Book Review: Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner

Of all of the cruel customs and practices that human societies have invented, the practice of sati, the immolation of a wife on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre, is among the most appalling. The widow’s own in-laws, who in other societies are expected to protect and support her, force the widow to undergo this painful and horrible death.
In Goddess of Fire, seventeen year old Moorti, whose middle-aged husband had died on their wedding night without consummating the marriage, is being literally dragged to the funeral pyre by her brother-in-law and his son. Her once long, lustrous black hair has been completely shaved off. No amount of pleading or tears from her loving mother can dissuade her in-laws from practicing this hideous ritual.
“My husband’s body, lying on top of a stack of fragrant sandalwood logs, was now ready for cremation. Why had I been given in marriage to a man so much older? Did I not deserve a better life? A longer life? Panic gripped me as I envisioned the terrifying prospect of what awaited me: blistering skin, burning hair, disintegrating bones, unimaginable pain, screams that would shake the hills, and then, death. A horrifying end. I was only seventeen.”
Fortunately for Moorti, an English trader, Job Charnock, came upon the scene just in time to rescue her from the fire. Job spirits Moorti away and takes her to the town of Cossimbazar where he is head factor for an enterprise owned by the British East India Company. At this period, in the late seventeenth century, the English are in competition with the Dutch and the Portuguese in trying to establish trading relations with India. Already the relationship between Europeans and Indians is exploitative. Moorti, now called Maria, is employed as a kitchen servant. No wages, just room and one meal a day. She soon becomes friends with the other servants and with Teema, the woman who sweeps the floor.
Moorti has ambitions beyond being a kitchen servant. She persuades Job Charnock to assign someone to teach her English, with the notion of eventually becoming a translator. Eventually she get a chance to translate when the company enters negotiations with a widowed queen of a small neighboring province.
Job, who has, at least to some degree “gone native,” falls in love with Moorti as she nurses him through a long illness. Will he defy convention to marry her?
Goddess of Fire is an intriguing novel which combines historical romance with the insight into what happens when two very different cultures come into contact. Only someone like Bharti Kirchner, grounded in both cultures, and possessing keen literary talents, could have written such a book.


  1. norma hagan says

    My book club is reading this book and I would like to know if there are any discussion questions associated with “Goddess of Fire”?

    Thanks, Norma Hagan

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