Shyam Selvadurai’s New Novel Reimagines Ancient India Through the Eyes of Buddha’s Wife

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While researching his new novel, Mansions of the Moon, author Shyam Selvadurai often felt like an archaeologist.

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The epic story is set in ancient India and follows the beginnings of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, and his young wife Yasodhara. It is rich in small details describing the food, clothing, rituals, family life and power structures of the time. Selvadurai was good friends with an archaeologist from his native Sri Lanka, who once explained the process of gleaning broader information from fragments of history uncovered during an archaeological dig. It was a conversation the author found helpful during his years of researching Mansions of the Moon.

“They dig something and say ‘OK, how are you? says Selvadurai, who will be at the Calgary Memorial Library on May 17 for a WordFest event. “Then they have to extrapolate, back off or forward.”

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Researching a historical novel is a similar process. Selvadurai would find snippets of information and small details that have been uncovered by others, then let his storytelling skills kick in.

“You can’t find all of this information,” he says. “This is where the novelist comes in. You have to extrapolate backwards and, you know, guess. But that’s what a novel can do, it can guess. You can make an educated guess.

The subject of research is obvious to Selvadurai when discussing this novel. It’s not that he hasn’t written period pieces before. His 1994 Giller-selected debut album, Funny Boy, was a coming-of-age tale about a Tamil boy set against the backdrop of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflicts in Colombo that led to the 1983 riots. His 1999 follow-up, Cinnamon Gardens, is set in the 1920s in the former British colony of Ceylon.

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But the author admits he had never before attempted anything that required the kind of extensive research he undertook for Mansions of the Moon. Although there is no shortage of scholarly studies of ancient India in the 6th century BC, there are significant gaps.

This is especially true of the characters that Selvadurai wanted to bring to the forefront of the novel. The first Buddhist text, the Pali canon, says very little about Siddhartha’s life before his spiritual journey. Even less has been said about his wife, Yasodhara, in these early texts. But his enigmatic presence portrayed later in Buddhist literature has long fascinated writers. Selvadurai, who is a practicing Buddhist, says his fascination intensified after reading Ranjini Obeyesekere’s translation of the 19th-century Sri Lankan poem Yasodhara, the Bodhisattva’s Wife.

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“I hadn’t really come across much about him,” he says. “It is almost erased from these oldest texts. Because of this, it has become a fascination for writers over the centuries. But what I love about this poem that was translated is that there was this sense of loss of being abandoned by the person you loved. I found it to be a very universal experience and I could connect with her feeling. It’s a fundamental human feeling, this fear of abandonment.

Although not a first-person account, Mansions of the Moon is largely told through Yasodhara’s eyes and traces his life with the future Buddha from their newlywed days to his return. possible after illumination. The story is set amid the power struggles and strict class structure of ancient India, but often unfolds as an intimate family drama as Selvadurai examines the dynamic between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister. Yasodhara is presented as a shrewd young woman who is devoted to her husband but struggles to understand the anguish and disillusionment that ultimately lead him to abandon her and their son for his spiritual journey. The story begins with a resentful Yasodhara learning that her husband is alive years after he disappeared from her life.

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“It’s also very Buddhist, this structure of the story in the present and then (look) how it happened? So you go back to the past,” he says. “So you know what happened, but now you look at how it happened. The “how” of it, in these Buddhist stories, in an exploration of the ideas and philosophies of Buddhism. We see how it happened and how Yasodhara deals with it. So it’s a historical novel, but it’s also a novel of ideas and an exploration of the human condition, but through the Buddhist lens. It embodies this fundamental notion of Buddhism, which is change.

Selvadurai came to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1984 at the age of 19 and settled in Scarborough, Ontario. Funny Boy and his third novel, 2013’s The Hungry Ghosts, both seemed to have autobiographical elements. Funny Boy, which also won a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Male Fiction, told the story of a boy struggling with his sexual identity. Although not directly autobiographical, it draws on the experiences of Selvadurai who grew up gay in Sri Lanka amid escalating tensions between Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil Hindu minority in the 1970s. The Hungry Ghosts, meanwhile, allowed the author to recreate the anxiety and displacement he and other immigrants experienced upon arriving from Sri Lanka in the inner circle of suburban Toronto in the 1980s.

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The Hungry Ghosts, which Selvadurai took 13 years to write, also marked an important turning point in the writer’s work. The title is taken from Buddhist mythology, specifically the idea of ​​wandering, insatiable spirits that are so driven by desire in life that they are unable to find peace after death. He also took some basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy and placed them in the context of the immigrant story, reproducing the cyclical nature of struggle and karma that is passed on as his characters entered. into a new life in Canada.

It’s part of a larger approach that Selvadurai says he will continue to take with his novels.

“It was in 2005, 2006,” he says. “That’s when I first read stories (of early Buddhists). I wanted to create a hybrid form. These stories embody, in their plots and tropes and character arcs, the concepts of Buddhism just as the Western novel embodies Judeo-Christian realities. I wanted to take the Western realist novel because it is complex and its characterization is subtle and psychological. It started for me with The Hungry Ghosts, where you have immigration, trauma, sexuality through the concept of these hungry ghost stories. But it is also a very realistic novel. It started there and continued for me. It became what I pursue now and I don’t know when it will stop.

Shyam Selvadurai will be at the Memorial Park Library on May 17 at 7 p.m. for a Wordfest event. Visit wordfest.com

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