Friday, April 29, 2016

The Tigress and the Yogi: A review

A talking tigress.
A wandering yogi.
A young Untouchable's harrowing journey through an ancient land where chaos threatens gods and mortals alike.

Shelley Schanfield's novel, The Tigress and the Yogi, is the first book in her Sadhana Trilogy. The novels tell the personal and spiritual struggles of women who knew Siddhartha, better known as the Bhudda.

Writing about mythic-historical, larger-than-life people who change the course of the world is hard. Everyone has an opinion, whether or not those opinions are supported by fact, and will judge your book based on those opinions. My knowledge of the Buddha is a hazy, college memory of a World Religions course and reading Hesse's Siddhartha. In other words, I was pretty much a blank slate.
Moreover, writing such a novel requires courage, a leap of faith, and kick-ass writing skills. Schandfield performs  like a virtuoso.

Although a long book (382 pages) by today's standards, it was clear from the first page I was going to finish this book. It tempted me to learn more about the Buddha. Temptation to learn is always a good sign in a book.

This first book focuses on Mala, whom Schanfield later reveals is a totally fictional character. I think this was a smart choice, because it totally cuts off those readers who might be tempted to stray into "I-know-more-about-the-Bhudda-than-you" harangues.

Mala's story  is poignant, adventurous, and seething with sensuality and violence. She is in many ways a proverbial Everywoman, seeking a purpose in life and wondering "Is this all there is." If you think life as Everywoman is hard in the 21st century, life hits Mala with a double whammy. She is a woman at a time when the status of women couldn't have been much worse. She is also an Untouchable, the lowest-caste among Hindu with whom contact is traditionally held to defile members of higher castes. Instant conflict and tension. Then, Schanfield ups the ante, because Mala is also intelligent enough to realize what she's facing.

Along her journey, Mala meets kings, thieves, corrupt nobles, yogis, and a white tigress who might be Mala's true spirit guide. Her adventures are the stuff of true historical fantasy. She suffers great losses, the kind that would break most people; yet in spite, or perhaps because, of them, she becomes a warrior, both literally and figurative. You root for her like you do for so many of fiction's bold young heroines, such as Katniss Everdeen. In crafting Mala's story and world, Schanfield's has clearly done her research and provides a wealth of about Hinduism, Buddhism and the mythic history of India.

While I wholeheartedly encourage you to read this book, I do have a caveat.

Describing a religion and politics unfamiliar to most  Westerners is a tricky bit. I'm not sure I ever understood the political structure. There were times when so many Indian terms were  introduced I found myself floundering. (Yes, there is a glossary, but looking up five or six words on a page does take you out of the story.) At other times, the book veered into parables. As one review said, "the length and density of the spiritual message may put off casual readers. This impressive debut is more appropriate for those with an interest in Eastern philosophies."