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Rampore, India, 1684. About to be burned alive on her late husband’s funeral pyre, 17-year-old widow Moorti is rescued from a gruesome fate by a passing British merchant. Thus begins an extraordinary love story and incredible journey as the humble village girl Moorti transforms herself into Maria, becoming one of the most powerful women in India.
Starting a new life as a lowly kitchen maid, she relies on her wits and resourcefulness to rise through the ranks of the British East India Company to eventually become founder of the great city then known as Calcutta, the first city of the British Empire.
A tale of adventure, danger, hardship and heartbreak, excitement and romance, this is the enthralling tale of a truly remarkable woman, where fiction meets fact.
Kirchner seeks to shed light on India during a crucial time in its history when various European countries – France, Holland, Portugal, and Britain – all aiming to make inroads and gain a monopoly on trade with the subcontinent. It’s a tale of complex politics and socio-dynamics interwoven with an unlikely romance as Maria and Job slowly fall in love.
Their first encounter comes when Job rescues a teenage Maria from being burned at her husband’s funeral pyre. Tradition and shame make it impossible for Maria to return to her parents’ village. With no other option she follows Job to become a member of his household. While working as a cook, she becomes familiar with the ins and outs of the household and with Job’s business. Not content to be just a cook, she has her mind set on learning English. She wants to use her knowledge of her new language along with her familiarity of her Indian culture to help Job’s business make progress in the community.
Maria and Job are based on real life figures. There is not much that is known about the real Maria so Kirchner has infused her with a spectacular persona that you wouldn’t normally associate with women of that era. Maria is emboldened by her past and her love for her friends and family. She values education, is incredibly resourceful and loyal. As for Job, I felt I only ever saw him at a distance so I didn't necessarily catch onto his personality or their chemistry.
Even with all this rich material and an equally rich landscape, I did have some trouble with the story mainly that it was hard to get a true sense of how much time passes between events. I was thrown off a few times when the story jumped forward a few years from one paragraph to another.
Goddess of Fire inspired me to read more about Job Charnock. It’s a complicated history entrenched in ill feeling after years of British colonization. He was initially considered the founder of Calcutta, now known as Kolkata until the 2003 ruling by the Calcutta High Court when his name was removed as founder. (His founding of the city of Calcutta is touched on in the book.) Not much is known about the nature of his relationship with Maria except that they had children. If you’re interested in learning more, this Wikipedia page is a good start.
With a somewhat blank canvas, Kirchner had the room to navigate the story to bring to life so many details and key events in India as it moved from being an independent country with its various territories, countless rulers and sub-cultures, towards the era of colonization. There’s a lot to soak up in this adventurous historical drama!