Rama’s Labyrinth

Rama spent her childhood visiting Hindu shrines. She wanted a home. But no. The family wandered until death left Rama alone.
Twenty years old, erudite and womanly, Rama arrived in Calcutta. She met her husband and was content until death again destroyed her life.
A single parent, Rama crossed the water to England and the United States, educated herself, and returned to India a Christian. Ready to open a school for child widows, Rama faced prejudice. Could she be trusted?
At every point, Rama pushed against a labyrinth of isolating false starts. Engulfed by controversy, without resources, and determined to fight death, Rama built a home for famine victims. Would this be her labyrinth’s center or another dead end?

 

 

 

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News & Reviews

“A thoroughly convincing dramatic take on a strand of Indian history rarely touched on in fiction.” –Steve Donoghue, Historical Novel Society 

“Cleanly written, subtle in the treatment of intimacies, with excellent sensorial immediacy, Rama’s Labyrinth is a weekend’s engaging pursuit.” Five stars –David Lloyd Sutton, San Francisco Book Review

“Wagner-Wright’s novel is an informative exploration of one of history’s many forgotten heroines.” –Kirkus Reviews

Rama’s Labyrinth is a powerhouse of a story, rich in detail about a time in history when women had few options. Sandra Wagner-Wright takes you on an emotionally inspiring journey with characters so well-drawn you can’t help but follow them through the labyrinth of their lives.” –Gerri Russell, Amazon bestselling author

Inside the Story

Ramabai with daughter, Manorama
Ramabai with daughter, Manorama

I did not choose to write about Rama; she chose me – a process in all ways unexpected. The first half of Ramaʼs life is marked by external name changes. The second, by her commitment to rescue women from lives of neglect. Throughout, Rama sought salvation, finally finding it in her commitment to Christianity.

Ramaʼs several names delineate way stations in her itinerant life. As a child, she was Rama, a name associated with the goddess Laxmi as well as Ramaʼs mother. Perhaps her parents named Rama for her mother, the goddess or both. It was a fitting name for this youngest child of a wandering teacher and storyteller.

Ramaʼs father Anant Shastri Dongre believed women had a duty to read and write. He taught his wife and daughters, a breach of custom which nearly cost him membership in his caste, and led him to abandon settled life to seek favor from the gods by visiting their many temples and performing appropriate rituals. Anant decided Ramaʼs destiny was not the customary role of wife and mother, but as a Sanskrit scholar.

After her parents died in 1874, Rama and her brother settled in Kolkata where Sanskrit scholars awarded Rama the title Sarasvati, comparing Ramaʼs knowledge to that of the goddess of learning. The Reform community honored Rama as a Pandita, a person to whom the community could refer on questions of conduct. No longer simply Rama; she was Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati Dongre. [Bai being the regional honorific for a respectable woman.]

One final name change. In 1880, Ramabai married a barrister. Less than two years later, she was a young widow with a small child. Her name: Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati Dongre Medhavi.

Daughter, wife, mother, widow – the customary female life cycle. But Ramabai did not accept the widowʼs seclusion. Instead, she built a school for Brahmin child widows, enabling them to become useful members of society as teachers and nurses. To acquire qualifications and funding, she went to England and America. As if these activities were not sufficiently unusual, Ramabai converted to Christianity – a move with controversial repercussions. Yet, Ramabai never waivered, declaring:

Sign on the wall of Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission, Kedgaon, India
Sign on the wall of Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission, Kedgaon, India

Ramabaiʼs interior journey, her ability to overcome obstacles, her tenacity, and her love for the women and girls in her care is set against the backdrop of late British Imperial India with its poverty, famines, revolutionaries, and intellectuals, late Victorian England, and American efforts at world social reform. Rama’s Labyrinth encapsulates the life of a remarkable woman in a revolutionary time.

Images from Rama’s Life

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Read an Excerpt

Anandibai and Mano entered in a burst of energy.

Mano’s face lit up. “Mama, look what I brought you.” She held out a bedraggled tulip. “It fell on the ground, so Anandi said I could have it.”

“It’s beautiful, darling.” Rama gathered Mano in a close embrace. “What else did you do?”

“We played with the ball, and the garden man let me roll on the grass.”

“Sounds like fun. Do you like it here?”

Mano nodded. “Oh, yes. It’s so pretty, and Ajibai reads to me.”

“Would you be afraid if Mama left you here with Anandi and Ajibai?”

“Where’re you going?”

“I have to go to a big school. I’ll be back before you miss me. Would you be afraid if I did that?”

