Tanjore, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples of this ancient city in the heart of southern India. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple. It is expected she will be chosen as a courtesan for the prince himself. But as Maya comes of age, India is on the cusp of change and British dominance has risen to new heights. The prince is losing his power and the city is sliding into war. Maya is forced to flee her ancestral home, and heads to the bustling port city of Madras, where East and West collide.
Far from home the East India Company is acting like a country in its own right and the British troops are more of a rabble than the King’s army.
Into this world steps Maya who captivates all who watch her dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune is entranced from the moment he first sees her.
But their love is forbidden, and comes at enormous cost.
'A novel to be savoured … Its layering, the unravelling of the story, the subtext of the fortunes made and lost on cotton and silk, the evocative descriptions of saris themselves are all part of [its] tapestry.' Candida Baker in the Sydney Morning Herald
‘Women’s stories are rarely told in history, nor particularly honoured. The Pagoda Tree offers a powerful, sensual perspective on a time of great transformation in India.’ Sarah Macdonald, author of Holy Cow
‘Claire Scobie’s seductive prose and immaculate layering of period detail capture India at her most exotic.’ Susan Kurosawa, The Australian travel editor & author of Coronation Talkies
'A rich and enthralling story handled with great skill by someone with a profound understanding of her material.' David Roach, screenwriter and film director, Beneath Hill 60 & Red Obsession
'[The Pagoda Tree] offers new ways of seeing the past.' Canberra Times
'A story told with great panache.' Country Style
The Pagoda Tree was briefly available in Australia, where it was well received. You can no longer buy a copy in the shops. Through Unbound, this could change and the novel now has a chance to reach a new audience in the UK and around the world.
N.B Shipping to Australia costs £20
Maya stopped when she saw the splashes of blood around the well. They were fresh. Ants were already gathering around one drop, vivid red against the grey paving stones in the courtyard. Forgetting what she'd come for, she followed the trail through the kitchen and into the bedroom. In the shadows, her aunt Sita was crouching in a sari, knees pulled to her chest. When she saw Maya, she raised her hand.
'Leave me. Go and check on Leela.'
'Shall I get word to Amma?'
Sita shook her head, her eyes dull.
Maya turned and ran. Reaching up on tiptoe, her fingers searched for the clay cup on the ledge. Carefully she filled it from the pitcher of water. Her aunt was sitting up when Maya returned with the cup. Sweat beaded her upper lip and Maya saw a dark stain on the front of the sari. A sweet metallic smell rose up, turning Maya's stomach.
'You're a good girl,' said her aunt. 'Now take your cousin outside.'
Maya hesitated. She wanted to ask what was wrong but feared the answer. Leela's shrill cry rang out from down the passageway. Maya turned to go to her before her wails woke the neighbours.
And then it was another day, and Maya was sitting in the corner of the courtyard, poking a stick between the cracks of the stones to see if she could unearth any beetles.
'She's nine years old. She's ready.' Her mother was sitting on a low stool with a grinding stone in front of her.
'We should wait until next year,' said Sita, sifting through a basket of snake beans.
'I can't wait that long,' Lakshmi said.
'Sister, akka. You know what was said at the child's birth.'
'You worry about your Leela and I'll make the decisions for Maya.'
'You talk as if I've never had a say in her upbringing.' Sita snapped a bean in half.
'Maya, you want to start dancing lessons, don't you?' Lakshmi called out.
Maya walked over to the two women. Sometimes she wondered if it wouldn't be better to have a mother and father. But her mother, her amma, always said husbands weren't worth bothering with. She stared down at her palms. 'I do want to dance.'
Lakshmi nodded approvingly.
'It's not the dancing that's the issue.' Sita patted the ground next to her and Maya sat down. 'It's everything that comes with it.'
Maya watched the muscles of her mother's jaw tighten. From the temple she heard the beating of drums, calling the women to prayer.
'Rao thinks she's ready. Uma too.'
Sita frowned. 'You've been to see him?'
'I told Rao I don't want to let the flesh wither on the branch before it has blossomed in the hand.'
Maya stretched out her skinny legs. Her knees were bony and one had a scab where she'd tripped over. She started to pick at the dry crusty edge.
'He agreed,' Lakshmi lied, throwing a handful of rice on the grinder. 'He said he'd check his Panchangam for an auspicious date for the initiation.'
Beneath the outer layer, the wound was pink and raw. Maya pressed it to see if it still stung. Not much. Not nearly as much as the fire-iron the priests would use during the ceremony. Some girls fainted before it touched their skin. A few soiled their clothes. Not Mother, though. She'd been strong during her initiation. Just like I will be, Maya thought, pressing the scab harder. I won't cry.
