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Review: Swarnalata


At one point in Tilottoma Misra’s Swarnalata, the parents of the eponymous heroine attempt to make a match for her with Rabindranath Tagore. The youthful poet, who has seen the attractive young girl from Assam—now in Calcutta to study—after a performance of his musical Balmiki Protibha, seems willing. But his father, the formidable Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, nixes the alliance.

Of course, history would have changed had Tagore Senior not taken this step. But Misra cleverly weaves the central skein of her novel into this one attention-grabbing incident. Swarnalata’s Brahmo parents, Gunabhiram and Bishnupriya Barua, are almost heartbroken at the rejection, which is explained to them in the novel by another real-life Brahmo elder, Sivanath Sastri, with these words:


Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee


“There could be only one reason for this. Devendranath Tagore has never been able to fully accept the idea of widow re-marriage. You must be aware that though he appears to be a liberal in his outlook, his attachment to some of the rites and beliefs of Hindu society seems to be growing with every passing day. It is quite possible, however, that the younger generation of Tagores may not be with him in this. But no one at Jorasanko would really dare to go against Devendranath’s wishes.”


The rejection, surmise the Baruas of Nagaon, a small town in Assam, stems from Gunabhiram’s decision to flout the conventions of Hindu Assamese society and marry Bishnupriya, a widow with two children. Gunabhiram’s act is congruent with the values of the Brahmo Samaj, which broke away from Hinduism to speak up and act for liberal thinking, for equality between the genders, and for Western-style education. But it still does not earn him the right to metaphorically sup at the table of the orthodoxy. In this contradiction are sublimated all the other conflicts that Misra depicts in her unhurried, sprawling and socially realistic novel named after the young woman whose life it traces from childhood to motherhood and beyond against the backdrop of change in late 19th century Assam.

Change is indeed palpable in the placid, hill-encircled land of Assam as nationalist sentiments emerge among a handful of revolutionary young men willing to defy the deep-rooted Brahmin servility to authority in general and to the British in particular. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries spread the gospel and offer the opportunity of education to people systematically deprived of it, in the process gaining converts. Then there are the Brahmos like Barua, intent on asserting equal rights for women and widows.

Misra brings each of these narratives of tension to a boil on a slow fire, charting the stories of representative characters. Here’s Swarnalata—daughter of privileged, enlightened parents, but still subject to the same biases as other women, which she must overcome in her own way. And here are her friends—Lakhi, a child-widow and daughter of a conflicted father caught between tradition and progress, and Tora, converted to Christianity and with a mind of her own.


Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs 295.



Of these, Lakhi’s journey is the hardest. She gets a taste of new ideas from her childhood friendship with Swarna, but is soon wedged into the marriage-at-nine ritual. Her husband dies before she can join him after puberty, and she faces the prospect of several decades of widowhood and all its attendant shackles. Her defiant progress in the face of these obstacles makes for the most absorbing of the three women’s stories.


Circling these women—each pushed by personal circumstances that are symbols of the larger societal truth—are a handful of enlightened men who are eager to break laws that they identify as stultifying and demeaning. Chief among them is Dharmakanta, fiery of mind and spirit and contemptuous of convention. His determination to change the status quo is both inspiring and heartbreaking in its intensity.

Misra does not peer deeply within the minds of her characters. Instead, her concerns are with the battles waged between the individual spirit and societal suppression, where every person is powered by dreams and desires that constitute a reaction to the world they inhabit. Like the Brahmaputra flooding its banks, curving around obstacles and pushing on slowly but relentlessly, this novel too meanders, but always with the intent of reaching its end.

Although old-fashioned in its technique and lacking dramatic highs and punctuated cadences, the story shines out through a translation ranging between the competent and the ill-at-ease. In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.


Three women in search of freedom

Arunava Sinha is the translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s Three Women andBankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s The Chieftain’s Daughter.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs. 295.


Reader Review: The Collector's Wife by Mitra Phukan

She is enveloped in loneliness. The lush greenery and the overpowering stench of death are all around her. Mrs Rukmini Bezboruah belongs to the elite class in the provincial town of Parbarpuri. She is the wife of the District Collector, lives in a spacious bungalow on a hill, she is a well -educated part-time college lecturer, she has loving in-laws…yet, she has a strong sense of being incomplete…of not being…happy.

Set in the turbulence of an insurgency and protest-ridden Assam, the book gives Rukmini a ringside view of the abduction and killings by the extremists. Her husband Siddharth is seldom home and is constantly busy with the burgeoning workload at the administrative level. Rukmini’s desire to have a child is met with a barrenness of passion in bed. A chance meeting with a tyre salesman, Manoj Mohanty, their blooming friendship and an inevitable moment of physical tenderness bring colour and joy to Rukmini’s life for the first time in almost a decade. But the horrors to which she was but a mute viewer quickly seep into her life as Siddharth and Manoj both get pulled into the web of the terrorist violence.

