- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

YOGA HOTEL

By Maura Moynihan

ReganBooks, tk, 282 pages.

REVIEWED BY CYNTHIA GRENIER

We owe a real debt of gratitude to Richard Nixon for at least one act in his presidential career. He appointed Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Ambassador to India. The Right Honorable D.P. Moynihan brought his family with him to the subcontinent including his teenage daughter Maura. For her, the experience was truly love, deep passionate love at very first contact. Indeed she has dedicated her first book — “Yoga Hotel” — to her parents “who gave me India.”

Ms. Moynihan has inherited both her late father’s wit and his way with words as this collection of dazzling, delicious short stories effortlessly proves. She shows an India vividly not just through American eyes but Indian eyes as well. Witness the first story in the book, “A Good Job in Delhi,” in which Hari, a young Indian, finds employment working for westerners “through his father’s cousin whose son-in-law was the driver.” As houseboy to a swinging young American bachelor, he is convinced he must have the best post in the entire city — until his mother turns up to announce, proudly, that she has arranged a marriage for him.

Arranged marriages appear often in Ms. Moynihan’s stories. They are to be feared at all cost, yet must be dutifully if mournfully submitted to because of centuries old filial obligations. But in his employer Bob at the World Bank, Hari has a magic, life-transforming deus ex machina.

“Hari stood in the gateway, wearing one of Bob’s suits with a new pair of shoes. Soon the car would come to take Hari to the airport and he would leave the garden, the banyan trees, the parrots, the old women resting oncharpois across the road. He realized he had no idea where he was going and how he would live. He would be able to take girls out to dinner and bring them back to his house without Harmeet watching over him. He would be able to buy more shoes and shirts and ties and radios.

“But now all that mattered was the scent of bread, charcoal, and jasmine in the evening air, the sound of temple bells, bicycle chimes and birdcalls, the old cow wandering toward him in the dark street.He had never been without these things, and he’d never realized that he loved them. Tears streamed down his face.He dropped his bags on the ground and wondered if he should tell his mother that he would marry the girl, or whether he should just go back to his room and hide.”

It is perhaps not by chance Ms. Moynihan chose as an illustration for her title page a photograph she herself took of a long-horned cow standing patiently in a backyard by a clothesline with a few pieces of laundry draped across it. Framing the quite mundane picture on either side are a pale pair of Hindu goddesses with long elephant trunks and multiple arms, making for a nice positioning of the sacred and the profane. The other photographs opening each new story are by celebrated photographer Mary Ellen Marks.

In five short stories: “Good Job in Delhi,” “High Commissioner for Refugees,” “The Visa,” “Paying Guest” and “In the Heart of Braj” Ms. Moynihan reveals quite perfectly various nuances of contemporary Indian life blending ancient folk ways with the most up to the minute importations from the exotic Western world of New York and Los Angeles. Her eye for the maneuvering of a young Indian matron in “The Visa” to wheedle a prized visa to the United States so as to upstage her friends at their weekly card game is wickedly sharp and very funny.

Every nuance of the women’s behavior is wonderfully observed. In a way reading “Yoga Hotel” is like encountering the shades of Edith Wharton and Jane Austen swathed in saris, yet Ms. Moynihan is going for something far deeper than just lively portraits of cultural mores, particularly when it comes to a longer piece — a novella really — “Masterji.”

The eponymous Masterji is a teacher, a visiting scholar at several universities; his books have been translated into 17 languages, an Oxford graduate with a rich accent, yet he lives very simply. He has gathered an odd assortment of westerners to come to study with him in the Himalayas in February. Some are splendidly rendered fools like wealthy Englishwoman Lucy who collected gurus like furniture. Others include an elderly Swiss couple, two sisters from a royal family in Central India, a waif of an American girl named Sam, an American movie star Don Williams. Each life will be transformed unexpectedly yet somehow quite perfectly.

The Masterji calmly announces at their first gathering he is dying of lung cancer and during the coming month he will be deciding whom to choose from among them the one to carry on his mission. Each in his and her own fashion defines themselves as Masterji comes to his decision.

Ms. Moynihan opens her book with a quote from John Keats: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music: — do I wake or sleep?” And she follows it on the succeeding page with some serious thoughts of her own beginning: “I am a refugee from the new world seeking asylum in the old world of immutable truths, seeking to turn the Wheel of Dharma.” The book includes a glossary for the many Indian terms that highlight the text.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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