Picture contemporary India, where popular star Kamala Kumari is also a member of the Devadasi caste, an ancient cult operating in modern times, dedicated to having girls placed in South Indian temples to serve gods and men. Kamala’s modern world seems to preclude such activities; but she becomes caught between tradition and romance in The Last Devadasi, a story set in the 1970s which follows Kamala’s complicated triangle.
The first thing to note about this novel is that it is steeped in the sights, smells, and sounds of Indian culture. Powerfully written descriptions bring a sense of place and familiarity with Kumari’s world into the average Westerner’s home: “This neighborhood is called Thousand Lights. It is where the Mohammedan people live. There is a special sweet store here I have brought you to try, but first, let us have kabobs.” Salomé led her to a smoking grill where a man wearing a white cap was turning over sticks with meat on them. They paid two rupees for kabobs dripping with onions and vinegar. In the sweet shop, Salomé ordered kulfi ice sweets. A boy, also wearing a white cap, handed them cold pale squares that appeared to be wrapped in silver paper, with tiny silver balls on top. “What is this? Do I remove the silver?” Celeste held the cold square in her hand. “No, you eat it all.” She bit into the flat cake, icy almost slippery and tongue-tingling sweet. Pistachios crunched within the cool hardness. She almost swooned from the pleasure of it.”
Another notable strength is Kumari’s encounters with servant Celeste, Celeste’s growing enlightenment about other lifestyles and choices, and the intersections between film star and everyday lifestyles.
The “old ways” are nicely juxtaposed against contemporary habits and thinking as the characters encounter, interact with one another, and are changed by these relationships and the new ideas they bring: “The Hindus are strange to me as well, as if I came from another country,” Celeste said. “I have seen the very old and peaceful Souers who didn’t fear death but they would have been terrified if in death their clothes were to be removed for all to see.”
As each learns about the various cultures, spiritual, and social changes of India, their own experiences, expectations and backgrounds come into play as the plot winds through movie sets, Indian weddings and celebrations, hard-working Kamala’s world, and the destiny and decisions she faces.
Each character brings a different angle into the story, from Kamala’s relationship with Jules and the marriage taboo that keeps Kamala from a full relationship with him to classical dancer Tanjore Balasaraswati, a real, great South Indian dancer with whom Barbara L. Baer had personal acquaintance.
Readers seeking a story based in India but filled with flavors of past and present will find The Last Devadasi a powerful read that draws important, thought-provoking connections between spirituality, relationships between men and women, and the kinds of institutions that keep old beliefs alive; sometimes beyond their relevance to contemporary experience.