To this day, Hindu pilgrims travel to the ancient Indian city of Kashi to die a "good death" — one that will free them from endless reincarnation cycles so their souls might achieve eternal liberation or moksha. The retreats, or bhavans, where they spend their last days have been researched and reported on for decades.
"The City of Good Death," Priyanka Champaneri's debut novel, goes beyond revisiting the rituals involved in such dying. The main question being explored here is: What, indeed, is a "good death"? Is it really about liberation? Or is it simply a transformation of the body from one material form to another while the soul goes elsewhere?
These are also questions that Pramesh Prasad, the protagonist and manager of such a death bhavan, grapples with as he is surrounded daily by the dying and their grieving families. The sudden death of his estranged cousin, Sagar, who had been like a twin brother when they were growing up, overturns his neatly ordered world. All those around Pramesh — wife, daughter, locals, priests, local law officer — also find their lives taking unexpected trajectories.
Through the lives of Pramesh and Sagar, Champaneri examines what death can do to a profound connection like theirs. Flashbacks of their rural childhood are spliced with present-time scenes of Sagar's mysterious after-death haunting of the bhavan to reveal their troubled but loving bond. A parallel plot of another loving sibling pair involves forever-mutating memories and stories of the long-dead one that persistently haunt the living one.
Stories are crammed within stories. Characters tell tales that are folklore, myth, reminiscences or dreams. All stories deeply alter their existence and relationships.
Champaneri's descriptive prose is precise and evocative. Aside from a few incongruous Western phrases and awkwardly translated terms, she does not exoticize or erase any relevant aspects of the sociocultural milieu. The classic cliffhanger at the end of almost every chapter isn't contrived but integral to the story and its arcs.
Making full use of the mysticism and magnetism of Kashi, Champaneri immerses us in a city teeming with as much life as death. At times, the narrative pace gallops when it should amble and vice versa as the author tries to give most of the large cast of characters meaningful arcs.
In the end, while the novel does not offer any pat answers about death, the epiphanic note about the importance of a good life instead feels simplistic. It's more interesting to consider how Pramesh's journey is really what the poet Rilke once advised a friend who had lost her brother to suicide: "Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you." In this manner, Pramesh's grief over Sagar's death is, eventually, transformative because it reveals new capacities within himself.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic and instructor at Writing Workshops Dallas, and the podcast host of "Desi Books."
The City of Good Death
By: Priyanka Champaneri.
Publisher: Restless Books, 448 pages, $28.