“Only babies are afraid. I’m two. Ajibai says I’m a big girl.”

“You certainly are. You’re almost as tall as me.”

Mano nodded. “Can I play with my toys?”

“Of course, darling.”

Rama watched Mano settle on the rug, happily arranging her dolls. The Sisters are too good. She’d never had so many toys.

“Pandita, what did you mean about going away?” asked Anandibai.

“I’m not suited for medical school,” Rama said carefully. “The Sisters are sending me to a different school, and I’ll have to stay there during the term.”

“You’re going to leave me alone with the nuns? You can’t!”

“Anandibai, the Sisters mean you no harm. They’re paying your tuition to the local school. I don’t know why you’re being so difficult.”

“If you’re not here, they’ll force me to join their group, and then I can’t go home. Ever. My family will throw me away, just like my brother.”

“Anandibai, if you can’t stop talking nonsense, you’d better be quiet.”

***

Rama rearranged the cots so she could see out the window.

“Come, Mano. We’ll sleep close tonight.”

“Can I bring my dolls?”

“Couldn’t you put them on the floor beside the cot?”

“They’ll be lonely. Please, can they come too?” Mano looked at her mother with wide eyes.

“Very well. But no wiggling.”

Mano giggled. “Mama, dolls don’t move.”

“That’s very considerate of them.”

“Pandita, may I close the curtain. It’s so bright outside.” Anandibai said.

Rama shrugged. “I want the curtain open. I’m watching for the first star. My brother and I used to watch stars.” Rama breathed deeply. What a day. Her destiny had seemed so clear, but she must have been wrong. Rama retraced the process. Clearly it was destiny to be at Wantage and go to a good school. Maybe that was the important part. Maybe the lady doctor part was just incentive. Rama fell asleep musing on her future.

When darkness fell, the moon kept the room bright. Rama shifted her position. She dreamed about the seaside at Dwarka. The moon shone over the waves. Suddenly, there was a weight on her face and everything went dark. Rama felt herself sinking, gasping. Something dragged her down. She couldn’t breathe. Rama pushed up as if swimming from a great depth. Arms flailing, she pushed the weight off her and took a deep rasping breath. Above her a demon looked ready to crush her.

Rama summoned strength from the center of her being to push up. She bucked her legs to spin out from under the demon, scooping Mano as she rolled to the side. The demon shrieked. Rama screamed and tore open the door. In the hallway, all was pandemonium. Nuns in ghostly white nightdresses appeared from every direction. Their arms reached towards her, pulling her away from the horror. Mano, now fully awake, screamed uncontrollably.

“Ajibai, save me,” Rama sobbed. Soon Sister Geraldine’s arms held her and guided Rama downstairs to the drawing room.

“Shh.” Sister Geraldine stroked Rama’s head. “You’re safe now. We’ve locked Anandibai in the room and sent for the doctor.”

“She wanted to kill me. I saw her face above me. I thought she was a demon.” Rama shuddered.

“You’re safe now. I have you. Mother Superior will sort everything out. Come, you and Mano can stay in my room. Would you like that?”

Rama nodded. “I was so afraid.”

Sister Geraldine guided her charges to her room and gently tucked them into her bed. She left the candle burning and spent the rest of the night watching Rama and Mano breathe. Every time Rama opened her eyes, Sister Geraldine’s presence dispelled her fear. Finally Rama slept.

“Rest, Rama. Tomorrow,” Sister Geraldine whispered, “we’ll send you away from here until we figure out what to do.”

***

Rama stretched, luxuriating in the large bed. Large bed? Her eyes popped open, taking in a large cheerful room with yellow wallpaper. This isn’t the convent. Where am I? Then it came flooding back. Anandibai’s hands around her neck. The shrieking.

“Are you awake, miss? Will you be all right while I get your tea?”

Rama blinked at the young housemaid who had slept in the room with her.

“Yes, I’m fine. You don’t have to stay with me every night. I’m fine, now.”

“I’m sure you are, miss, but I’ll stay with you while you’re here. Someone’s put a note under the door.”

Rama held out her hand. The maid waited while Rama opened the envelope.

“Pass me my clothing. I’ll breakfast with Professor Muller this morning.”

Rama dressed quickly in her usual white sari, laced up her black boots, adjusted her scarf, and went downstairs.

Book Questions

Rama’s Labyrinth can be divided into four parts. Chapters 1-8 are about Rama’s formative years, her early family life, her education, and her developing cynicism regarding Hindu gods. Themes emerge as Rama struggles to replace her innate sensitivity with scholarly logic, overcome her sense of isolation from the people around her, and fulfill her destiny as a scholar.

