Review: The Last Suttee

Last Suttee eBook Cover Large.png
Madhu Bazaz Wangu. CreateSpace IPP, $15, 356p. ISBN 9781974362462.

After years of research and teaching of Hindu and Buddhist art history and culture, author Madhu Bazaz Wangu presents her second novel, The Last Suttee. Through the story of Kumud, a woman director of a girl’s orphanage in India, Wangu tells a story of how just one single, driven female can change an entire community’s perspective on an established way of life.

Wangu draws her tale from the ancient Indian custom of sati, a practice which historically lead a widow to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre in order to remain a “chaste woman,” literally, a “good wife,” even in her husband’s death. Wangu uses inspiration from the popular case of Roop Kanwar, an eighteen-year old girl whose decision of sati led to official legislation against sati. While fighting personal struggles within herself, Kumud proves to be a heroine by effectively preventing a young girl’s own sati.

The Last Suttee reads to show Wangu’s obviously extensive research into not only the custom of sati, but also the everyday customs and ancient folklore surrounding the Indian culture. The novel opens with an issue of dowry, and continues with insight into popular female overlook and condemnation. Wangu has the gift of setting, and expertly keeps her stage well-described and easily imaginable for the reader.

A powerful and relevant tale of liberation from a devotional but debilitating custom, The Last Suttee is an excellent representation of how the Hindu female population has found strength to grow against a binding and deathly tradition.


From the author: Why I Wrote The Last Suttee

On the morning of September 5, 1987, I was going through the Hillman Library card catalogue at the University of Pittsburgh when a friend stopped by. She told me something I would never forget. She said that an eighteen-year-old Indian woman, named Roop Kanwar, had immolated herself on the pyre of her dead husband. I was dumbfounded. Suttee in the twentieth century? It couldn’t be. But The New York Times confirmed the news. The ritual, known as suttee, was witnessed by the townspeople and thousands more came to see it from nearby villages and towns. When the news was leaked the following day, the town was swarmed for days by Indian and international journalists. I was stunned and speechless, my legs laden with lead. At that frozen moment, the seed for this book was planted.

The kernel stayed dormant, but the incident continued to sear like a wound at the back of my mind. The distress was raw, but I was not yet emotionally ready to write about what had happened and how it had affected me. In the ensuing years, I trawled libraries, bookstores, and the Internet, learning about the history of suttee and the cultural and religious traditions in which it is rooted. I studied records of the shrines dedicated to women who had committed suttee. I read the history and mythology of the namesake goddess, spelled Sati. Critically and carefully I analyzed the photographs of Sati temples and studied the engravings, drawings, and paintings of the goddess Sati and the suttee ritual that had been made by British, European, and Indian artists and travelers.

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Suttee is a centuries-old Hindu ritual. This ancient belief still persists in some remote corners in India. The belief is if a widow cremates herself with her dead husband, the couple will live in heaven as they did on earth. Furthermore, such a sacrifice guarantees a place in heaven for seven generations for both sides of the family.The ritual is rooted in the myths of two goddesses: Sati, Shiva’s wife, and Sita, Rama’s wife. Here are summaries of the myths:

Goddess Sati is the daughter of the high priest Daksha. Shiva, the world renouncer, is so awed by her yogic skills and asceticism that he grants her a boon. Sati asks to marry him. He agrees. Daksha dislikes Shiva. He finds Shiva unconventional and unkempt. Despite her father’s opposition Sati marries Shiva and they live in his mountain abode in Himalayas. 

Daksha plans a great sacrifice. He invites all the important divine beings, except Shiva. Sati feels disgraced by the way in which her father has treated her husband. On the day of the great sacrifice, she throws herself in the fire pit meant for the sacrifice. And burns herself to death. When Shiva discovers what has happened to his wife, he is outraged. He pulls out Sati’s half-burnt body, holds it on his shoulders, and in anguish and lamentations whirls around the world. 

Goddess Sita is an ideal Hindu wife. Her husband, Rama, is the center of her life. His welfare, reputation, and wishes are most important to her. One day, the demon king Ravana abducts her and takes her to his golden palace. He lies to her that he has killed Rama. Sita is horrified. She moans and tells him that it must have been her fault that her husband was killed. She warns Ravana she could burn him to ashes with the fire of her chastity, but she won’t because she did not have her husband’s permission. 

