Ganesan, born in Srirangam, India and educated in the United States, offers a poetic first novel which, with gentle irony, examines characters whose lives are shaped by two cultures. Renu Krishnan and her younger sister Meenakshi “Manx” Krishnan were born on the tropical Asian island of Pi, but have grown up in big-city America, on Long Island. Others, such as their uncle Adda Krishnamurthi and the former hippie Freddie Flat, have as adults married into or adopted foreign cultures. These characters lead double lives which spawn both confusion and revelation.
On the island, “a chunk of India that is not quite India torn free to float in the Bay of Bengal,” Ganesan’s characters confront alien customs and their own identities. Arriving on Pi for their cousin’s funeral, in a season of scorching sun and blazing foliage, the Krishnan sisters must first reconcile their American ways with the god-laden, mystical customs of their extended family. Falling under the island’s heavy spell, Renu drifts in and out of a catatonic lethargy brought on by the death of cousin Rajesh, her “twin” according to family lore. She is unable to answer her mother’s unexpected wish for her contractual marriage, unable to assert anything except profound grief. Sorrow itself becomes her identity. Manx, meanwhile, is traumatized by the break with American culture and smothered by the traditions so vital to her family’s village. Puzzled by Grandfather Das’ fatalistic devotions, dismayed by Aunt Bala’s provincialism, and infuriated by Renu’s detached acceptance of it all, Manx frets about the music she is missing and buzzes her hair with a razor.
The introduction of two male characters rescues a slowing plot: Freddie, the itinerant American immigrant, whom Manx befriends; and the runaway Kish, adopted son of a local ex-revolutionary turned umbrella maker. Skillfully, Ganesan describes the journey these four seekers take to “the heart of tribal country,” where their hearts find revelation. Ultimately Renu saves her own life; she casts off the yoke of mourning. Manx opts to remain on Pi with their mother, who has rediscovered her home, while Renu begins a new journey home to Long Island. The novel suggests that sacrifice and joy can weave lives together across personal boundaries and culture lines, despite the clash of customs and some sorrows too deep to explain.