crowd where the priest rubbed red powder onto their foreheads. Renu realized the enormity of her crime. The earth whirled.     "She's dead, she's dead," shouted Rajesh as she hit the ground. * * * Renu woke to white mist. Bala parted the mosquito netting and handed her a glass of juice. "It must have been the heat and the crowd," she said. Renu and Rajesh spoke of the events a good deal that night. They were mystified. They did not understand why the gods had overlooked them. The shrine had not fallen apart, Grandfather was still in good health. Despite everything, they could not whisper away the sense of imminent doom, the notion that everything was waiting to explode, that the gods were only biding their time. The shrine remained popular for a while. Anu said that people were god-mad, that they always looked for a new place to worship. The following summer, Renu's family moved to America. She and Rajesh wrote thick or thin letters, depending on their moods. Once he wrote that few people remembered the shrine, and seemed to shrug the whole thing off. "We were just spooked kids," he wrote. They never referred to the incident again. It had remained with Renu all these years, though. Whenever she slipped into the American way of life, when she stopped wearing the red tikká on her forehead, when she stopped going to temple, she could not free herself of the idea that the gods were still hunting her, that they were waiting to seek retribution.     Outside, the rain sounded as if it were wearing away the roof, making pools in the lawn, sinking the house. Tomorrow she would go through the photographs, the letters--it was enough now to summon up his face. But already the memory was dim, one minute indelible in her mind, the next minute gone. They would probably not let her see the cremation, believing the sight to be more than unmarried girls could stand. But she was determined to attend to the rites; she would say good-bye to her cousin, her childhood companion, her twin. She would brave those flames.     In the kitchen, she heard her mother drop a plate. They would eat sparely tonight. Excerpted from THE JOURNEY by Indira Ganesan. Copyright © 1990 by Indira Ganesan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.