Book Review: Karno’s Daughter by Rimli Sengupta

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)

Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

The first-person account that unravels Buttermilk’s life is from her employer, an urban, kind lady. So we come to know Buttermilk is not only Karno’s daughter but also Jhoro’s wife. Simple and once-married Jhoro is an unfortunate and unconscious choice her father makes for her, and she accepts fate soon enough, taking on his up-bringing as part of her wifely duties. For Buttermilk, less has always been more; her life, an uninsured trapeze act without a safety net, has taught her this right from the scene we are introduced to her. The huge crab she catches is a symbol of this plain rustic philosophy. She learns the ropes of her life by living it, moment to moment.

The strength of the Indian rustic woman shines through this chronicle of the perennially invisible class – the housemaid; whether it’s obtaining an Aadhaar Card, cultivating the family land, a matter of revenue authorities acknowledging her ownership of land, buying a piece of land in the city suburbs to building a couple of rooms to save rent, or just manoeuvring the daily grind. Buttermilk is a fighter and her life a testimony to the tensile potency of her sinews. ‘Optimism of the pathological kind is her speciality,’ says the narrator about Buttermilk.

Despite her lack of schooling, Buttermilk is sharp and practical and fully comprehends the dignity of work, any work. Burdened with a dimwit for a husband who cannot chip in with his share of physical labour at her marital home, and eventually incurring a debt which topped 8000 rupees, Buttermilk decides to go back to the city in search of work. Her in-laws are angry and point out how no one in their family had been a maid, although Buttermilk’s own mother had been so, and how their heads will roll in shame. She retorts, ‘When my children – your family’s children – eat thin flour soup while you eat fish and rice, where does your shame go then? Where does the family honour go? How is it dishonourable for someone to work to feed her children?’

The men in Buttermilk’s life are not quite what she wants – the father who makes the most terrible decisions and finally commits suicide, the husband who is not fully there and a drug addict son she dotes on. Buttermilk has no choice but to be strong.

The book is more than the life of Buttermilk; it’s a documentation of those lives plucked off the rural soil and replanted in the city suburbs, never quite here or there. And there’s plenty of contemporary history and politics as seen on the sidelines. Indira Gandhi’s death, various elections, the fall of the CPM and the rise of Trinamool in the state, the advantages of the ‘Swatch Bharath’ kind, everything has a connection to Buttermilk’s life. The first is the solemn year when her son was born and the last the hilarious bit, when Buttermilk manipulates an expansion of her home by using the new larger toilet space donated by the Union Government. ‘You see the room they are giving us is twice as big as what you need for a loo. So here’s my plan: use half of it for a bath and the other half for a loo. The CPM loo I’ll keep, that’s more solid work. What they are doing this time is low quality. And my current bath? That’s going to become my kitchen!’ As the chapter concludes, ‘She was going to keep walking. There were more peaks to climb’.

Buttermilk is a symbol, a walking, talking symbol of resilient humanity; the cream that rises to the top, as you churn her life.

Karno’s Daughter will appeal to the reader as a book handling more than one important subject, all of which could have lapsed into sympathy, righteousness and appropriation. Yet it stays sane, balanced and unassuming in tone, with hardly any melodrama dragging the tempo down. The narrative will be remembered for how it has used the voice of a raconteur of a different class to let Buttermilk tell her own story with dignity, indicate the conscious choices she has made, her intelligent handling of what life throws her way, her gracious acceptance of what she cannot change.

Did you just think of The Serenity Prayer? Something like that!




Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bi-lingual writer and translator and an independent journalist who has written for The Hindu Metro Plus, The Hindu Literary Review, The Business Standard, etc. She writes fiction and poetry in English and Malayalam, and her short fiction has been included in anthologies in India and abroad. Her published translations include fiction and non-fiction including the Malayalam translation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Jaishree Mishra’s Rani.

Suneetha was a writer-in-residence with the Sangam House International Residency in 2009 and a featured poet at the annual Prakriti Poetry Festival in Chennai in 2011 December.

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