In the end, Rama defeats Ravana and brings Sita home. There he severely tests her loyalty because she has spent days under the control of another man. Sita is shocked at such an accusation. She protests her innocence. She says she has remained wholly devoted and completely faithful to him. Rama persists. 

Grieved by his false accusation, Sita asks for a funeral pyre to prove her innocence. A pyre is built, and Sita stands atop it with hands folded. Agni, the god of fire, refuses to harm her because she is innocent and pure. She returns to Rama unscathed. Yet he banishes her to a forest. 

Sati and Sita are faithful and chaste wives, and they are devoted to their husbands. The lives of these goddesses are defined by their husbands. Although their dedication and chastity are exemplary, they pay a heavy price for being wives. In both myths, fire plays an important role. Whereas Sati voluntarily kills herself, Sita is saved by Agni. Their god/husbands are alive when the women jump into the sacrificial pit or on the funeral pyre. But ordinary women’s lives are no myths. When a woman is forced into being a suttee, neither her husband nor the god of fire will save her.

The suttee ritual was outlawed by British Raj in 1829. The ritual was described as “heinous rite” when cases surfaced about widows being tied to their husband’s pyre even after being intoxicated with bhang or opium. Many reports of widows escaping and being rescued by strangers were also recorded. Still, more than a century later, scattered instances of the custom have been reported, such as Savitri Soni’s in 1973 and Charan Shah’s in 1999.

The most notorious and controversial case, however, was of Roop Kanwar. Indian people either publicly defended Roop’s action or declared that she had been murdered. Following the outcry that followed Roop Kanwar’s suttee, the government of India enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance on October 1, 1987. The law makes it not only illegal to commit suttee but also illegal to glorify the ritual or coerce a woman to commit suttee. Glorification includes erecting a shrine to honor the dead woman or converting the place where immolation took place into a pilgrimage site. Derivation of any income from such activities is also banned. The law makes no distinction between a passive observer and an active promoter. Everyone is held equally guilty.

The seed for writing a book inspired by Roop Kanwar’s suttee finally sprouted in November 2009, when I wrote its first draft as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a nonprofit internet organization that supports writers in an effort to complete the initial draft of a novel in one month.

It would take me seven more years to finalize the draft.

The story continued to incubate. I developed the characters, sketched the settings, wrote the narrative and dialogue. But to birth a healthy novel and bring it to life, I had to experience the environment in which Roop Kanwar was born, lived, and died. I needed to converse with the people who allowed it to happen. I wanted to know the antagonist and protagonist’s viewpoints.

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I visited India for a month in 2013 for that purpose. I went to the small towns of Deorala, where Roop Kanwar committed suttee, and Jhunjhunu, home of an imposing marble temple dedicated to faithful women who sacrifice their young lives immediately after their husbands’ deaths. The visit stirred feelings of remorse and wonder. Why did people celebrate sacrificial death? How does blind faith hide behind the stunning structure? Domestic and temple architecture, middle and high schools, ancient mansions with bedroom walls made of mirror-mosaics (some now converted to five-star hotels) were breathtakingly beautiful. The local flora and fauna were intriguing, and men and women’s attire colorful. I fell in love with the place. But I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was there to fulfill a quest, to do something about an event that jolted the core of my being.

Meeting with the people of Deorala opened my mind to the fact that a community’s worldview can be so different from my own. Yet my sorrow and awe about Roop Kanwar and my feelings about other widows like her were not alleviated by talking to Roop’s father-in-law, her brother-in-law and his wife, or their neighbors. Nor did I blame them after visiting her neglected and unkempt suttee site. However, the visit helped me better understand the point of view of the town residents. A magnificent temple dedicated to the goddess Sati, which locals honor and regard highly, further clarified their worldview.

My interview with Roop Kanwar’s father-in-law took place in the verandah outside the room where Roop lived with her husband. This was the room where she dressed herself in bridal attire and decked herself in jewelry before following her husband’s dead body to the cremation site. The room has been turned into a shrine, and Roop has become an ishtadevi, a manifestation of Narayani Satimata, a local goddess higher in the pantheon of the thousands of village goddesses of India.

