Title: The Purple Lotus
Author: Veena Rao
Genre: Literary Fiction
Series info: Standalone
I came across this book while looking at Netgalley own voices books and was immediately interested. The premise sounded too good. The cherry on the top was that it’s partly set in Mangalore, which is just hours away from me.
When I expressed interest in the book, the author kindly provided me with a review copy. A few days after that, my request for the book on Netgalley was also approved. So you can say that the universe was pushing me to read it.
Thank you to the author and the publisher for providing me with review copies. All opinions are my own.
Note: Since I received an advanced copy, any quotes may be different on actual publication.
The book tackles a multitude of topics and issues through the main character Tara.
After three years of marriage, Tara finally goes to America to live with her husband and dreams of having a proper relationship with him. But things don’t quite turn out as how she imagines. She has a stranger for a husband and has to find her footing in a new country pretty much by herself.
The book takes us through Tara’s life in a journey of discovery, growth and love while also representing complicated familial relationships and questioning the general order of things.
I spent about 15 minutes writing the synopsis on top because trying to put down the entirety of this book in a few sentences is HARD. Purple Lotus is so much more than a book about an unhealthy marriage or a woman finding her true love. And I’m here to convince you of that.
Content warnings for the book: abandonment, (physical) domestic abuse.
I would also like to mention that I am an own voices reviewer because of my connection to book’s representation of religion, family, and society. Many themes in this book are very personal to me and I will be writing my thoughts through that lens.
- The writing style.
I was absorbed right from the beginning. There are enough descriptions to transport the reader into the book but not too many that the descriptions will distract from the actual story.
The story is also told in two parts with the current timeline following Tara in America and flashbacks where we see Tara growing up in India. The flashbacks were well-placed and took on an air of nostalgia which came through the text.
But my favourite part about the writing was when it dealt with heavy issues. The author has ingeniously brought in discussions about familial expectations, carrying society’s opinions on one’s shoulders, and the struggle between personal happiness and collective happiness. There were several lines in the book which I had to highlight because they accurately describe the situation while also bringing out the emotion. Also those lines just hit me hard personally.
In a culture where personal space was still an alien concept, you were never alone except when you died.
- An accurate cultural representation of “marriage”.
Purple Lotus is completely Indian. Half the book is set in Mangalore and the entire book has the backdrop of Indian expectations and beliefs. The author uses this book to pose multiple questions and raise points about the Indian society and way of doing things.
One of the major themes is marriage. Through Tara, we see that marriage is not just a relationship between two individuals. The entire society is involved in a marriage and this starts even before the marriage is agreed to.
Tara’s marriage is an arranged affair, which is very common in India. But it is more likely for such marriages to go wrong than right. After all, two strangers are getting married after meeting maybe once or twice. And the decision to agree to the marriage is not completely in the couple’s hands. The decision is influenced heavily by family and also society.
The biggest problem in the Indian thinking of a marriage is putting all the responsibility on the wife’s shoulders. When Tara’s husband does not make arrangements for her to go to America for three years after their marriage, it’s determined that it must be her fault. When he does call her after years, she is expected to drop her life in an instant and go to him.
When the relationship turns ugly, even up to physical violence, the blame is still on the woman. And the expectation to fix the relationship is also on the woman. This expectation is one way that “reputation in the society” barges itself into a home.
This book brings up how Indian ways of thinking and tradition is harmful even if the people have good intentions. Tara is told to fix her relationship with her husband by her own parents even after bringing up all the ways she has been hurt.
To modern-day keepers of our traditions, I ask: Why is it always the woman who is instructed to try harder to win over her husband, to adjust, to stay silent, to make peace with the injustices she faces? When things go wrong, why can’t she turn to her family? If she finally decides to stand up for herself, why does her family not stand with her?
Basically, this book hits the nail on the head in this topic. I really liked the way the institution and concept of an Indian marriage was handled. We get Tara’s relationship with her abusive husband which is accepted by the society, and then we also get her marriage with a man she loves which is rejected by everyone else. All the nuances with family, relationship, and society comes into picture really well.
- The details.
I don’t know what section to put this under so I’m just going to say details.
There are so many small things which set the scene and felt like home to me. From food descriptions, to bringing up Beary Bashe (or Beary language) which is a language here, and descriptions of Mangalore. It really helped set the mood for the book and it brought me closer to the text.
Also there were some things that are so Indian that they me hard. For example, the following quote:
“I want you to be happy,” she said. “That’s all a mother every wants.”
That was Amma’s favourite line, repeated every so often, as if she had a constant need to be absolved of guilt.
My mum is the exact same.
All these details were the reason why this book made a huge impact on me.
- A+ character growth.
Character growth is one of the major things which I look for in a book and Purple Lotus delivered in spades.
The book is entirely about Tara’s journey of self-growth. We see enough of her formative years to get a complete understanding of her character including weaknesses and buried emotions. Those flashbacks really help support her story in the current timeline where she is living in America.
I absolutely loved reading through Tara because it helped me fully understand her and relate to her. The inner thoughts and monologues were well-written and never felt out of place.
- Mental health representation.
Tara’s uncle, who was one of her primary guardians when she was younger, has schizophrenia.
Since Tara is close to her uncle, we get to see how her relationship with him is affected because of the illness. Along with that, we also see how mental illnesses are perceived in general in India. The reactions to her uncle’s illness which she doesn’t completely understand as a child have an influence on Tara’s thought processes later on.
She wondered now how he had coped with being shunned at weddings and engagements and naming ceremonies. How had he faced the madman label that preceded his arrival even during his brief periods of sanity?
The representation was great because it added so much meaning to the story without pulling the plot in a different direction.
Tara goes through so much in this book and I felt like I went through it all with her in the span of hours. And it was literally hours because I could not put the book down. I read the last 3/4ths of the book in one sitting.
I highly recommend this book. It is very thoughtful and has been written beautifully.
Also, this would be a really great book club pick because there are several parts that start discussions.