In a tale that begins in 1990 and travels from Nepal to New York City to Bombay, idealistic American Alex spends a year of study abroad, making friendships along the way. Two in particular define her memories of a pivotal year when she is twenty, trekking the vast horizons of a land suffused in history and cultural significance: “Here I could feel the deep, silent tick of geologic time beating through me.”
Far from her formative years in the states, Alex is emotionally seduced by her teacher, worldly, twelve-years-older Will. It is as a favor to Will that Alex makes a slight detour in her journey to meet the quixotic, beautiful Maya (“love” in Nepali, “magic” in Hindi, and “illusion” in Sanskrit).
Indeed, Maya is all of these things, as well as curious, affectionate and hopeful of a different life away from the small expectations of village life. Returning to Kathmandu at Alex’s side, Maya has been promised a job through one of Will’s connections, what she believes will be the beginning of her grand life adventure.
Alex is the mirror that reflects this intimate group: Will, a free-thinking man who loves women, opportunity and the freedom of his lifestyle, and the increasingly enigmatic Maya, prey to the extremes of youthful passion from laughter to overwhelming sadness and despair: “I think I might die.” With an ambivalent Alex as the fulcrum, we see the beginnings of a relationship between Maya and Will who is, after all, unable to resist the charms of the exotic women who people his life.
Having brought the two together, Alex is invested in Maya’s future. She cares deeply for this girl and worries about her part in the unfolding drama, a facilitator of Maya’s experiences after she leaves her village for the city. At times exquisitely vulnerable, Maya is also a survivor in a part of the world where daily existence is measured in small victories - sufficient money to purchase shelter, the kindness of friends, and the power of a female to attract the attention of men often thoughtless in their demands.
Once Alex returns home, her own fragile romance unresolved, she is unable to maintain communications with Maya. As expected, Will has moved on with his usual disregard of women, pragmatic about the ways of the world. But Alex is drawn back to Nepal in search of her young friend.
From Kathmandu to the streets of Bombay, Alex is profoundly troubled. Maya’s activities are cloaked in mystery, the bonds of friendship frayed by distance and underestimation. “Bombay is a self-contained subculture based on degradation,” Maya only one of millions struggling to survive.
Adventure pales against the harsh realities of city life in this exotic place, a great contrast in natural beauty, tradition and corruption. Alex’s hold on this part of her life, in this place, is more tentative than she realized at twenty, when the future and Maya shimmered with hope.