When I asked to go to where Roop performed suttee, her father-in-law declined to walk along, but he did ask other men to take me there. I treaded the path that evidently Roop Kanwar, most probably intoxicated with bhang, walked with the help of two women. They followed her husband’s litter, which four male relatives carried. I was told a lamenting crowd of men, women, and children followed the dead body and Roop as they headed toward her husband’s funeral pyre.

Facing the desolate ground where the ritual had taken place twenty-six years earlier, I shed tears of pain for an eighteen-year-old who didn’t know better, and who no one came to rescue.

The characters in this novel are fictional, but the setting is historic. Writing it does not feel like redemption, for I still ache for the women of the world who are engulfed in outmoded traditions, who are uneducated and dependent. Women with so much potential to offer their families, their communities, and, most importantly, to themselves.

Undoubtedly, the world over, women have made tremendous progress. Yet, the path to elevating women’s social status has many roadblocks, and the process is slow. I sincerely hope The Last Suttee not only helps remove a block or two but also adds substance to the process of change.


About Madhu Bazaz Wangu

Madhu Bazaz Wangu is an author, artist, world-traveler, and the founder of the Mindful Writers Group. She was a professor of arts and religions of India before becoming a full-time writer. She has a doctorate in the Phenomenology of Religions from the University of Pittsburgh, and a post-doctoral fellowship from the Harvard University. Over twenty-five years, Wangu has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College in Pennsylvania, Wellesley and Wheaton Colleges in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island College.

In 1997, Dr. Wangu voyaged around the world with students and faculty members from various American universities for the Semester-at-Sea program. She loved the experience so much, that each year she has been revisiting places of historical significance in different countries, observing the cultures, meeting the people, and enjoying their cuisine.

In 2010, Dr. Wangu founded the Mindful Writers Group, and in 2015, she started a second group. Dr. Wangu encourages writers of all levels and genres to delve deeper in their work by body-mind-heart meditation. Her album, Meditations for Mindful Writers, was released in 2011. Dr. Wangu also guides writers in meditation and writing marathons. Twice each year, Mindful Writers Groups gather for writing retreats where groups practice sitting and walking meditations surrounded by nature in-between long writing sessions.

Madhu B. Wangu has published four books and numerous essays on Hindu and Buddhist goddesses and Indian religions. She has held five one-person art exhibitions in India and the US. Her collection, Chance Meetings: Stories About Cross-Cultural Collisions and Compassion, was published in 2015, and her debut novel, The Immigrant Wife: Her Spiritual Journey, was published in 2016. Currently, Dr. Wangu is writing a guidebook for mindful writing.

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Now available!
Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com   Barnes and Noble   Kobo   iBooks

“A stunning story of one woman’s struggle to stop the ritual of suttee. The novel weaves centuries old traditions with the stark march toward twenty-first century. It progresses with surprising plot twists, a ticking clock, and stubborn and powerful antagonist who challenges the protagonist, Kumud, to stand up to the orthodox and close-minded community”  – Bestselling author, Kathleen Shoop

Read an excerpt HERE

 

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Release: Uncanny



Uncanny
Sarah Fine
Published by: Skyscape
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Thriller, Young Adult

Two sisters. One death. No memories.

Cora should remember every detail about the night her stepsister, Hannah, fell down a flight of stairs to her death, especially since her Cerepin—a sophisticated brain-computer interface—may have recorded each horrifying moment. But when she awakens after that night, her memories gone, Cora is left with only questions—and dread of what the answers might mean.

When a downward spiral of self-destruction forces Cora to work with an AI counselor, she finds an unexpected ally, even as others around her grow increasingly convinced that Hannah’s death was no accident. As Cora’s dark past swirls chaotically with the versions of Hannah’s life and death that her family and friends want to believe, Cora discovers the disturbing depths of what some people may do—including herself.

With her very sanity in question, Cora is forced to face her greatest fear. She will live or die by what she discovers.

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Excerpt from Uncanny:

I did not anticipate the wind. on the sidewalk, it made jackets flap and leaves rustle. Seven stories up, it threatens to throw me right over the edge.

Is that what I want?

I’m not good at knowing what I want—that’s what she said to me, and it turns out she was right. This will be my last decision, and it could be my worst or my best, but I don’t know if it will be something I want.

