Book review of Goddess of the River by Vaishnavi Patel


The Mahabharata is among the most complex epic poems ever written. One of the most foundational and influential pieces of literature in history, this masterpiece of ancient India has been translated, analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed countless times. In the afterword to Vaishnavi Patel’s reimagining of the poem, Goddess of the River, the author states she has not attempted to complicate an already complicated narrative. Instead, Patel simplifies it by centering on one key relationship within the Mahabharata: that between the river goddess Ganga and her mortal son, Devavrata, who will become Bhishma, one of the poem’s iconic heroes. In doing so, Patel distills the mythic fall of the Kaurava family into a deeply personal and painfully human tragedy, one where the defiantly chaotic mother and her dogmatically lawful son are doomed to always struggle against their own natures.

Goddess of the River is beautifully crafted. Patel moves between Bhishma’s childhood and the end of his life with limpid fluidity, never losing her cohesive narrative structure. No shift in time is without purpose, no dramatic irony is unintentional. Aside from Ganga and Bhishma, virtually every other character is static, each emblematic of their own particular mythological trope. This narrow focus is not a detriment; rather, it only highlights Ganga and Bhishma’s complex relationship and how they come to resemble each other despite their seemingly opposite natures.

Read our starred review of ‘Kaikeyi’ by Vaishnavi Patel.

Goddess of the River has an intriguing moral ambiguity that readers familiar with the Mahabharata will recognize. None of Patel’s characters are truly good or evil. They all have clear goals, with some being motivated by principle and others by selfishness or caprice. Goddess of the River is a messy story about messy people and even messier gods, all just trying to make the best choices they can to make those they care for proud of them. Thus, Patel makes despite Ganga and Bhishma eminently relatable despite their larger-than-life natures: While neither can fix everything that’s broken within their world, they can at least do some things right along the way.

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