The sisters never let Maya out of their sight. The furthest she could go alone was to the banyan tree opposite their house on West Main Road. It was huge and shady with low branches and tangled roots hanging down like a curtain. Halfway up the main trunk was an old man's face in the burl and Maya felt safe there when she played. Their house was one of those owned by the Big Temple for the devadasis, the women married to the temple gods, whose duty it was to serve, care and dance for them. Inside were two living rooms that doubled as bedrooms, a small shrine room, and along the passageway from the koodam – the pillared hall – a simple kitchen. This led into a walled courtyard at the back. Maya liked the house when it was filled with the rustle of saris and tinkling anklets, the crackling of conversation and full-bellied laughter of women. When Sita and Leela were away, and it was just her amma, her mother, and her, the silence and dark walls pressed down.
In the season of Karttikai, in November, the weather was starting to cool. There were no festivals at the Big Temple so the women had only to perform their daily duties. Lakshmi was there at dawn to wash and dress the statue of Shiva, and offer the kumbarti, the sacred lamp.
After Maya finished her prayers, she was left to roam the enclosed temple grounds. It was there, parading up and down the shady corridors, practising the dance moves Amma had taught her, that her dreams took flight. She imagined she was leading a royal procession. The dancing girls carved in the walls were her attendants; the warrior kings were her suitors. The fantastical animals – half-men, half-beasts – were her private army, and she was queen of them all.
Most days Maya liked nothing better than to sit in the courtyard at home, staring up at the scaly branches of the frangipani tree and at the stripy palm squirrel as it edged along the wall. Her lime-green blouse and long cotton skirt hung limp in the afternoon heat. From inside she heard humming. Finding a shady spot, she waited.
Sita came out, Leela asleep against her chest. Carefully, she laid her in a cloth sling hanging from a branch. Maya stood up and stared down at Leela's small round face. They had the same square nose and wide brow. Sita began to rock her, cooing softly under her breath.
'Is that what you used to do when I was little?' Maya asked, peeling herself a small banana.
'Yes, and sing lullabies.'
'Did Amma sing too?'
'Yes.' She reached across and cupped Maya's face. 'Don't look so anxious.'
On the wall opposite, the squirrel sat on its haunches and gave a high-pitched trill.
'How much does it hurt?' Maya asked.
For a moment Sita looked confused. Then she said, 'The branding, you mean?'
Maya nodded, squishing the last bit of banana between her fingers.
'I won't lie to you. It is painful. Have you ever put your finger too close to a flame? It's worse than that.'
Maya's eyes flared.
'You have to see it as a great honour. You are offering your body to Shiva.' She lowered her voice, gesturing with her thumb to the neighbour's wall behind. 'Think of her. A common householder married for life to a husband like that.'
'Snake man, you mean?'
Sita rocked back on her heels, her mouth cracking open. 'Is that what you call him?'
'Yes.' Maya began to giggle. 'He looks like one, don't you think?'
Sita was covering her mouth now, as if embarrassed by the wideness of her luminous smile. 'Ssssh. She might hear.'
'She probably calls him that herself.'
'Or worse.' Her aunt looked thoughtful. 'I think your mother's right. By having the initiation now, you'll be able to start training.'
'Then why did you say I should wait?'
'It's a feeling I had, that's all. These rites of passage are so important.' Bending down, she picked up a fallen frangipani blossom. 'It's like this flower. The tree doesn't need to be told when its flowers are ready to fall, they just do. That's why we do everything according to the planets and cycles of the moon. Why we check the almanac to ensure the day is auspicious.' Sita twirled the flower between her thumb and forefinger. 'Everything has its time.'
'When I think about it, I feel scared.'
'Don't think about it then.' She squeezed Maya's hand. 'I've always believed in you.'
Maya felt herself expand inside. She wanted to be gathered up in Auntie's tight embrace – more fierce, more caring than her own mother's. Then the moment passed, and Sita rose to her feet, leaving Maya to play.
Since The Pagoda Tree was published I’ve been making a real effort to focus on finishing my new novel. I’m excited to say it’s going well. Here’s how I’ve been able to stay on track.
Lots of people said nice things to me at my London book launch but the nicest thing had nothing to do with my book.
Jane Smith, a librarian from Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba, Australia, happened to be in London that night so I asked her to come along. I’d met Jane back in May when I went to Concordia as part of a team with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) to create a book with…
You know when a book has legs, when it pops up in unexpected places.
Please comment with a photo of you with your copy — the more exotic the locale the better!
I can’t just rest on my laurels with The Pagoda Tree.
