In search of The Pagoda Tree: a four-part series

by Claire Scobie

Over the next four weeks I’m writing about the process I went through thinking, dreaming, researching and writing my novel, The Pagoda Tree (Penguin). Set in eighteenth-century India, this is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancer, or devadasi, named Maya whose life is transformed by the arrival of the British.

Henna hands_Claire Scobie

After my first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, was published I suffered from second book syndrome. As with many first-time authors, my first book, a travel memoir, was a labour of love, a story I felt compelled to write because of my years going back and forth to Tibet and my friendship with a wandering Tibetan nun.

I knew I wanted to set my next work in India and to focus on Indian women’s stories. Ever since 1997 when I lived and worked as a freelance journalist there for a year, I’ve been travelling regularly to the sub-continent. I explored several ideas; none had the juice to sustain me. Then I happened to read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Prestige but a memory for last of courtesans’. It struck a chord.

This told the story of a family of devadasis from Peddapuram, in southern Andhra Pradesh, who were taught to dance, sing and entertain the local elite rulers. It introduced nineteen-year-old Durga and her mother, Kumari, who described how women like them were once ‘heroines, stars’. Today, Peddapuram has a reputation for a flourishing sex industry. Without any patronage, these women have been forced to turn to prostitution to make a living and Durga, the last of her generation, suffers from HIV AIDS. As soon as I read this, I wanted to discover why and how these women – once esteemed artists, dancers and scholars – now face a life of apparent abjection.

Statue of devadsi_Claire ScobieInitially I planned to write a non-fiction book, exploring the historical trajectory of this figure from a celebrated holder of knowledge to sex worker. But I didn’t want to write something that would see my subjects as ultimately doomed. What interested me was that, prior to the nineteenth-century, before the Victorian social reform movement and moralising Christian missions, these high-caste women were the celebrities of their day. Through successive legislation, which forbade the generational inheritance of land or property from mother to daughter, their ancient connection to the temples was severed. In 1947, the devadasi institution was abolished. Today there are virtually no devadasis left and they have an ambiguous reputation in Indian society, where they are usually dismissed as prostitutes.

These women intrigued me because they operated between the spheres of sacredness, culture and sensuality – a common phenomenon in India but less so in Europe where sex and religion do not co-exist easily. While compared to the geishas of Japan, the devadasis have no parallel in the West and are unique to the religious and cultural life of south India.

As part of my research, I watched Michael Wood’s BBC series, The Story of India. Wood takes a journey to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, visiting the Brihadeshwara or ‘Big Temple’ built by Raja Raja the Great in the eleventh-century. Situated below the Cauvery delta, the fertile rice bowl of southern India, Thanjavur at its height, was a crucible of artistic and cultural brilliance, renown for sculpture, dance, music and poetry. After paying homage at the giant Shiva lingam, the British journalist walks through the temple courtyards and then the camera pans up to an exterior wall of a shrine, inscribed with rows of Tamil writing. Wood explains that all the names and addresses of the temple staff, including 400 dancing girls who were brought there for its inauguration in 1010, are etched there. Later that year, I went to Thanjavur to see them for myself.

Thanjavur temple_Claire ScobieAs a historian before a journalist, I loved the fact that the presence of these women is still evident today: in the inscriptions and carvings, in frescoes and sculptures. I spent time wandering around the temple, a living, breathing institution where pilgrims still flock in vermillion, lemon and mandarin saris as they did centuries ago. While there, the idea for my novel began to germinate.

I am used to following the breadcrumbs of an idea for a story. When I worked in India, I would hole up in a guesthouse with my battered laptop and research stories to see where they took me. Sometimes the leads turned out to be false, or detours came to nothing. At other times I would meet the right people at the right time and the story seemed to have a life of its own.

But there are major differences between investigating an article and a book: the amount of stuff you need to know and how long it takes to find out. I adopted a multi-pronged approach: researching online, in books and through libraries, and the ol’ journalistic trick of following my nose. When I was in Thanjavur I also made contact with a local reporter from The Hindu and through him, set up interviews. I met scholars, local historians, archivists and dancers. I also had tea with a prince, but more of that encounter next week.

I soon realised that there was a lack of source material about temple dancers. Colonial archives have been very successful at keeping the voices of native women out and curtailing their agency. Gradually I made the transition – in my head to start with, and then on paper – from non-fiction to fiction. In many ways, writing Last Seen in Lhasa which draws upon fictional techniques – creating character and a story arc – prepared me for the transition. Still, it was challenging. It’s like going from playing one or two instruments to conducting an entire orchestra.

At first I clung on to what I knew. My journalist’s training and a historian’s need for facts kicked in. As I began to sink into the process, I understood that the lack of sources allowed greater historical imagining. Then the writing process became surprisingly liberating. Fiction requires greater surrender; the unknown must become your friend. You, as the writer, need to step out of the way. Only then can the characters emerge: fleeting glimpses, a fragment, a single image on the page.

CS1 2The Pagoda Tree