This is the story of a schoolteacher who brings disaster on himself by his dogmatic dedication to his subject, science, and his old-fashioned, unbending atheism. He comes up against the might of India's religious tradition, which still shows no sign of declining as the Christian tradition has in the West. In Whitaker's town of Nandrapur religion harbours charlatans, and inspires faith in miracles which don't materialise, but it emerges, if not victorious, at least undefeated.
At one stage I feared the novel might deteriorate into a crude attack on Indian religion, equating it with superstition, but Whitaker is far too subtle a storyteller to fall into that trap. In the end the schoolmaster hears the one colleague he believes shares his absolute faith in science say, "Atheism is such an arrogant position. I am rather drawn to admitting there are limitations to any knowledge." That is the heart of India's ancient wisdom.
But I have a concern about this novel. Whitaker only visited lndia once, just for two weeks in 1988, and I know from experience that he can't possibly have got under the skin of Small Town India in such a short time. He has relied on talking to Indians through the Internet to research this novel, which in my book ought to have been a disastrous way of going about it. But it wasn't. Although experience has taught me there is no substitute for going to a place and meeting people, what attracted me in this novel, researched from home, was the way Whitaker captured the feel of Small Town India. I could quarrel with him on some details, and I would suggest that there is one character missing: the local politician who would inevitably have demanded his share of the schoolmaster's money- making scheme - but that would be nit-picking. I can't deny Whitaker's achievement, so does that mean nation should now speak to nation via the Internet? I hope not because I don't want to believe, and indeed I can not believe, that virtual research is a substitute for real research. I suppose I can believe that Whitaker would have written an even better novel if he had researched it on the ground.Reuse content