Reading this new novel by linguist-anthropologist Anoop Chandola feels a little like working your way through a New Delhi street—you squeeze past person after person in saris, dhotis, dull Western trousers or turbans. They all have stories you might like to follow up on, and they're all subject to what the Bhagavad Gita notes as an inconsistency in behavior and thoughts. But you can't get an in-depth or overall view of them, because you, too, are part of the stream.
To that street image, add mythological clashing chariots; elephants; mace-wielding soldiers; untouchables and other unclean characters like women—and you have a sense of the book. Where to start? It—like India—is full to the brim ... and a little bewildering.
Chandola, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, has taught Indian literature, culture and religion at numerous Indian and American universities. He was born and raised in a Brahmin family near the Nepal-Tibet border, and that's where he locates this novel.
In the Himalayan Nights takes place in 1977, in Dehradun, a region in the foothills of the Himalayas. The setting and basis for the narrative are also its organizing mechanism and primary thematic source—the "Holy War" dance story, the Mahabharata, a 100,000-verse epic poem in which two sides of a ruling family wage war against each other.
A team of researchers from the U.S. has come to Dehradun to conduct field work related to the Mahabharata. The narrator, a college professor born there whose parents still live in the area, is interested in the epic itself, its heroes and the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita, which is embedded in it. He and his wife, who's investigating polygamy, are joined by two female graduate students looking into the abuse of women, animal cruelty and caste discrimination. The team is complemented by local academics who explain language and customs.
The book is laid out following the dance story itself: the 18 days of the mythic war between the Kaurava clan and their cousins the Pandavas. Chandola alternates chapters of contemporary action with chapters of the epic action. More than realized conflict, though, the contemporary plot arises from discussion of the dance story, or tales of modern local "heroes."
Fortunately, Chandola has provided a glossary, because he leads us on a slog through Indian mythology, mores, religion, history and language. To the epic narrative, he adds discussions and mini-lectures on aspects of Indian culture. (As guests drop in, the local experts comment; team members chat or debate, etc.) The Mahabharata itself is dense with characters, relationships and military strategy, but Chandola keeps his prose clear. In short, the epic involves two branches of the legendary Kuru clan vying for control of the family kingdom. The Kauravas won it in a rigged dice game; the Pandavas want justice; the Kauravas deny it; and the Kurukshetra War ensues.
In some ways, In the Himalayan Nights is more an anecdote-rich seminar on India than a novel. Chandola presents an intriguing mix of epic poem, cultural and historic insight, gossip, ideas, questions and issues, but not much of conventional fiction-writing's advancing story lines or developed characters. It's difficult to discern the plot through layers of dialogue.
The Mahabharata itself is interesting, though, and you come away with a grasp of a significant piece of world literature. Its themes of family conflict, loyalty, honor, betrayal and divine intervention read like Homer or scenes from the Old Testament.
Chandola addresses large issues. The notions of family fighting family, and the denigrating treatment of women and the dalit—or untouchables—become central to the work. Significant concerns arise through the team's observations or living arrangements, or the stories brought to them. For example, Chandola merges his narrator's interest in narrative authority and bias with problems of the caste system in his depiction of the drummers who nightly narrate the Mahabharata. The drummers, talented as they are, were born untouchables. The narrator's Brahmin father will not eat with them—but they have the power to mold the story.
The cover blurb on In the Himalayan Nights focuses on a conflict between the grad students' lesbian relationship and their host country's customs. Frankly, that part of the story barely makes it to the final draft. This is the book of a college professor with clear affection for his conflicted and complicated subject. An easy beach read, it isn't, but an informed and informative dip into a rich, complex culture, it is.