Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty

Suralakshmi Villa

 

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.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime,” wrote Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad.

And part of this broadening comes from the books that you read while traveling. A list of books with a new take on Pride and Prejudice set in 21 st century Pakistan, which is  told “with wry wit and colourful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood”, could be an interesting read. What is interesting is that the novel hops centuries to find a parallel setting. Earlier, there have been Bollywood movies, Bride and Prejudice. And of course, ghoulish spoofy takes — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) based on the book (2009) by Seth Graham Smith. Darcy’s Story (1995) by Janet Aylmer was one of the first take offs on this classic by Jane Austen. Then there was The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride & Prejudice Novel by Pamela Mingle in 2013, which gave the story from Mary Bennet’s perspective.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

ELAINE CHIEW HEAD SHOTS 9806asb_w

Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.

Why do you write?

Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Pooja NansiLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To quote Janis Joplin, “I’m a victim of my own insides”. But that’s it really. Ever since I was a child I engaged with the world emotionally. I felt grief intensely, I felt joy intensely and as I grew up, heartbreak was paralysing, highs were never enough and at some point, that intensity needs to get out in some way to keep yourself sane. Writing is my method of coping with my insides.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Love is an Empty Barstoolcame out 6 years after my first collection. What I love about this collection is that it is compact, and captures a precise time in my life when I was questioning if I had the capacity to be as vulnerable as I needed to be in order to let someone in or and as brave as I needed to be to let someone go.  The title encapsulates it for me. If the barstool is empty, you’re drinking alone, maybe because someone has left but there’s also the possibility of the right person sitting down next to you, which is exactly what being in my twenties felt like. So it’s a little time capsule in a sense. It’s a collection that feels bluesy and a little drunk and lonely.

It’s also significant for me because many of those poems are Mango Dollies pieces, and performing with Anjana is always special because she’s my best friend and gets what I might have been feeling when I wrote them better than anyone else could. When she puts a song to them, it’s always a little bit of extra magic. So it’s a songbook, and a snapshot, and I’m pretty happy with it.

What can Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina tell us about wealth and inequality? Or,   about the economics of early 19th-century England and mid-19th-century Russia? Romance and riches? Let us   look at the novels as the mirrors    to two different societies. Two great novels by two great writers from two different countries explain a lot about the economic well being of the people in the period.

In the third of our series on literary definitions, Elizabeth Edmondson argues that Jane Austen never imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity made that decision for her: The Guardian

“Genre fiction” is a nasty phrase – when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It’s weasel wording, in that it conflates lit fic with literature. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature – and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.

Visit any bookstore specializing in imported books from the English-speaking world and the chances are you will find non-fiction and fiction bestsellers as well as a significant amount of classics that are the pride and joy of a country or a culture.

The giants of British literature like William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen are never hard to spot, as are the titans of American literature. They stand on the shelves waiting to be purchased and read by eager minds and literary enthusiasts.

You can even decide on the edition; the cheap paperback by Penguin or the ones with more flashy and artistic covers from the same or other publishers.