To read Peggy Payne’s Sister India is to take a harrowing trip down the narrow, winding lanes of the holy city of Benares, India, and to be transported along the dark and treacherous backroads of memory. The Chapel Hill novelist tells a story of the clash of cultures, black and white, American and Indian, Hindu and Muslim, and of the difficulties and dangers that await us whenever we step across these manmade barriers. Sister India is a book of wisdom, even, one wants to say, of enlightenment.

The narrator, whose Christian name is Estelle, calls herself Mother Natraja, an Indian term for the eternal dance of Shiva, great creator and destroyer of life. According to Hindu myth, we are all a part of Shiva’s dance, but as he tires the universe lapses into a state of chaos, only to be reborn anew when Shiva catches his second wind and rises up to boogie again. As Natraja spins her tale of living the expatriate life in Benares, she herself creates a world that is in the slow but steady process of dying and being reborn.

After two disastrous loves, Natraja has fled her small-town North Carolina home to seek anonymity in a foreign land, where she can hide her inner wounds behind food and insults. Payne lets her tell her tale in the first person, slowly baring her soul to the reader. As for the American guests in her boarding house, their stories unfold in third person, yet with tantalizing glimpses of their reactions to the sights and sounds and smells of the city. T.J., Jill and Marie take turns in this fluid dance of words, even as they dismantle their own inner worlds in search of some kind of restoration.

Natraja is not your average fictional character: She weighs a hefty 400 pounds, stuffs herself constantly, seldom bathes and loathes every ounce of her body, not to mention anyone else who happens into the circle of her scorching hatred. One of Payne’s most impressive accomplishments is that she manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of this wounded shrew, who eats and eats to hold back the painfulness of her past, wrapping herself in an armor of thick flesh to ward off the vulnerability that comes with any least measure of human intimacy.

In this respect Natraja is a character for our times, rendered with courage, tellingly if uncomfortably real. A friend assures me that in our culture, with its media-driven worship and control of the feminine body, as tightly wound as the feet of Chinese princesses, all females have a complex relationship with food: They obsess about what they eat, love it, hate it, fear and desire it. Come to think of it, how many overweight men do you know who shield themselves against life’s slights with a second helping of spaghetti, a super-sized fastfood cheeseburger, an extra beer or two they should have left unopened?

Natraja gorges herself on sweets by the handful, even sleeps with paper bags full of peanuts so the warmth of her body will soften their shells. Like Tennessee Williams’ Brick drinking until he hears the elusive alcoholic “click,” she fills her inner void until she finds oblivion, “all sensation blunted.” After the tragic end of an interracial love affair while Estelle is still a leggy young teen, we see the heartbreaking beginnings of her food fetish: “With the sack of nuts held close, I was snug, and could feel in the silence and concentration–chewing, swallowing–how I was putting myself in order again.” We all have secret ways of keeping at bay the chaos that threatens us at every turn, whether it be cigarettes or exercise or whatever; Natraja is brave enough to wear hers like a badge of honor. As she puts it, “It takes strength to be this big.”

Her guesthouse is aptly named for Saraswati, the goddess of education, and the inn becomes a kind of school where its boarders learn hard lessons about themselves. T.J. has come to India from Florida to seek ways of applying his expertise on farm runoff polluting the local rivers, in hopes of saving Benares’ own sacred Ganges, where a city of a million souls wade elbow to elbow, performing ritual ablutions, washing their clothes and dumping the ashes of bodies burned on riverside funeral pyres. Jill, an athletic shoe entrepreneur, visits from Atlanta to find rest after a business trip to New Delhi. Marie, an elderly matron from Cincinnati, seeks solace after the death of her husband. Payne shows each of them longing for home in a foreign land, missing loved ones past and present, living and dead. In their encounters with Natraja and with the filthy yet healing waters of the Ganges, all three receive the mixed gift of self-knowledge and find within themselves unexpected wells of human kindness.

All this is set against the volatile backdrop of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims, where public riots and murders mirror the inner turmoil of these characters. We see the idiocy of religious zealots killing one another in the name of their gods, as one Hindu describes it, “each savage act followed by a more savage revenge, as if raising the level of violence would somehow put an emphatic end to the fight.” It is only exhaustion, he sighs, that brings an end to such bloodshed, but even then it will be a temporary ceasefire. The incongruous appearance of a Rambo poster in an Indian teen’s room is a telling detail: Americans’ fantasies are for much of the world stark realities. Yet in Payne’s India it is not only hatred and violence that cross cultural boundaries, but compassion as well: Marie’s grief for an Indian girl killed in a temple by a terrorist’s bomb, Jill’s heart going out to a Hindu holy man as he prays to the river.

Some will accuse Payne of the sin of orientalism, of seeing a land and a people different from our own as exotic and mysterious, a fantasy world where our own fears and desires are the true subtext. Many a culture has been decimated, its resources sucked dry by missionaries, armies and tourists, on the basis of such an objectification of the Other, the most recent example being the New Agers’ well-intentioned theft of all things shamanistic. Indeed, some of Payne’s Indian characters, briefly met, seem stereotypical, yet she carves full-bodied sculptures as well, most notably Natraja’s devout and devoted cook, Ramesh, who risks life and limb for his god and for his beloved employer.

Finally, Sister India is a novel of pilgrimage, a modern-day Canterbury Tales in which each character tells a story of flight from the remembered past and towards a fleeting future. Sojourners all, they are weighted with regret, buoyed by hope, eddied together for a brief while in this strange place. Perhaps the most crucial lesson to be learned from our stay in Natraja’s Saraswati is that there is no natural resource more precious than a river, no sin more unpardonable than polluting the very veins of our Mother, whether it be the holy Haw, the eternal Eno or the sacred Ganges, with human filth and ignorance. The book’s most lasting image may well be the Ganges on a full moon night, lit by lanterns and floating tapers, its dark waters shimmering beneath the silent stars like a candle seen through tears. EndBlock