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Fiction Literary

Mansions of the Moon

by (author) Shyam Selvadurai

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
May 2022
Literary, Contemporary Women, Ancient
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2022
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2024
    List Price

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A Globe and Mail Best Book • A Guardian Summer Book Pick • A CBC Best Canadian Fiction Book of the Year • From the bestselling, award-winning author of Funny Boy and The Hungry Ghosts comes a breathtaking reimagining of ancient India through the extraordinary life of Yasodhara, the woman who married the Buddha.

In this sweeping tale, at once epic and intimate, Shyam Selvadurai introduces us to Siddhartha Gautama—who will later become “the enlightened one,” or the Buddha—an unusually bright and politically astute young man settling into his upper-caste life as a newlywed to Yasodhara, a woman of great intelligence and spirit. Mansions of the Moon traces the couple’s early love and life together, and then the anguished turmoil that descends upon them both as Siddhartha’s spiritual calling takes over and the marriage partnership slowly, inexorably crumbles. Eventually, Yasodhara is forced to ask what kind of life a woman can lead in ancient India if her husband abandons her—even a well-born woman such as herself. And is there a path she, too, might take towards enlightenment?

Award-winning writer Shyam Selvadurai examines these questions with empathy and insight, creating a vivid portrait of a fascinating time and place, the intricate web of power, family and relationships that surround a singular marriage, and the remarkable woman who until now has remained a little-understood shadow in the historical record. Mansions of the Moon is an immersive, lively and thrilling feat of literary imagination.

About the author

Shyam Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and came to Canada with his family at the age of nineteen. He has studied creative writing and theatre and has a B.F.A. from York University. His first novel, "Funny Boy", became a national bestseller, won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award as well as the Lamda Literary Award, and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. His next novel, "Cinnamon Gardens", was shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and has been published in the United States, United Kingdom, India and across Europe. Selvadurai lives in Toronto.

Shyam Selvadurai's profile page

Excerpt: Mansions of the Moon (by (author) Shyam Selvadurai)

THE HOT SEASON arrives and stays. There is thunder and rumbling in the skies, an occasional drizzle, but not the deluge needed and longed for. When Yasodhara goes out with her aunt and the Manager of the Fields to look at their plots beyond the city walls, she sees, with her expert eye, that the paddy, if it does come to maturation, will have fewer than usual grains on its stalks. As always, she watches with longing the women workers in the raja’s fields, wanting so much to join them, but knowing such a thing is impossible now, given her status in the palace—though her heart aches with her desire to feel the cool earth between her toes, as she did in her youth.

One morning, Yasodhara wakes to the shriek of an owl, and this sound, unnatural in the daytime, fills her with a foreboding that is only heightened by the heat, sharpening her nerves to a knife’s edge. So, when she looks up from picking flowers in the walled garden and sees her aunt hurrying towards her, face contorted with worrying news, it is as if she’s been expecting whatever calamity is about to come. Prajapati reaches her and takes the flower basket from her hands. “Come, daharé.” She leads the way to a bench under a tree, and Yasodhara suddenly finds it hard to breathe. Once they are seated, Prajapati wipes the sweat from her upper lip, then holds both Yasodhara’s hands in her own and regards her sombrely. “Oh Ushas, I don’t know how to say this . . . It’s Siddhartha. He’s alive.”

Yasodhara snatches her hands back. “But that can’t be! He’s dead!”

Prajapati gently shakes her head. “He’s reappeared in the city of Rajagaha. A messenger from the emperor Bimbisara just arrived for your uncle with the news.”

“But that’s not possible. No ascetic who’s taken a fast unto death can last ten years.”

“Your uncle, I, wanted you to know, before the news spreads.” Her aunt blinks at her. “He is staying just outside Rajagaha with a hundred samanas who follow him. The Buddha, the Awakened One, is, evidently, how he wishes to be called. But awake from what, no one knows.”

Yasodhara, her mind numb, gets up, then sits down, then gets up again. In the silence, she can hear, beyond the garden walls, the sounds of the young concubines practising their music in the courtyard, the swish-swish of the swing. After a long moment, she wipes her face with her shawl, takes up her basket and goes among the rows of plants as Prajapati follows. “A hundred,” she murmurs. “That’s a lot.”

“He’s been living these past years in a little forest hamlet called Uruvela. Claims to have found a new path that he calls ‘the Middle Way.’”

“Middle Way. . .” Yasodhara squats to pick some flowers off a jasmine bush. Her calm, she knows, is unnatural.

“Something to do with Four Great Realities and the notion of everything burning, everything being on fire. The messenger wasn’t very clear on this at all.”

“And the Maharaja Bimbisara has no doubt embraced this Middle Way.” She grimaces, bitter.

Prajapati raises an eyebrow. “As well as the entire court; the wealthy merchants; even the Dasas. Yes,” her aunt continues—nodding at Yasodhara’s surprise that the Dasas, so low that they exist outside the caste structure, are allowed to practise Siddhartha’s new philosophy—“the Middle Way is open to everyone, no matter their varna, not just to us Khattiyas and the Brahmins.”