Chapters 9-14 tell the story of Rama’s early career and her life as a young wife and mother. At last Rama has a settled home and family life. Unexpectedly this idyllic phase of life ends.

Chapters 15-21 describe Rama’s efforts to support herself and her child, her commitment to child widows, and her travels to England and America. Rama leaves everything to follow her destiny. Enchanted by life at the convent at Wantage, she demands baptism for herself and Mano, yet rejects any effort to control her beliefs. In America Rama finds like-minded reformers willing to fund her school.

Chapters 22-29 brings matters to a head. Rama starts her school for Hindu child widows but exposes them to Christianity. She reunites briefly with her daughter before returning to the cycle of separation. Rama has everything she wanted, but remains unhappy until she strikes out in faith.

The questions below are meant to stimulate discussion about Rama’s Labyrinth. They aren’t definitive by any means, but may help readers more easily identify the major themes of the book.

1. Characterize the members of Rama’s family. What do Anant Shastri, Laxmibai, Shrinivas, and Krishna want? What keeps them from achieving their desires?

2. What do the first eight chapters reveal about a woman’s position in the family? Does she have any control over her life? Is there anything unusual about the women in Rama’s family?

3. What does it mean when Anant Shastri names Rama as a scholar? How does Rama’s family react? How does Rama’s life change?

4. How do Rama and her family members react and relate to the gods? Why do they participate in continuous pilgrimages?

5. Laxmibai makes her son Srinivas swear to protect and provide for his sisters. How will this affect his life? How will it affect Rama?

6. At Varanasi Rama overhears her father speaking to a former student. The student’s last words were Yeshu Khrista. What did Anant Shastri mean when he said “Strange how belief can change and yet remain the same.

7. Upon investigation, Srinivas declares the Seven Floating Hills to be a fraud. How does this declaration affect Rama?

8. Compare the responses of Srinivas and Rama to the deaths of their family members. Why does Srinivas finally decide Rama can recite?

9. Srinivas tells Rama: “You’re like Father. Strong, committed, unwavering.” Is he correct?

10. What was the purpose of Rama’s examination in Sanskrit, and how does her success change her life?

11. Rama tells her brother: “There is no escaping men’s desires.” What do you think she meant?

12. What did you think of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, Unending Love? What was Bipin trying to express to Rama?

13. After her brother’s death, Rama agrees to marry Bipin. How much of her decision was due to her promise to Srinivas, her affection for Bipin, and/or the fact that she had no family?

14. Rama encourages Reverend Allen to tell her about Christianity. Despite the fact she finds many aspects illogical, Rama is drawn to the religion. Why?

15. What issues does Rama face as a single parent? Could she have made other arrangements?

16. Why does Rama decide to go to England? How does she propose to support herself?

17. Why does Rama decide she and her daughter will be baptized? What does she actually believe?

18. Rama launches a public speaking tour in America. But first she sends Mano away. How does she justify sending her child back to Sister Geraldine?

19. What are some of the cultural difficulties Rama has in America?

20. As Rama leaves to return to India, she wonders: “How many lives a person can live in one lifetime.” What does she mean?

21. What brings students to Rama’s school?

22. Do you think Rama was right in her decision to leave her door open so students could join/hear her prayers?

23. Once in Pune, Rama begins a spiritual crisis. What do you think brought on her unhappiness and doubt? How does it affect the school?

24. Where does Rama take Judith on their tour of India? How does Rama react to being in Varanasi again? In Agra? Do you get a sense that Rama’s life is coming full circle?

25. Rama sends her daughter away for her education, first to a local school and then to England. How does Mano respond? Do you think Rama thought through the decision to send Mano to England? If so, why does she transfer Mano to an American school?

26. As Rama moves away from Hinduism, does she become more or less like her father?

27. How does Rama orchestrate the atmosphere at Mukti before and after the Revival begins?

28. What is life like at Mukti, especially after the Revival begins? Does life at Mukti remind you of Rama’s experiences at Wantage convent and Cheltenham Ladies’ College?

29. After Mano completes her education, is there any change in he relationship with her mother? Is Mano becoming her own woman, or does she remain in Rama’s shadow? Is Mano like her mother?

30. Compare Rama’s reaction to Mano’s death to her reactions after other family members died.

31. Is Rama at peace when she dies? Does she have regrets? Has she achieved her destiny?

32. What sections of Rama’s Labyrinth resonated with you?

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