But wanting isn’t relevant now.

My shoes scrape over cement as i stand on the roof’s ledge. I am battered. Faltering. My arms are out, my fingers splayed. I turn around and face the school’s security cannies, who have formed a semicircle around me on the roof as they slowly approach. outdated, outmoded, neo-plastic skin, expressionless. They are here to stop me, or at least detain me until emergency services reach us, but like me, they are not immune to gravity. If I go over, they can’t save me.

They’re programmed to save me. They won’t feel a thing if they fail, though. They can’t. That’s the difference between us.

Looking at their blank eyes fills me with a sense of the inevitable.

I can’t remember not existing, whatever happened before I became me. I don’t think it hurt, not like this. Perhaps I’m wrong, though. Maybe I’ve been here before.

I crane my neck to see past the machine men, searching for the one face I need, one I know I’ve already seen for the last time. She isn’t here. Of course she isn’t. She can’t be.

I want to see her one last time. After everything I did, she wouldn’t look at me with anything other than sorrow or maybe hate or pity. But still, I want to see her.

There. That’s one thing I know I want. even if it were relevant, it still doesn’t matter. I inch back a little. It would be easier for the wind to take me. I’d prefer that over doing this myself. But the cannies keep getting closer, and the wind is still now. Unhelpful.

“This is my choice,” I say loudly. “I’m doing this of my own free will.”

Is this what she wanted? I think this might be what she wanted.

It’s all tangled up in her, and she’s not here. I’ll never see her again. I’ll never see her again, and it’s because of the choices I made.

Free will.

Want.

I close my eyes. It’s time.


About the Author

Sarah Fine was born on the West Coast, raised in the Midwest, and is now firmly entrenched on the East Coast. When she’s not writing, she’s working as a child psychologist. No, she is not psychoanalyzing you right now.

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Cover Reveal: ISAN

ISAN
Mary Ting
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction, Young Adult

The world has changed.

Scientists warned it would happen.

Meteors devastated the Earth. World Governments developed plans to help surviving citizens. The United States disbanded and salvageable land was divided into four quadrants—North, South, East, and West—governed by The Remnant Council.

Struggling to survive, seventeen-year-old Ava ends up in juvenile detention, until she is selected for a new life—with a catch. She must be injected with an experimental serum. The results will be life changing. The serum will make her better. To receive the serum Ava agrees to join a program controlled by ISAN, the International Sensory Assassin Network.

While on a training mission, she is abducted by a rebel group led by a guy named Rhett, and is told that not only does she have a history with him, but her entire past is a lie perpetuated by ISAN to ensure her compliance. Unsure of who to trust, Ava must decide if her strangely familiar and handsome captor is her enemy or her savior—and time is running out.

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Author Bio:

International Bestselling Author Mary Ting/M. Clarke resides in Southern California with her husband and two children. She enjoys oil painting and making jewelry. Writing her first novel, Crossroads Saga, happened by chance. It was a way to grieve the death of her beloved grandmother, and inspired by a dream she once had as a young girl. When she started reading new adult novels, she fell in love with the genre. It was the reason she had to write one – Something Great. Why the pen name, “M. Clarke”? She tours with Magic Johnson Foundation to promote literacy and her children’s chapter book, No Bullies Allowed.

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Release: An Impossible World

An Impossible World
S.P. Cervantes
Publication date: July 25, 2017
Genres: Adult, Dystopian, Romance


What would happen if terrorism spread and hate took over? What would the world become?

Isabella (Belle) Grey trained throughout her entire adult life to protect those around her –training that would prove invaluable in her quest to make a new life. Forced to live in an impossible world, terror was not only right outside the walls of her protected community, but also raging behind the walls of her very own home.

No longer willing to put up with her husband’s drunken abuse, Belle made the desperate decision to run away from the safety of her community and escape alone into the broken world beyond. Chased by death as bombs exploded in the distance, her next decision might not only save her life, but could potentially bring light back into her darkened soul.

When faced with the impossible, Belle found strength in an unsuspecting stranger who set her path in a new direction – one she never considered.

Fear. Love. Revenge. Strength … all come together in this epic tale of fate and survival.