The author Mitra Phukan has skillfully weaved into the story’s fabric both joy and sadness to tug powerfully at the readers’ heartstrings. The plot is well crafted and the language is simple and smooth flowing. The author takes us through Rukmini’s life at a measured pace which allows the reader to fully understand her state of mind and at some level even connect to her.

The book has the power to capture you in the first five pages and the sensitivity with which the tale is told makes The Collector’s Wife quite unputdownable!

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Reader Review: Stilettos in the Boardroom by Shruti Saxena


Set in this age of the flourishing BPO industry in the suburb of Gurgaon, Stilettos in the Boardroom weaves the stories of three women protagonists who find themselves stuck in different problematic circumstances at their workplace - BankPro. Arya is the ambitious pretty girl in her 20s, already at the top of the hierarchy with a fancy work title. Shiva is a recently married woman who found her calling to a full time job and a career which propels her to pursue her dreams. Sara is the youngest one, a feisty  girl who fights her conservative parents to work in a ‘call centre’ at night.

The problem begins when the DCP (Defect Correction Process) of BankPro is outsourced to the Indian counterpart of an American company called CBS .While Arya tries to compete fiercely for the top position to be offered after the outsourcing, Shiva, in the HR department, gets involved in interviewing candidates for targeted hiring.

At the same time, Shiva finds out her husband is having an extramarital affair., Arya gets emotionally involved with her boss, and Sara rejects the groom her parents select for her.

Work, men, and life: Stilettos in the Boardroom is a 21st century Indian woman's novel.

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Reader Review: The Search (Talaash) by Shaheen Akhtar

The Biranganas or the Warrior Women was the term used to designate a class of women after the 1971 war of Bangladeshi Independence. They were the symbol of honor, sacrifice and valor; the very virtues so necessary for the freedom struggle. The irony of the situation was that these women who now stood for the honor of the newborn country were themselves dishonored and violated during the war.

Enter Mukti, a young researcher who is trying to find answers to complex questions about the life of a Birangana, Mariam. What was life like for Mariam in East Pakistan, during the 1971 war and finally in Bangladesh? What were the significant phases? Why did she remain in the city even when it was clearly dangerous for women to stay back in the conflict ridden areas? And importantly, why did she not commit suicide to avoid further dishonor when she had the opportunity to do so?

The Search (Taalash) is Shaheen Akhtar ‘s new novel, translated from Bengali by Ella Dutta. The text weaves through the circumstances and desires of women and the inevitable clash of the two in Mariam’s life. She is haunted by her personal demons of dreams unfulfilled and also fights a constant battle to find herself rehabilitated in proper society. Her experiences of violence and rape almost fade in comparison to her grief at being abandoned by the men in her life; Jashimul Haque, Abed Jahangir, Momtaj, Debashish and her grief pales in comparison with her desire to live, get married and have a child to raise.

The book alternates dexterously between dispassionate and emotional passages displaying hurt, pain, anger, jealousy, apathy and most importantly, helplessness. There is an undercurrent flowing through the novel about the clash of the personal sphere with the public one and the fact that a woman’s personal space is also highly political (in terms of power relations) because of the way a woman’s body is viewed as a possession by the men, especially in times of war; to emphasize victory/superiority over the enemy side by violating their ‘honor’. If this idea is understood, then is it not true that the Biranganas did pay for the freedom of Bangladesh (however unwillingly, helplessly) with much more than political ideologies and blood.

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Reader Review: A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder

It’s the memoir of a woman who has seen all of life’s pains and struggles at the tender age of fourteen after being hurriedly and secretly married off to a man twice her age. Abused and beaten up by her parents and later by her husband, Baby has suffered all and yet kept the courage to fight back the odd circumstances.

It’s the extraordinary story of an ordinary person who refused to submit herself to fate, escaping her incorrigible husband and uncaring family to sustain her own and her childrens’ lives in a new city, all alone.

Baby’s decision to work as a maid in the city of Gurgaon, miles away from her hometown Durgapur was full of challenges, with working hours of ‘24*7’,  no rest and insufficient food. The social stigma of being an unmarried woman with children was, at times, impossible to bear.

However, her life took a U-turn after she took up work in the house of Prabodh Kumar who nurtured her interesting in books, and was the driving force behind the writing of her powerful novel.

Click here to purchase this book on FlipKart for just Rs 146.

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