The Pagoda Tree

By Claire Scobie

An epic novel set in eighteenth-century India about love, loss and exile, and the fate of individuals when two cultures collide


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.

'Some water?'

She nodded.

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.


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