by Helen Hacksel
Arousing the Goddess, as a title, did nothing to attract me to this book. Not that I'm averse to goddesses or to the raising of the long-neglected female principle, but it seems to me that the subject has been overworked in the last few years and that some of the resulting writing has been less than first-rate. Then I saw the author's name: Tim Ward, Canadian journalist and travel writer. His first book, What the Buddha Never Taught, had fairly entranced me with its description of his stay in a Thai monastery and his initiation as a kind of lay monk. His second book, The Great Dragon's Fleas, had proved equally fascinating, with its overall picture of his travels through remote parts of Asia during the eighties. Ward's journalistic skills and lively writing style conjure up the colour and flavour of exotic places, but it is the viewpoint of a philosophical mind with a mystical bent that gives the work its depth. Ward penetrates the hearts and minds of the spiritual seekers he meets, and so manages to go below the surface of the cultures he encounters, since these are informed by their spiritual beliefs in a way that is not true of the West. Both the inner and outer journeys are told with disarming candour and a lively sense of humour. No doubt the expectations raised by these two books deepened the disappointment I felt in reading Ward's third book.
The book is presented as a novel, the third part of The Nirvana Trilogy. A trilogy of two non-fiction books and one novel may seem a little odd. It is autobiographical fiction, however, and fits smoothly into the framework provided by The Great Dragon's Fleas. The latter work in fact is like a large canvas, with the other two books being enlarged details. In it, the Thai monastery experience is mentioned and even the fact that a book had already resulted from it. It also talks of Ward's travels through India and mentions an affair of the heart with a European woman whom he meets there; this is recognizably the basis for this third book.
Set in India, Arousing the Goddess explores the tantric use of sexual practices to attain spiritual awakening. This would seem like a nice counterpart to the austere and mainly cerebral experiences of What the Buddha Never Taught, but the work is not in the same class. The author, as himself, meets and falls under the spell of Sabina, a young Austrian student of Indology. The main story is the pursuit of Sabina and the difficulties, and sometimes dangers, of travelling and remaining in India during the winter of Indira Gandhi's assassination. It is hard to reconcile Ward's wonderful abilities to describe people and places with the clichéd presentation of Sabina.
Consider first this description of a rickshaw man in Calcutta: "He ran hard, sucking in the morning smog as his feet picked their way over the rutted street like a human donkey. Tin and cloth shanties huddled all along alleyways between the great decaying buildings, beggars clustered on every busy corner." And now consider the first meeting with Sabina at a crowded Buddhist conference: "I glimpsed a wave of golden hair...She wore a black patterned silk pantsuit embroidered with gold thread that drew attention... to the perfect curves of her breasts and her bottom... suddenly her eyes flashed straight to mine."
Her eyes flash a great deal while her conversation consists of banalities interspersed with mini-lectures on Indian mythology. Even Ward's customary charm wanes as he trails after Sabina with the pent-up lust that a pimply schoolboy might harbour for an attractive teacher. The lady is willing, but Indian social customs make consummation difficult, and the game of waiting raises desire to fever pitch. The eventual lovemaking scenes are almost soft porn, but at the same time strangely non-erotic. If the lovers have somehow plugged into esoteric tantric energies, as they think they have, the main wonder is that this comic-book femme fatale could be a party to it.
Perhaps it is the conscious effort of creating "fiction" that hangs over this first novel, squeezing the life from it and making caricatures of its characters. If the author could have brought to this work the down-to-earth simplicity and honesty that he brought to his previous two books, this might have been a fascinating exploration of male and female energies, with all the richness of Hindu erotic symbols woven in.
Tim Ward is now living in Washington, D.C., and is working on a fourth book.