By Charotte Bacon

Farrar Straus Giroux. 275 pp. $24

In Charlotte Bacon's second novel, Anna Singer, a grant writer in New York, decides to travel to India after her father dies in an accident and her husband leaves her for a younger woman. In India she is looking for "difficulty, a new sense of what I could stand . . . places where sadness and anger like mine, surely not the worst the world had to offer, assumed the correct proportion." She also hopes to find out more about her aloof English mother, Rose, who spent the first 17 years of her life in India -- a period about which Anna knows almost nothing.

Anna travels to Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and, finally, Calcutta. In Varanasi, she meets British and Spanish tourists and falls for a young Israeli student of Sanskrit. In Calcutta, she rescues a child from destitution. During her travels she reads her mother's account of an Indian childhood. Much of this sounds like "Heat and Dust," one of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's many sardonic fictions about middle-class Western women adrift in India, seeking complicated answers to personal problems. Certainly Anna seems blandly conventional as she arrives in India. Her comments on chaotic traffic, crowded trains, poverty and self-absorbed fellow travelers could have been made by any of those Americans who, she writes, "have come to Varanasi in droves since the '60s, all bushy-haired and thirsty for inner peace." At first sight, Anna resembles, too, the bewildered American travelers in the stories and novels of Paul Bowles -- people whose great material success has rendered them uniquely incapable of understanding other cultures and peoples.

As if aware of this, Anna seems overly eager to distance herself from other Americans, particularly her brother, an international banker. Americans, she implies, are not "exempt from involvement in the world's complexity of motives, the dirtiness of its cash." She claims to be "embarrassed about my own unearned privilege." She is aware of the wars "in jungles and deserts thousands of miles from my home," which "did not disrupt the availability of my milk, power, newspapers, or fruit."

The novel feels like a sluggish travelogue until Anna begins to read her mother's account of her childhood -- written by Rose one summer in the late '60s, when Anna was a child, and given to her just before her departure for India. This memoir of colonial life is not without its own tourist-guide information ("Kali is the central deity of Calcutta"; "Holi is a spring festival"). And the 17-year-old Rose appears a bit precocious in her response to the economic and political disasters caused by the British presence in India: "I lay there and felt the opening of an emptiness, the start of an awareness of how others really lived."

Rose's slightly platitudinous politics are not nearly as engaging as her emotional life. The account of her widower father, her Hindu ayah and her great surreptitious love for a young Indian man have some of the spontaneous charm and melancholy of "The River," Jean Renoir's film version of Rumer Godden's novel about an English adolescence in Bengal.

Rose's memories bring to Bacon's novel an intensity that Anna's travel-writing persona only sporadically achieves. As she uncovers Rose's past and stumbles upon its best-kept secrets, Anna's pronouncements on her American life and Indian experience gain coherence. She not only develops a new understanding of her unsettlingly lonely mother, she is also able to enter, and amplify, Rose's sense of having been part of "something grand yet real in India."

She begins to understand the country's capacity to accommodate life in all its pleasing and painful variety -- what Rabindranath Tagore expressed in a poem Rose knew by heart: "There is room for you. You are alone with your few sheaves of rice. My boat is crowded, it is heavily laden, but how can I turn you away?" Anna's new intimacy with India makes her reappraise the men she has known well -- her brother, her architect husband and the Israeli student of Sanskrit -- and their confidence "in their right to mold a landscape and interpret a text." She is not sure if "they can see the people crossing the mountains, living in the houses." She suspects that in the worldview of these men, "the human factor has gone muddy, the messianic gleam grown a little pronounced, their own roles slightly amplified." Her own travels in India combined with her new knowledge of her mother's Indian past convince her that there are less egotistical ways of relating to other cultures and peoples. "Open borders, long unfenced sections of the self are how we touch each other."

What begins, then, as a commonplace travelogue ends as a subtle bildungsroman, emphasizing experience and empathy over intellectual constructs. Its advocacy of personal relationships may appear too soppy and impractical as civilizations allegedly clash. But Bacon successfully shows that Anna in her private passage to India upholds a higher idea of civilization than the men seeking to mold alien landscapes with a messianic gleam in their eyes.