Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Suralakshmi Villa
Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Panmacmillan, 2020
In these troubled times, where exclusivity seems to be the norm, Suralakshmi Villa, a novel by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti, seems to rise like a tsunami with its syncretic lore spanning different parts of India—Delhi and Bengal, especially the hinterlands of Malda — and flooding the narrative with gems of not just culture and fantasy but also feminist and progressive concerns.
Developed out of her short story of the same name on the advice of Ruth Prawar Jhabarwala, an eminent author and the subject of Chakravarti’s PHD dissertation, the story is narrated from various perspectives. It is an interesting technique as the story rolls out different aspects of the development of women and society across almost half-a-century — from post-independence to the pre-internet days.
The first introduction to the Villa in the book is given by the youngest generation — Joymita, an avant-garde journalist. The story coils around generations of Indranath Choudhary’s clan or should one take a non- patriarchal stand and say — Suralkashmi’s family? Suralakshmi was the middle daughter of the man who build separate houses for each of his five daughters and named them after the girls. Suralakshmi was perhaps the most unusual of all the sisters and therefore a good protagonist for any novelist. Was she a feminist or did she live by her beliefs? We have to read to discover.
Chakravarti, in Jorasanko, her best- selling historical novel, took up the concept of abarodh, a kind of purdah that was practiced among women in Bengal prior to the late nineteenth- early twentieth century. In this one, she pauses a little on abarodh but introduces women who have already moved out of the confines of the purdah and have a right to decide their lives, though the less-educated and impoverished have difficulty in finding their independence. She says in an interview: “Like all my other novels Suralakshmi Villa focusses on the lives of women. It is about two sets of sisters. The first belongs to a wealthy, modern, enlightened, household of Delhi. The other, a goatherd’s daughters living in a slum in Malda, comes from the dregs of society. But close inspection reveals that there is not much difference in their lives and fates. There is emotional violence in one world…both physical and emotional violence in the other.”