By Dr. Pallavi Narayan
I purposely read as little as I could about this novel before picking it up, so as not to colour my perceptions. The Prologue seemed to hint towards Hindu gods in a somewhat contrived fashion, so I was surprised that when I hunkered down to read the novel on my iPad at a coffee shop, the story was so enjoyably written that, to my surprise, I had read over 80 pages in an hour. I polished off the rest within that night and the next day.
The broad arc of the novel encompasses generations of women in the Kumaon region during the British Raj, from families based in Naineetal (that’s how it is spelt in the book) and Almora, the seemingly slow time around the placid waters of the Naina Devi Lake. However, the protagonists interestingly appear to be men, the women following them to wherever they choose to go next. Here, the author seems to be pointing to the patriarchal functioning of much of society—documenting the histories of men while conveniently absenting the women, or portraying them as shadow figures. But what the novel is primarily about is the tussle of women with their dependence on men, and how this frames a woman’s identity within that of the man “taking care” of her at the moment. Whether it is Tillotama Uprety’s mother who threw herself into the lake in perhaps a last bid for agency; herself, in a hurry to get married and move away to Almora to free herself of her (fond) uncle’s influence; her daughter Deoki, whom she neglects in favour of reading novels and imagining herself as a sahib; Deoki, who is married off to Jayesh, who falls in love with the missionary’s daughter Rosemary, and then Deoki determinedly sets about to win him back, but also in the meantime discovers how seductive she can be when she falls in love with a visiting artist who paints her in the nude; Rosemary, who single-handedly sets up her own mission and displays fortitude at not falling into sin with Jayesh, the married man who shares her feelings — the novel displays women’s agency, their emergence into their own self, even as they are bound by societal mores.