But I have to admit, promoting one book can feel like a big distraction from the real stuff… writing! I’m a great believer in immersion in a writing project to really make headway with it – especially when you’ve lost your way.
Here’s how a month in Switzerland helped me get re-inspired.
This week, as India celebrated 70 years of independence from the British, I've written a piece suggesting there's an alternative lens to view the history of the two nations. A history not solely defined by the Raj, but one that evolved during a window in the mid-eighteenth century before British rule became entrenched. I’d even argue that to fully understand 1947, you…
I can’t believe it’s been two months since the launch. How time flies! Since then I’ve been doing all I can to promote the book. I’ve also put together a little Facebook album from launch night. Head here to relive those amazing moments when the violinist Nandini Muthuswamy’s notes soared high, filling Daunt’s with — probably it’s first ever — experience of south Indian Carnatic music.
So, here it is, the big reveal! The book that you all funded and helped made real now exists, it’s real, it’s gorgeous and the rich red-wine cover invites you in. Thank you so much for your patience and support.
I spent yesterday afternoon signing books at the Unbound offices in London and they will be on their way to you very soon. I can't wait to hear what you think. And by the way, they look…
I'm getting very excited ahead of the UK launch of The Pagoda Tree. In fact, I bought my launch frock today – so now I'm officially ready.
Just in case any of you don't still know, it's going to be at:
83 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4QW
From: 6.30 – 8.00 p.m. Wednesday, 7 June
There will be a very special performance by Indian virtuoso violinist, NANDINI MUTHUSWAMY on…
In The Pagoda Tree my main character Maya is born into the world of higher caste Indian courtesans. Little did I know that in the early 19th century they were trailblazers in the new world of cinema. Read on to learn more...
... Here’s a review I did for the Sydney Morning Herald about The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon. This is a profound novel about post-Glasnost Russia.
There are lots of things that stop us writing. A common one is fear. I remember hearing Cheryl Strayed talk about her work and the issue of self-censorship. Her novel ‘Wild’ is about how she walked 1,770 km along the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 1995; her mother had died and Strayed’s life was imploding. When it was published in 2012, ‘Wild’ quickly went on to The New York Times Best…
A book can take a long time to write, so it’s important to have the right people around you. The difference between success and failure is making sure you have a supportive team. Here are my top 5 allies.
1. My writing buddy. This is the person who reads my work & gives me constructive feedback. She also sometimes gives me a proverbial kick when I’ve slackened off.
2. My family. They put up with…
Drum roll… The UK crowdfunded edition of 'The Pagoda Tree' is now slated for release on June 8, 2017. Woo hoo! The final deadline to pledge and have your name featured in the book is midnight GMT (London time) on November 21, that's a week today.
Thank you so much to everyone who has already pledged. If you know any fellow book lovers who you think would like their names included in the back of…
Here the great doyenne of writing speaketh. Need I say more.
My first book Last Seen in Lhasa took 9 years to write, involved seven trips to Tibet and untold hours revising the manuscript. Ten years on, it’s hard to believe my award-winning memoir is celebrating its 10th birthday. I still get emails from readers who’ve read — and loved — it and who ask about the other main character in the book: Ani, the Tibetan nun.
When I recently announced the book’s…
Hello lovely Unbounders! Exciting news. The Pagoda Tree is now in pre-production. This means the team is working on new artwork for the novel and I’m currently re-reading it. Normally I never re-read the books I write. I know some authors do. The travel writer Walter Mason (Destination Saigon) told me he likes re-reading his books and still laughs at his own jokes! David Malouf on the other hand says…
Time for another big thank you to all the generous supporters who’ve helped me get ‘The Pagoda Tree’ over the line by my 30 June deadline. Woo hoo! Sending you all virtual hugs and thumbs up and arm waving jiggy dances and lots of namastes. Together WE did it! Look forward to seeing all these new names of supporters at the back – with more to come. Stuart Reid, Robert Bluck, Joel Victoria, Jimmy Anderson…
During April, I headed to Varuna the Writers' House in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney to knuckle down for two weeks and work on the first draft of my new novel set in France (sorry, not sharing any more details than that at the moment!). I knew I’d arrived at a serious writing retreat when I saw this sign. All of us need one of these, don’t we?! Varuna is quite strict. No phone calls between…
Today 'The Pagoda Tree' hit 78% funding. Still three weeks to go, so fingers and toes crossed I'll get over the line. I'm asking my supporters to give one more push and spread the word to their networks. Let's get this thing published!