Yasodhara stands and remains unmoving for a long moment. Then, before she can help herself, she cries out, “I wish he was dead, why is he alive, why?” Ignoring her aunt’s appalled look, she wraps her shawl around herself and hurries towards the archway and out of the garden.

In her room, she paces, fingers twisting the pleats of her dhoti, then sits on a stool, leaning forward, hands clasped tightly on her knees. “Yes, yes,” she murmurs, “why isn’t he dead, why?” Whatever ground she has gained in the last ten years, whatever little stability and happiness she has found, is slipping away from her. No—he, her former husband, has snatched it from her. As if to confirm this, she hears her son Rahula shouting, “Ammé, ammé,” as he runs down the corridor.

Rahula bursts into the room, face fractured with shock, with wonder. For a moment he says nothing, seeing that she has heard the news. Then he whispers in awe, “He’s alive, ammé. Ayyaka says he is a renowned guru, that he is the favourite of the Maharaja Bimbisara. Has thousands who follow him like . . . like . . . a raja. Ayyaka is going to invite him here to Kapilavastu. My pita is a famous man throughout the Middle Country!”

Yasodhara laughs. She crouches over, unable to stifle her mirth, tears running down her face. Prajapati rushes in. She pats a frightened Rahula on the shoulder, and guides Yasodhara, now sobbing as well as laughing, to sit on the bed. “Ushas,” she says gently, and signals Rahula to bring his mother a cup of water from the pitcher. Once she has taken the cup, Yasodhara gulps a first mouthful, then sips slowly, shoulders hunched, wiping her eyes with her shawl, appalled at her outburst, depleted by it. Finally, she puts the cup on the floor, straightens and turns to her son. “Rahula, you are ten now, old enough to face up to the truth. Putha, your pita will not come to see you. You should be prepared for this. Look how he has gone first to the Maharaja Bimbisara, the most powerful man in the Middle Country. All he’s interested in is his own glory.”

“Ushas,” her aunt murmurs, indicating Rahula’s dismayed face. But Yasodhara turns on Prajapati. “What I am saying is true, pitucché. Think: he has been alive for ten years and never sent us any word. Think: all these years we mourned his death, all these years his son believed he was fatherless. I lived believing I was a widow. And, while we suffered here, he has been glorifying himself.” She turns to Rahula again. “Puthā, your ayyaka’s hopes are in vain. I know your pita, he won’t come.” Despite the pain seeping into Rahula’s face like a dark dye, she continues, convinced she must make him see the truth. “It truly hurts me to say this to you, puthā, but I cannot, will not, have you hope, only to be disappointed.” She reaches out and takes him by the shoulders. “I’m sorry, but you must accept this. Your pita doesn’t care about you or me.” Then she starts to weep, drawing Rahula close. Soon he is weeping too.

Editorial Reviews

A Globe and Mail Best Book
A Guardian Summer Book Pick
A CBC Best Canadian Fiction Book of the Year

“Selvadurai’s tale of emotionally torn star-crossed lovers—and the aftermath of their parting—is subtle, absorbing and thoroughly modern.” Maclean’s
Mansions of the Moon tells a seminal story from a new point of view. . . . Selvadurai creates immersive, visceral worlds you can almost reach out and feel . . . employ[ing] traditional myths and spiritual tales to create work that is unmistakably his own.” Toronto Star
"A tenderly and skilfully drawn portrait of Yaśodharā, wife of the Buddha. . . . A compelling mix of philosophy, character, evocative writing and unexpected thrills." —Shehan Karunatilaka, Booker Prize–Winning author of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

“A page-turner, a novel in the grand sense . . . by one of Sri Lanka’s great novelists. . . . [Selvadurai’s] description of his characters, their inner and outer worlds, makes them vivid and alive. . . . A visceral experience.” —Radhika Coomaraswamy, Groundviews
“Ambitious . . . understated but masterly. . . . Selvadurai rises to the challenge of retelling Yasodhara’s story with intellectual rigour and humility.” Somak Ghoshal, MintLounge
“A fresh perspective on a well-known theme. . . . Mansions of the Moon offers a tapestry of human relationships, of emotions and desires, along with intrigues of statecraft and diplomacy.” —Telegraph India
“An absorbing story told with empathy that offers a reader much to think about—both in terms of the past and the present.” The Hindu
“Captivating. . . . Although [Yasodhara] is ‘submerged by change, swept away and drowned in it’ due to the decisions the men in her life make, here, in these pages, we see her struggle, hear her fears, and understand her pain. We know what’s coming next and want to shelter her from the blow—a testament to Selvadurai’s extraordinary empathy and storytelling. Narrated using many Pali words, this is an epic story of Yasodhara’s journey to find her own path forward.” Quill & Quire (starred review)

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