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Leela’s Book, by Alice Albinina.

October 13, 2014

Leela’s Book, by Alice Albinia. W. W. Norton & Company (2013), Paperback, 448 pages.


A biting, satirical novel by a white Englishwoman about contemporary Indian families whose relationships reflect the complexities of the Mahabharata.

Leela is an Indian woman who had married a businessman twenty years earlier and migrated with him to the United States. He had promised never to inquire into her past or take her back to India, and yet as the book opens, he has become wealthy, and they are returning to Delhi to attend his niece’s wedding. The bride’s father is an extreme Hindu would-be politician. The groom’s father is an academic determined to disprove Hindu mythology as well as a critical part of Leela’s past. Plots thicken with other scandalous revelations about the enormous cast of characters. In the midst of this complexity, Ganesh, the elephant-faced Hindu god, enters the debate over whether or not he transcribed the classic epic, the Mahabharata. He claims to have followed the re-incarnations to Leela, her sister, and others in the narrative through the centuries down to the present.

Frankly, I had trouble with this book. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I had more familiarity with the Mahabharata. But the problem went deeper. I simply disliked all the characters. Maybe the author intended me to dislike them.    Leela’s Book pushed me to think about why I found it distasteful. I strongly believe that anyone can write well about any subject if they are willing to research it with sensitivity and respect.  A review of the book in The Guardian identified it as a satire on contemporary India which may explain its negativity. Alice Albinia has studied Asian history and culture, but she exhibits little connection to her characters or respect for their traditions.  To me Leela’s Book seemed more like an intellectual game than a novel.  I read globally to learn about and empathize with characters whose lives are unlike my own, not to make fun of them.

I was unsure whether or not to enter my review of this book in the South Asian Women Writers challenge. The author is from England, but according to her biological information, she has lived in India. I decided to include it because of its topic, as others in the challenge might hear of it and be interested.


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