Thank you to the latest supporters: Mary Hickson, B Khano, Chris Doucas, Ruth Kennedy, writer Kathryn Heyman, an anonymous donor, Katrina Edwards, Diana Yeldham…
During one of the early trips I made to Thanjavur in India while I was researching my novel, ‘The Pagoda Tree’, I went during Pongal – the spring festival. I found myself on the back of a bullock cart along a rutted road heading out to a remote village. The next day, I got a call from a friend who lives there, saying that my picture was in ‘The Hindu newspaper’, and "Madam, you are there, most elegant…
There are just 4 weeks left to crowdfund my novel, 'The Pagoda Tree'. I've set my target to get fully funded by the end of June. I’m already at 58%, so over halfway -- thanks to all your lovely supporters. Now's the time to spread the word among your friends and book lover networks. When I tell people about Unbound, I like to say that their exciting new publishing model has a distinguished past.…
My novel, ‘The Pagoda Tree’, opens in 1765 when India is on the cusp of change. This little known period was a time of incredible beauty, discovery, and brutality. But what really fascinated me was that there was a possibility of exchange between cultures, one which vanished during the later Victorian, or Raj, era. Many accounts exist of British men having sexual liaisons with Indian women, some of…
You never know what you’re going to end up doing to research a novel. When it came to writing ‘The Pagoda Tree’, I’ve shared my hotel room with a rat, ridden on a bullock cart, met a prince, and driven all night from Delhi to Pushkar in search of the perfect crumbling palace. I’ve trespassed and been chased by a fist-waving security guard; had my breast groped, once; had a parrot read my fortune,…
While researching my novel, ‘The Pagoda Tree’, I made four research trips to India, starting with a visit to Thanjavur in the south. On the exterior walls of the 11th Century ‘Big temple’, the names and addresses of 400 devadasis (temple dancers) are inscribed – the novel’s main character, Maya, is one of these dancers. My guide, Mr Rajah – a slight man with grey hair, his buckteeth blackened from…
The title of my novel, ‘The Pagoda Tree’ is inspired by a phrase popular among the English in India during the 18th Century when my the novel is set - ‘shaking the pagoda tree’. ‘Pagoda’ had a double meaning – both a temple and a gold coin. When Englishmen went to India, they went to make their fortune - to literally shake this tree of money. My novel is set at the start of global capitalism and the…
Even 10 years ago, it was enough to write a good book and the publisher would then sell, distribute and market that book. Today, you need to be prepared to ‘package’ what you do, and become an expert in your chosen area. Recently, a Sydney-based publisher told me, ‘It’s not enough for authors to write a book and expect us to promote it. They need to do everything they can to make sure it sells. We…
People often ask me why I wrote my novel ‘The Pagoda Tree’. After writing my first book, ‘Last Seen in Lhasa’ about my seven journeys to Tibet, I had that classic second book syndrome – I couldn’t repeat the incredible experiences that lead to that first book, a travel memoir, but I had always been fascinated by India, where I used to live and work as a journalist. Then I read a story in ‘The Sydney…
I'm fascinated hearing how other people read. It's such an idiosyncratic thing. Recently a friend was telling me that she's recently read three modern novels, "all awful", about characters who depressed her. "But I always want to give the author the benefit of the doubt and always read the number of pages equal to my age. As I'm 74 I read each book up to the 74th page." She sighed with a quiet smile…
Looking back through some of my earlier blog posts about writing, I came across a reference to Unbound back in March 2012. This is what I said: “This intriguing British company allows authors and readers to ‘decide which books get published.’ This is how it works. You submit your book idea to the site. Then readers will pledge support (i.e money) to ‘make the book happen.’ As a sponsor, you…
A big thank you to all who have pledged so far to get ‘The Pagoda Tree’ published in the UK. A dear friend of mine told me that crowdfunding can be a rollercoaster. I wasn't sure what to expect but I definitely believe her. Last night, I was amazed at how emotional I felt when I saw more names of supporters on the site. Dear friends, old friends, loving family (thanks Mum!), writers who I’ve mentored…
In my novel 'The Pagoda Tree', the main character, Maya, is a temple dancer in India. While these temple dancers, or ‘devadasis’, have been compared to the geishas of Japan, it is their connection to the temples that make them unique. I was fascinated by their role in 18th Century Indian society, when my novel is set. They seemed to operate between the worlds of sacredness, culture and sensuality…
It feels very auspicious that today is Lucky Leap Year day and it's the launch of my Unbound campaign to get my first novel, 'The Pagoda Tree', published in the UK. I’m excited and nervous as it’s new territory for me. But thank you so much to everyone who has already supported me. That makes the butterflies in my tummy slightly calmer... It…
These people are helping to fund The Pagoda Tree.