Readers of Indira Ganesan’s latest novel, As Sweet as Honey, will find themselves in Pi, “the tiniest crescent-shaped bindi above the eyebrows to Sri Lanka’s tear, a small spit of an island floating in the Bay of Bengal, resembling Madras when Madras was Madras and not Chennai, but resembling Chennai as time went on.” A captivating place with exotic flora and fauna, the imaginary nation is named after Prospero’s island in The Tempest as well as the mathematical symbol. Ganesan succeeds in imparting legitimacy to her invented country with descriptions and depictions of a culture that closely resembles Indian culture. Ganesan used Pi as the setting for her previous two novels, The Journey and The Inheritance.
Most of the story happens in a town called Madhupur, “a place as sweet as honey,” where the people are old-fashioned. The time, hard to pinpoint, seems to be the second half of the twentieth century. The novel is about a freakishly tall woman named Meterling, an orphan whose parents died in a car accident. When her mother was eight months pregnant, her father literally dreamed up her peculiar name, shouting “Meterling” as he woke up. Meterling’s height influences her to accept herself the way she is. She grows up to defy convention, becomes the source of gossip in town, and leads a rather unusual life. Mina, a cousin, is the grown-up narrator of the story. A ten-year-old at the start of the novel, she and her cousins, including Meterling, live together in their diminutive Grandmother’s house.
As Sweet as Honey begins with Meterling’s wedding to the littlest man she ever saw, who is white. Surprisingly, considering her unconventional ways, the bride is traditionally dressed whereas Archie, the groom, is dressed in a white pajama suit and a pink tie. Barely three pages into the story, a dancing Archie collapses and instantly dies, leaving his sobbing twenty-eight-year old bride a widow.
The drama continues when we discover that Meterling is not only in mourning but that she is expecting as well. Ganesan keeps the melodrama to a real-life level, not letting the events take on a soap opera quality. Mina and her cousins are unsure how to mitigate their cousin’s suffering. In her eighth month of pregnancy, Meterling meets Archie’s cousin, Simon, who tells her all about her husband. A bond forms between them that, as they get to know each other, turns to the kind of love that heals Meterling. Simon wants to marry her, but his family as well as the widow’s grandmother oppose the idea. After the baby is born, Meterling agrees to marry Simon.
Once she remarries, she is plagued by nightmares about her first husband’s death. Even after Meterling and Simon settle down in England she dreams about him. One day, a voice tells her she looks beautiful. It turns out to belong to the ghost of Archie, who appears before her and then continues to haunt her. In the beginning, she wonders whether her guilty mind is playing tricks on her. She wishes to be free of her first husband, but when she returns to Pi he follows her. For us, the haunting verges on the humorous because of the kind of exchanges she has with the ghost. There is also something light-hearted about a specter who travels and invariably appears in a white suit. Yet Ganesan makes us wonder whether her unique heroine will finally pay the price for the nontraditional choices in her life.
The important events in As Sweet as Honey are narrated in such lush prose that one can visualize them. The voice of Mina comes across as a powerful presence through much of the novel, but not in the middle portion, which takes place in England and sounds like it has a third person narrator. It strains credulity for Mina to know so much about what happens in England, in spite of Meterling’s letters and even though we have already taken the leap of faith that she is privy to her cousin’s life. The first person voice works best in the story whenever we know she is witnessing what she recounts.
As Mina recollects the events, we see her as a child trying to make sense of everything that happens to her scandalous cousin, whom she hero-worships. Questions pepper the prose, marking her bewilderment. “What would Oscar grow up to be? Would he have his father’s white skin, his blond hair? Would he be ridiculed in school?” In a couple of places, Ganesan intersperses the voice of the younger Mina. Here, in one such passage, the effect is reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s prose: “Meterling, our goose. Our giant. She sat in the sun and looked at the ocean . . . The sea, the sea, it slid toward us, then slid back. All that water, all that rain.”
When Ganesan incorporates food into her prose, she’s masterful, evoking comparison with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of the lyrical novel, The Mistress of Spices. “Was this when the tremendous midnight cooking began, with that first ghee, followed by rice and sesame, then honeyed badushas, then plump eggplants filled joyously with spice, until she was banned from the kitchen for being too pregnant? Almond kheer, buttery pooris, crisp jalebis that were like slender fingers, followed by perfect coffee already waiting when we awoke?”
Ganesan’s strength in As Sweet as Honey undoubtedly rests in the way she manipulates words to capture the dynamics of a joint family, make Pi into a memorable mythological island nation, and give us an image of a towering woman and a white-suited ghost. Interestingly, by the end of the novel, we don’t know the characters too intimately, which can be a welcome change from intensely inhabiting people’s minds in fiction. We feel satiated with the skillful prose in As Sweet as Honey and we feel relaxed after our sojourn in Pi.