Under the Mango Tree

"They forced me to sing. Would have rather moved my lips, just the way I did in the music class. A toothless fish with its mouth wide open."

That is how my debut novel, Under the Mango Tree, begins. The book is an autobiographical tale about my life in the Hare Krishna -movement from the age of 17 till 34, and my eventual departure from the faith. It is a strongly literary novel written in a poetic, rather than reminiscing voice. As one of the reviews states:

"Seija Vilén’s debut novel, Under the Mango Tree, tells about a period of seventeen years in the Hare Krishna –movement. It is a young woman’s story of growth and a book about womanhood; the subtle mechanisms of submission and domination. The big question is: which one wins, intelligence or emotion. For a reader who loves language, Vilén’s novel provides gratification for a long time to come."
(Irene Vehanen, Kiiltomato)

For a debut novel, Under the Mango Tree has received a considerable amount of attention in the media. Partly, this is due to its unusual topic. "I believe that no one in Finland has ever written such a relaxed book about religious life", says Elina Heino in Vihreä Lanka. The readers' interest has also been aroused by the novel's optimistic spirit - this is not a book about suffering and survival, even though some of the issues I deal with are very painful.

"Seija Vilén’s autobiographical debut novel is luscious and surprising. [...] The text is flooded with such an amazing zest of life that I do not want to hear any explanations, what to speak of afterthoughts. An office clerk like myself is impressed: a tremendous story."
(Ulla Vaire, Gloria)

The novel has been noticed particularly for its language.  As a writer, this brings me the most joy.

"Vilén moves simultaneously on several time levels and combines various styles. The narration proceeds like a tale. Richly fabulating, it draws both long curves in thought and time, as well as quick shifts. At the same time, there is an abundance of detail. [...]
    Vilén plays with myths. The dragon moves along in a fascinatingly multifarious manner. Christianity often interprets the dragon as evil. For the main character of  Under the Mango Tree, it is empowering, personal and secret. This is closer to the Eastern insight of a dragon as a representative of positive forces, such as courage and wisdom. The dragon is usually seen as a masculine power. In a novel that approaches gender from different angles, the dragon is interestingly a female character’s attribute. In the end, the dragon is the female spouse  of the God of Grains, a wife of a wife.
    Humour is Vilén’s strength. Irony has a distancing effect. With it, even difficult issues can be revealed in a seemingly light manner. The narrator delights in comical detail. The irony becomes sharp when we reach familiar issues such as the state of the elderly care and the bureaucracy within the health services system."
(Riitta Vaismaa, KirjaIN)

The narration is entwined with the memories of childhood that keep on surfacing as the protagonist tries to deal with all the regulations that bind her life. Following is a sample from the page 208:

"I was part snake, part human, red blood and brittle skin. Always open to attack. Forever one piece missing, lost beneath my mother’s wizened wings. Could not recall the chambers that I would find if I plunged my arm in pulsing flesh. Knew not how to see my frailty, set strong limits to protect it. Only a slice of skin remained where I was branded, where they aimed. Still, I did not shatter fully.
    My sister was the wisest. She chose the right path and named plants when we walked on the Bullock Hill. She became a biologist. Sister had a smart person’s hair, the colour of rye. Like dark bread or porridge, food that is eaten during the week. And spectacles, too, perching on her nose. She showed me a viper’s nest and spoke of dragons, hatching snakelings, danger approaching all the small children who dared to walk past. My gentle brother added the fire that burned your fingers if you groped the eggs. Do not touch. No. A viper’s bite can kill."
I lived for nearly four years in Kolkatta, India. I have kept the depiction of a middle-class Indian familylife warm and more realistic, perhaps with more dialogue than elsewhere in the book. At the same time, I may subtly comment on the social issues of the country. Here is a sample from the pages 100-101 :

"Iron bars protected the windows of our house. I peeked at the world through the gaps. Prabhu walked home from work, the only man with no moustache, sweating in the five o’clock rush when the streets were full of men. The women traveled by taxi or in a hired car, transported straight from door to door. Very few of them had a driving license. Poor women took a bus or tram to reach the place of their service. Sometimes, I saw them on the construction site, carrying stones. By the mid-morning, the middle-class women walked to the vegetable vendor’s, but in our house a subji-wallah came at the door to argue over the prices with my mother-in-law.
    ”Outrageous!” Mom-in-law shouted. ”Crook!”
    ”Madam”, the subji-wallah tilted his head and crawled behind Mom-in-law into the living room. ”I have six children, and five of them are lieing in bed, sick.”
    ”Drunkards they are, that’s what!” Mom-in-law sneered. ”Tell your sons to get a job.”
    ”You know how it is.”
    ”What should I do? Sell my jewellery? I cannot pay your prices.”
    ”Five Rupees discount.”
    ”Get off!”
    But Mom-in-law had already opened the Telegraph Sunday extra. Subji-wallah mumbled the name of Allah and pitty-patted back to the door.
    ”Madam!” he stuck his head in one more time. ”Ten Rupees discount.”
    Mom-in-law sighed and threw the Sunday extra on top of the drawer.
    ”It is because of you that my grand-daughter will have only two pillowcases for her dowry.”
    That night, we ate tomato soup and a salad of three sorts."
In addition to Finland and India, the events of the novel take place in Denmark and Canada.