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.”
As Chakravarti says, lives are woven into a complex web of contrasts and similarities between those of Indranath Choudhury’s five daughters and the four daughters of an illiterate Muslim goatherd from a village in Malda. The narrative itself is gripping and shuttles across the different socio-economic barriers and distinctive cultures with ease. The author dubs this work as “pure fiction”, unsullied by history as were her earlier novels. But this is not wholly true for she does capture the spirit of the age and there are mentions of politics and the political outlook in the book.
For instance, when the childhood of Suralakshmi’s cousin who has a major role in the novel, Pratul, is described, we are given a historical context. “There’s the Civil Service of course. But there’ll be many more openings for bright young Indians by the time Pratul passes out. The British have realized that their days in India are numbered. Many are packing up and returning to England. Positions held only by the whites so far in banks, petroleum companies and tea and coffee plantations are falling vacant and our boys are being recruited. The situation will get better day by day.” Such contextualisation repeats itself through the narrative.
The deeply syncretic culture that existed in pockets of rural Bengal is brought out well in the story of Bishu Pagli, a Hindu girl who claimed to be the former wife of a Muslim peer who lived three centuries ago. As the woman guards the shrine, a syncretic community of villagers celebrate her ideology. This in a way prepares Suralakshmi and the readers for the next episode which epitomises the syncretic element in Suralakshmi’s character and education. The highly-educated Hindu Suralakshmi snatches a sexually abused uneducated Muslim twelve-year-old, Eidun, from the lap of death and adopts her; thus reinforcing the acceptance of rival faiths that confronts the hate preached and practiced by extremist religious groups who ripped the heart of Delhi this February – around the time this novel was launched.
The fact that the narrative finds a way of overriding the lore of hatred and differences in itself makes it inspiring and unusual in a world that believes and wallows in dystopia. There is a lucidity, a music in the narrative which perhaps derives from Chakravarti’s earlier experience at translating Bengali maestros such as Tagore, Sarat Chandra and most of all Sunil Gangopadhyay. Her narrative has the richness that you find in the pens of these legends along with a Sarat Chandra and Tagore like reformist perspective.
A story of five sisters whose mother hopes they marry well brings to mind another story written in another time and another place, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — a story where the women in a way seek their independence. Set almost a couple of centuries later, the Choudhuri sisters do pretty much the same — they look beyond marriage, though their parents were keen to have them married. Of course, Suralakshmi Villa addresses more issues — including syncretic communities, feminism, humanism, patriarchal issues, philandering and women’s tolerance of men’s philandering. Both the wives of Moiyank, Suralakshmi’s lover, and Moinuddin, Eidun’s father, exhibited a similar tolerance that finally stifled the misery and life out of the two women. There are many such parallels that run through the story, which raises the questions — what constitutes a good marriage or is there a good marriage ever?
This is a novel that has taken up so much from our world that one feels sad when the story concludes. I missed reading the novel after I finished it and hope for another one from Aruna Chakravarti’s pen, as addictive, as compelling and as riveting as this one — or more?
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