The Thousand-Petalled Daisy. By Norman Thomas

Lost in a land with no hiding place from God
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The Independent Culture

In western literature of the past 150 years, India has usually been depicted as the Other: the repository of spiritual values that have vanished from our materialistic society, its enlightenment both a consequence of and compensation for its poverty. Yet, however much we purport to admire it, its asceticism is as alien to our character as the lotus position to our limbs.

Michael Flowers, the latest in a long line of fictional travellers to the subcontinent, is younger and more callow than most. In Norman Thomas's novel, the 17-year-old orphan is rock-climbing in Wales with a friend who suggests a trip to Kathmandu, only to abandon him for a girl on arrival. Michael is left to continue alone to Madras, where he is caught up in riots, wounded, and taken to hospital, where the full cost of his Indian adventure is revealed: hepatitis; boils; anaemia; dysentery and worms.

Michael is taken by Martin, an enigmatic doctor (and father-figure), to recuperate in his large house on a nearby island. The house once belonged to a holy man who had been a freedom-fighter - of a far more violent bent than Gandhi - until he found God. The British arrested him for past acts of terrorism. On the day he was removed, a band of sacred monkeys arrived on the island. Martin's zoologist wife, Nanda, is studying their behaviour, and Martin keeps Michael there on the pretext of assisting her research.

Michael is soon introduced to the other members of the household: the major domo, Om Prakash; his wife Lakshmi and mute son, Nataraj; the fanatically devout servant, Hari; above all, Lila, a well-travelled, Western-educated girl. Her great-great-great-grandmother, now 100, came to the island to serve the holy man and has, in recent years, herself been widely venerated as a saint.

The Thousand-Petalled Daisy is as gentle and mysterious a narrative as its title suggests. It dispenses with a conventional fictional framework: there is no Forsterian tally of travel arrangements and, indeed, little interest in practicalities. Thomas concentrates on Michael's spiritual growth as he interacts with his companions, redefines his relationship with his alter ego (symbolised by a glove-puppet, Mickey-Mack) and is granted a rare audience by the Holy Mother. She breaks a decades-long vow of silence to speak to him, thereby changing his life.

This novel bucks the trend of contemporary fiction. The author, now in his mid-seventies, published his first novel, Ask At The Unicorn, 40 years ago, only to abandon the literary life and settle in a religious community in southern India. His deep love of his adopted country and clear understanding of its people and culture shine through every page.

Martin's claim that "It's the only country I know where the man who wants to avoid the discovery of God is never safe" is as true for armchair travellers who visit it courtesy of Thomas's writing as for those who venture there themselves. The Thousand-Petalled Daisy is a classic rites-of-passage story with a rare spiritual dimension that should have a wide appeal.