Sunday, 5 August 2018

The Sleeping Dictionary - Sujata Massey

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A great tale about a woman's journey set in the pre independence era.

Massey's writing came into spotlight when her latest book The Widows of Malabar Hill came out. Though I have not read that one yet, this one came my way and the title really got me. A very intriguing title that is explained in the story.

A quick search told Massey she had already written a slew of mystery novels about a detective set in Japan. Wow, for someone with such a strong Bengali influence (as the book suggests or is it that she is that good in projecting that?)  it is amazing that she has such a varied set of books. Her blog is wonderful read about her - both bookwise and lifewise.

However, one of the most interesting things I love about the book is the acknowledgement page. Often it gives insight into the making of the book and the writer and this one did that in abundance.

It was here I discovered that Massey had a Bengali father and German mother and how she first discovered India while on her father was on a sabbatical trip. It also reflects on how she drew on experiences of various members of the family to write such a fascinating book. Do not miss the page at the end of the book if you do pick it up!


A story begins with 10 year old Pom who belongs to a low caste but a happy family. Her idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end when she is the only member of her family to survive the village floods. Fate takes her to an orphanage and later a school, where she does odd jobs and becomes a companion to another girl. Just when she thinks that a good education could lead to the life of a teacher, fate intervenes and she finds herself in Rose Villa - a classy brothel. Not ready to give up on life yet, she makes her way to Calcutta - the City of Palaces. At each stage she steps into a new life and identity, she picks up skills that help her survive and ultimately take a stab at happiness. And when she does, her truant past plays catch up threatening to ruin it all.

What works:
  • The story flows very well. The first chapter is strong and built an idyllic even though a poverty striken childhood. The flood that follows thereafter got me guessing about what will happen and proved me wrong. Loved it.
  • The very first page which is the part of the letter gives an insight into who the central character would be. Great intrigue building device to draw the reader in. 
  • There is something of period dramas. Imagining a bygone era is great for the reader but only if the writing is that powerful. That it is in this book. I loved the fact that the visual descriptions were so good that I could easily imagine a British Raj school with its class conscious students. Even the brothel was painted with elegance, the garish colours muted by the strong characters who inhabited the place. 
  • At one point it almost felt like I was watching a film unfold in the pages. Massey's character reminded me of a B&W heroine battling her way through life and a stoic society, but without the melodrama that usually marks it.
  • Loved the way Massey handled the relationship between Simon and Kamala and between her and Pankaj. It showed perspective and Kamala's growth as a character.
What doesn't:
  • It appealed to my sensibilities as a reader. But then it is a story of how women in the past did not have many options at empowerment that single women take for granted today. Therefore this could be a tad boring for those who may feel that in this era that story is hopelessly dated. 
Not for me though. Within its context and setting, the story works quite well and illustrates effectively the status of women and the story of this gutsy women who strikes on her own. 
  • The story seems has a strong influence of classic novels and could draw parallels with many of them. 
David Copperfield: an Pom's childhood ends when she loses her family in floods. 

Jane Eyre: Pom now Sarah ends up in a school where she is employed as a servant but then strikes friendship with a high born Bengali girl. The Jane Eyre association is more distinct when the school is called Lockwood. 

Silas Marner: The connection is highlighted by the central character when Sarah is wrongly accused of theft.

Memoirs of a Geisha: When Sarah now Rose enters Rose Villa and is initiated into the life of a prostitute.

However the literary influence ends when it takes on a desi feel and Massey weaves in the Indian struggle for independence and the famine that hit Calcutta just before Independence. For me any input about Indian history is a major plus. The Bengal famine when rice was exported to feed the armies abroad was not something I was aware of. The fact that Massey weaved this historical detail showing the callousness of British Raj was commendable. It enhanced the reading experience. 

I also enjoyed Bose's struggle for independence which again is very Bengali and does not get its due importance in popular Indian history. Loved the way how Massey depicted INA women soldiers and their role in Indian independence.

It felt great that while the story reads as an reflection on women during a specific time, it is also a comment on Bengal during the independence era. 

But most importantly it is a great read by a hugely talented writer. Glad to have discovered her. It is believed that this book is part of Daughters of Bengal series. I shall be waiting eagerly to see how she takes the story from here.

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