Book Title: The City of Good Death
Author: Priyanka Champaneri
Publisher: Penguin Viking/Penguin India
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women’s Writing
Winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, Priyanka Champaneri’s transcendent debut novel brings us inside India’s holy city of Banaras, where the manager of a death hostel shepherds the dying who seek the release of a good death, while his own past refuses to let him go.
Banaras, Varanasi, Kashi: India’s holy city on the banks of the Ganges has many names but holds one ultimate promise for Hindus. It is the place where pilgrims come for a good death, to be released from the cycle of reincarnation by purifying fire. As the dutiful manager of a death hostel in Kashi, Pramesh welcomes the dying and assists families bound for the funeral pyres that burn constantly on the ghats. The soul is gone, the body is burnt, the time is past, he tells them. Detach.
After ten years in the timeless city, Pramesh can nearly persuade himself that here, there is no past or future. He lives contentedly at the death hostel with his wife, Shobha, their young daughter, Rani, the hostel priests, his hapless but winning assistant, and the constant flow of families with their dying. But one day the past arrives in the lifeless form of a man pulled from the river—a man with an uncanny resemblance to Pramesh.
Called “twins” in their childhood village, he and his cousin Sagar are inseparable until Pramesh leaves to see the outside world and Sagar stays to tend the land. After Pramesh marries Shobha, defying his family’s wishes, a rift opens up between the cousins that he has long since tried to forget. Do not look back. Detach. But for Shobha, Sagar’s reemergence casts a shadow over the life she’s built for her family. Soon, an unwelcome guest takes up residence in the death hostel, the dying mysteriously continue to live, and Pramesh is forced to confront his own ideas about death, rebirth, and redemption.
Told in lush, vivid detail and with an unforgettable cast of characters, The City of Good Death is a remarkable debut novel of family and love, memory and ritual, and the ways in which we honor the living and the dead.
About the Author:
Priyanka Champaneri received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts numerous times. She received the 2018 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for The City of Good Death, her first novel.
Priyanka Champaneri’s debut novel The City of Good Death is a canvas that holds different strands with a gentle harmony that will lead readers to be lulled into the spell of the narrative that unfolds. Set in the city of Kashi, which in the Hindu belief system is considered the most sacred place for one to attain death and salvation, this novel brings to readers the core value of what rites for passage that are conducted for the dead are often more for those left behind shattered and affected by the one who has died.
The author sets her main characters in a death hostel in Kashi where the faithful gather to wait for the final journey to salvation but there are additional places that lead to and from here. There is the larger business eco system around death: the buying of materials for the rites, the negotiations with priests and doms, the people who tend to the cremation of dead bodies but the larger picture is how one’s faith enters the picture when someone dies and whether it helps the dead or those who have to continue living. The book is a philosophical and intimate examination of belief systems that will move the reader, especially in the way that everything unfolds through the stories that unravel. It is about the ties that binds us all to one another, ties that are caustic and toxic, ties that unspool giving a semblance of freedom but isn’t so in reality. It is a book that will move you to think deeper about the dead and those living.
The writing takes readers to the spiritual fervor in Kashi, it makes one feel the ambience at the ghats as seen and perceived by different characters, through different time frames that changes and throws new light. The sights and sounds and even the most carefully held back stories that may or may not be true unravel in a way that you end up being a part of the story. The author skillfully weaves her narrative in away that does not exoticize a culture to make her story and characters come alive, neither does she lay it down for scrutiny and judgment and therein lies the beauty of the book. She places each character, the burden they bear deep within themselves into the larger narrative of seeking closure post the death of a loved one and does so with empathy and an inherent humanity that cannot but leave you touched deep within. It will take you to your own personal experiences around the death of a loved one or someone you know in real life, tying your own experience to the fictional world that the author creates for you. This is a book I will be recommending wholeheartedly.