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Bellingham novelist’s debut combines intrigue, spiritual renewal

“Sacred River” by Debu Majumdar

As we approach the year’s end, we have the opportunity to reflect on the events that have shaped us over the past 365 days, and to look forward with our plans and dreams to the year that lies ahead.

“Sacred River: A Himalayan Journey” is a debut novel that does that too, although in a context that many of us would consider exotic. Author Debu Majumdar is an India-born physicist who has started writing in his mature years and now splits his time between Idaho Falls and Bellingham. Majumdar has tapped into his experience as a first-generation Indian-American to create this story, which shares some of the complexities of Indian culture while also considering more universal themes of meaning and belonging.

“Sacred River” introduces us to characters whose individual narratives are woven together as they all approach Gangotri, the temple built to mark the source of the Ganges River, which is considered supremely holy in the Hindu tradition.

Jagdish is an illiterate farmer who, as an old man, is making the pilgrimage to Gangotri; he has never been so far away from his home and family.

Chetti is a hard-driving fundraising strategist for the Sarva Mangal Society – the Society for the Wellbeing of All People. The SMS is a nonprofit that is working to improve conditions for India’s impoverished classes by removing social barriers, providing education, and fighting unjust practices. The demand for these services is overwhelming, particularly since corruption is prevalent throughout Indian society and Indian bureaucracy is slow-moving.

Impatient to make more of an impact, Chetti conceives of a plan to repurpose gold that is rumored to be in the holdings of the temple at Gangotri. He develops a multi-pronged action plan and endeavors to flatter Swami Rangaraj, one of the temple’s senior monks, into facilitating this scheme.

Halfway across the world, meanwhile, Sovik is planning a return to India after decades away. Although born to an East Bengal family that fled to Calcutta as Hindu refugees following the political turmoil that led to the formation of Bangladesh, Sovik had come to the United States for college and never looked back. He went on to earn his PhD, married his American college sweetheart, Pinky, moved to the western U.S., and started a family while building his career in the high-stress world of nuclear energy. But after a heart attack that left him hospitalized for three weeks, Sovik finds himself longing to return to the land of his birth to visit his siblings who still live there, and to journey to Gangotri in search of renewal.

Just as many tributaries feed into the Ganges to make it one of the mightiest rivers in the world, Majumdar gathers these primary story threads with additional subplots, Indian legends and episodes from India’s recent history to pour into “Sacred River.”

This sharply observed and richly imagined combination of travelogue, intrigue and philosophical contemplation results in a truly stimulating tale.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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