Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cheryl tries to talk over Janet's head

One Sunday, my husband was reading the paper when he burst into laughter. “What? What?” I asked. He showed me a cartoon of two brothers and eight nephews drowning. “Well, that’s macabre.”

“No, that’s Hamilton’s Rule,” he told me, “which tells us under what conditions altruism is manifested. The man on the shore must determine how many nephews are worth one brother.” Just the scaffolding I needed for my new novel, Rescuing Ranu! It would be interesting to put my protagonist, the headstrong mathematician Nela from Shiva's Arms, in a situation where she would be forced to go from abstract thinker to selfless guardian.

Other questions arose from that. How related do you have to be to make the cost-benefit ratio of saving someone favorable? And what of the relationships not based on blood? Since Nela had to undergo some kind of transformation, what could be the catalyst for such a change? A man? A child? Possibly. Love could soften the emotional scar tissue Nela had built up through years of straddling two cultures. The plight of immigrants, the lives they make elsewhere, and the families they leave behind, raised yet another question: how much can a person stand to lose? When confronted with dueling loyalties, which part of a divided self goes, and what stays? Themes began to take shape on the page---and suddenly I was in business. This is the the plot in a nutshell:

In a run-down motel in India, Nela Sambashivan tries to regroup after a stalled romance and an academic power struggle. Intending to research the mathematics of collectives, she is drawn instead into the lives of ten year old Ranu, the cunning motel keeper who exploits her, and a village elder named Uncle, who believes that everything is for sale.

At a vegetable vendor’s one day, Nela happens upon her old lover, Jackson, sick and abandoned by his civil engineering crew. She takes him back to her shack and nurses him. They rekindle their affair, and as Jackson regains his health, he takes on Nela’s concerns about Ranu. With the goal of leaving the child better off than the way they found her, the couple travels to her village to meet with Uncle, who finagles their help in modernizing the place.

As a thank you, Uncle offers Ranu’s baby sister, Meera, to Jackson and Nela. Appalled, they pay him another visit, intending to confront him but interrupting a marriage-brokering. A glimpse of a red wedding sari and smoke from a ceremonial fire confirms their worst suspicions. They daringly charge the ritual and rescue Ranu from a forced marriage. Nela is injured, and while she recovers, she hatches a plan to adopt Ranu and take her back to her university town. Jackson has other wars to wage, and stays behind.

Ranu unexpectedly fails to thrive in her new, foreign surroundings, and Nela must confront her miscalculations. In its recursive turning ever homeward, Rescuing Ranu opens into a meditation on sacrifice, survival, and the mysterious alchemy of love.

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