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S.P. Cervantes is the author of the acclaimed contemporary romance series, A Broken Fairy Tale series. S.P. is also the author of the highly-rated young adult romantic fantasy trilogy, Secrets of Shadow Hill, that has been described as, “Twilight meets Harry Potter.” It’s not your typical romantic fantasy.

S.P Cervantes lives in Orange County, California with her husband and three children, where she is a teacher. She enjoys spending time with her family, writing, reading, and running, but is always thinking of an idea for her next novel.

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Release: The Ghost King

Happy Monday, y’all! Today, it’s Jeff Altabef’s latest book, The Ghost King!

Who are Aaliss and Wilky, and why are they going to war? Will there be more magic and mayhem, like in Altabef’s first book, The Red Death (which won a Pinnacle Book Achievement Award in Science Fiction last fall, FYI)? One of the best parts of this release is that you can get both books for only 99 cents each this week!


An Ancient Prophecy foretold.
An Evil haunts the land.
A battle looms against overwhelming odds.

Led by a powerful witch, a wild invading army threatens to tear the Soulless lands apart. To survive, the three tribes must join together, but old grievances and hatred divide them. Only Wilky can unite them, but when he glimpses the future, he sees only a glimmer of hope; too much of the future remains veiled in darkness.
As the battle approaches, King Dermot orders his brother, Eamon, to stay behind at the Stronghold and defend against a possible siege. Eamon, who took an oath to fight the invaders, defies his brother, risks everything, and plunges into a desperate race with Aaliss and Wilky to unite the tribes.

Enemies from all sides conspire against them. Only together can they hope to succeed against the witch who will stop at nothing to destroy them. Yet, even united, they will need magic to defeat this enemy at their door.

As the battle looms, only one chance at survival remains – the Ghost King – but who is he, and what will be the price of their redemption?


What else is so great about this release? This exclusive excerpt! There are 5 featured excerpts on this tour: one on the Novel Publicity page, one on Jeff Altabef’s website, and 3 spread among the 20+ blogs that have helped Jeff with this release!

Chapter 4

Rage pulsed through Cassian. He wanted to kill them all, but his brother was right. There were too many warriors, and the rumble of the war band in the distance only grew louder.

Max pulled an arrow from his quiver, but Cassian grabbed him and yanked him behind a pine tree. His young cousin squirmed, but Cassian held him back with one arm as his head cleared.

Lucian frowned. “We can’t wait around here. We need to run back to the horse.”

The horsemen had regained their confidence now that the arrows had stopped flying. Three galloped toward the forest, shouting and pointing as they rode. Luckily, they didn’t know where to look and had guessed wrong.

If they stayed there, the horsemen would find them—and soon.

“Come on.” Lucian raced into the forest.

Cassian tossed Max over his shoulder and ran after him, sprinting away from the approaching horsemen, the smoke, and his dead cousin. Using his hunter’s instincts, he ran quietly, passing trees in a green blur. He scooted under branches, leapt over roots, and cut around hedges and tall grasses. Sweat drenched his shirt as he churned his legs hard.

He stopped when they reached the ghost tree where they had tied the horse. They had brought only one.

He dropped Max to the ground and listened for the sound of approaching horses, but he only heard normal forest sounds coupled with their own heavy breathing. Once he was sure no one had followed them, he dropped to his knees and winced as the image of the axe beheading his cousin played in his mind.

How could they kill her? She was defenseless.


About the Author

Jeff Altabef is an award-winning author who lives in New York with his wife, two daughters, and Charlie the dog. He spends time volunteering at the writing center at his local community college. After years of being accused of “telling stories,” he thought he would make it official, and Altabef now writes in both the thriller and young adult genres. Fourteenth Colony, a political thriller, was his debut novel. Evolved Publishing has published Jeff’s second thriller, Shatter Point, which won the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award for Fall 2014 in the category of Best Thriller. Jeff’s first young adult novel, Wind Catcher: A Chosen Novel, will be published in March by Evolved Publishing. He’s extremely excited that his daughter, Erynn Altabef, is his co-author of The Chosen Series. As an avid Knicks fan, Jeff is prone to long periods of melancholy during hoops season. Jeff has a column with The Examiner focused on writing, and a blog designed to encourage writing by those that like telling stories.

You can follow Jeff on Facebook, Twitter, or join his newsletter!