It took me a while to get into the style of Goddess of the River by Vaishnavi Patel. It’s a partial retelling of a part of the Mahabharata from the perspective mostly of Ganga, the river goddess. It’s well executed but it definitely takes you a while to get the strange perspective of a river deity as a character. I did enjoy it when I was able to get a solid run on a couple of longer train journeys.

Goddess of the River by Vaishnavi Patel

Cover of Goddess of the River by Vaishnavi Patel
Cover of Goddess of the River by Vaishnavi Patel

There are two main point of view characters in Goddess of the River. The first, and majority POV character, is Ganga, the devi of the river. The second is her son Devavrata, who also goes by a couple of other names in the story. The opener sets the scene for the main part of the story, with the classic origin story of Ganga, and the happy times before she was made into a mortal and cursed to bear the godlings that played on her banks children. I have to say that I found this section really hard going. The perspective of a river goddess tied to the flow was hard to get my head around, although I’m really glad I persevered with it because later on the story was epic.

Once she becomes a mortal, albeit still aware of her history, it gets easier to follow. That said the story is not for the squeamish. Ganga knows her children will be reincarnated back to being godlings. So although cursed to bear them into the world, she doesn’t let them live in it. Only when her last child is born the king she’d married (Shantanu) intervenes to stop her killing him. That child is the other POV character.

The other main character in Goddess of the River isĀ  Devavrata, the son of Ganga. He strives hard to hold himself to a higher standard and keep his vows. This strict adherence to duty drives a lot of the conflict in the story, and is a moral warning straight out of the Mahabharata. Devavrata, later known as Bhishma (terrible oath), is so close to duty (dharma) that he does unrighteous things knowingly because of his duty to Hastinapur and it’s line of kings.

Each chapter is clearly labelled in reference to distance from the war, and we move back and forth through his life. Sometimes from his point of view, and sometimes from Ganga’s. We see the threads of develop, and then weave into consequences. Every decision, even the small ones, seems to set up the war or the downfall of Bhishma. The decisions lead to complexities, and his attempts to avoid conflict inevitably lead to more conflict further downstream. There’s a large cast, all with their own enmities, jealousies, and motivations. You can see how it ties into an even more epic story.


I enjoyed Goddess of the River. It’s not light reading, even as a simplified version of a side story of the epic Mahabharata there are a lot of characters to track. The Goddess of the River also jumps around with time and covers a long period. That multi-generational aspect makes it a bit harder to keep everything in your head when you dip in and out a chapter at a time. That said it left me feeling that I want to read even more. I’ve realised how little I’ve had the south Asian stories in my reading, and how amazing they are.