Best-selling author of Funny Boy and The Hungry Ghosts, Shyam Selvadurai returns after more than a decade with Mansions of the Moon, an exploration of the early life of the man who would become the “Buddha,” as seen through the eyes of Yasodhara, the wife he abandoned in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
Set in ancient India, the story begins in the narrative present, when Yasodhara’s presumed-dead husband inexplicably walks out of the forest after a 10-year absence, spreading a new religion he calls “The Middle Way,” and plunging Yasodhara’s future into uncertainty.
The reader is then taken back in time to the world of Yasodhara’s youth. At 16, she agrees to marry her intelligent and politically savvy cousin, Siddhartha Gautama. Unbeknownst to her, or her family, his sudden proposal is a reaction against the seeds of philosophical and spiritual discontent that have already begun to take hold.
Married life comes with challenges, the first of which is a relocation away from the capital city and everyone Yasodhara knows and loves, to an obscure northern province.
Initially isolated and overwhelmed, she seeks the support of a local deity and soon finds connection and contentment working the land. An intelligent young woman, Yasodhara is constantly frustrated and constrained by the actions and desires of her male relatives. She resents her forced reliance on others, yet seeks to make the most of the life she has been born into.
But as the years pass, Siddhartha’s continual spiritual and moral questioning wear on her faith, and she finds herself morally adrift in a world where it doesn’t matter too much what a woman thinks or believes. Though Yasodhara finds elements of Siddhartha’s Middle Way compelling, as the bearer of the consequences of his actions, she struggles to reconcile the pain and irreparable damage he causes in her life with his puritanical quest for enlightenment.
An intimate tale of love, loss and personal growth set against the backdrop of history, Mansions of the Moon is immersive and full of details that bring to life the time and place of 600 BCE. Selvadurai uses the Pali language for the local words, and the book comes with a pronunciation and glossary guide, as well as a map of ancient India and a historical note explaining the governing hierarchies and power structures of the tribal republics and vassal states.
Anyone who loves to sink their teeth into language and nuance will enjoy the Austen-esque double-edged wordplay that the women use to signal their underlying motives and intentions.
Through the lens of one married couple, Mansions of the Moon captures the intellectual and spiritual turmoil of the time that changed human thought with ideas that are still relevant today.
Yasodhara describes the Mansions of the Moon as a spiritual stop-over for the departed on their way to the Land of the Fathers, a container space for souls in limbo. The reader is left with the indelible impression of Yasodhara forever trapped, walking the empty halls, haunted by the ghosts of what might have been.
Kate Heskett is a writer, poet and canoe guide, happily stuck in the Whistler bubble.