Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book Review: “Lines on the Face: It’s a long road to Freedom”, by Sudipta Banerjee Chakraborty

Sudipta Banerjee Chakraborty’s debut effort features six short stories, each of which, except the final story, has an American setting or atleast a link to America, and lots of Bengali characters, giving the entire book a Jhumpa Lahiri-ish feel. No, Chakraborty is no Lahiri and I found the first story, Gullies and By-Lanes, especially disappointing. The protagonist is a young American girl of Bengali origin who has come down (from Chicago) to Kolkata as a Citibank employee, giving up the comfortable accommodation offered by her employer and staying with a family where the woman of the house Rohini ‘used to look like Madhuri Dixit’ and is married to a younger man, Raghuveer, who is a truck driver. Though Chakraborty keeps one engrossed and flips a few surprises, I found the story-telling to be jerky and more-to-the-point, unauthentic. The second story I am Blue set in Chicago was a few notches better. A woman from New York (of Bengali origin) who is divorced from her French husband, her Punjabi friend (an Indian immigrant) who is a Professor at the University of Chicago and is married to an Italian woman with a weakness for pasta and cheese, statements like 'You are a bigger exception in my life than you think you are Mister' and 'For you, I have broken all the rules' heighten the Jhumpa Lahiri atmosphere. Still I wasn’t too convinced.

The third story, Doctor of Philosophy woke me up. A brilliant piece of writing set in small town India, it is the story of Prof. Sadhin Banerjee, a self-made academic who comes to terms with his favourite daughter Urmi’s values and way of life. I don’t want to divulge much and give it all away, but Doctor of Philosophy is simply brilliant. In particular, Chakraborty gets the small town setting (Shantinagar, West Bengal) just right.

The Reunion takes you back to Chicago and once again I hoped to get a feel of the city .... and was disappointed. Nevertheless The Reunion is a good story which has two school friends from a tiny sleepy town in West Bengal meet again ....... in Chicago. They both carry scars – Vidya is married for the second time and Tia is still recovering from her ordeal at the Film Institute in Mumbai. Towards the end, we find the two friends in the same bed – I won’t say more – please read this book to find out for yourself.

The Blessed Womb belongs to Mrs. Soumi Deb, a teacher at a Girl’s School in Burdwan and more importantly Bapi’s mother. An IIT alumnus, Bapi is in the USA (where else would he be?) and Mrs. Soumi Deb has her whole family, including her long-suffering husband Aloke, and her colleagues, wrapped around her fat fingers. As the financial crisis deepens in the USA, Mrs. Soumi Deb starts hoping that Bapi might return. Does Bapi return to the land of his birth? I won’t tell you, but I can assure you that you will end up liking Mrs. Deb towards the end.

The final story Upanayana, the only one without a foreign angle, is a study of Mrs. Tara Mukherjee, a widow, whose only weakness is the image she carries around of her late husband, who was so intelligent and scholarly, but always ill and unable to do any work around the home. A woman who believes in hard work and thrift, Tara has a weakness for dogs, though she doesn’t have one in the house since her late husband (who’s watching from above) wouldn’t like it. When Tara spends time in a park feeding dogs, she runs into a neighbour, Yakub, ex-army doctor and ............a widower. Slowly a bond develops between the two lonely souls despite the obvious differences in their backgrounds. If I had to rank these stories, Upanayana would be a close second to Doctor of Philosophy.

The title of this book gives the impression that these stories are entirely about women and/or feminism. They are, but they are also a lot more than just that. In stories such as Doctor of Philosophy, the idea that a woman should be free to choose her own path, is propagated by a man. In The Blessed Womb, the protagonist Mrs. Soumi Deb does not crusade for woman’s rights, though she fights to get what she wants. Her character shows up the traditional Indian woman in her true colours and suggests that it is indeed a long road to freedom.

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