Why did I read this book?
It is the kind of book you would pick up while casually strolling through a library or market. I chanced upon it while haggling with a shopkeeper about a different book from College Street Kolkata. More than the plot synopsis, what caught my attention was the translator, Sunil Gangopadhyay, a famous Bengali novelist and poet.
The Plot Summary
The story revolves around the life of our protagonist, Calcutta-born, Mrs. Mandira married to Thomas Brockway, an aristocratic British Parliamentarian. The author describes how she copes with existential crisis at the age of 46, set against the backdrop of England and India in 1960s to 1990s. There are traces of the early periods of her childhood in Calcutta and courtship with Thomas, marriage and filial ties as expected in an British Household of his stature.
Quite abruptly then, she severes all ties with London & Calcutta to live indefinitely in an nondescript town of Sukhchar in West Bengal. What ensues next, is a tale of introspection in isolation and her involvement in the local politics where she bumps into a childhood betrothed, now a prominent Calcutta industrialist.
It’s a tale of her life laced with feminism and communism in India.
What are my views on the book?
It’s wonderful to listen to Mrs. Brockway’s tale of 26 years of marriage. The scandalous account of the elopement of a nineteen year female activist and a British aristocrat, the charm of an oriental wife in British society and her induction into the closed doored English society. The initial half of the book is more fluid and explores the marriage and filial ties of Mandira. She had raised her children as per the British culture and often compared it to the kind of un-conservative upbringing by her Bengali father. For example, going to jail at an age of 16 was frowned upon in any civic society, but her father had brushed it off as a gimmick for her political aspirations; such was the bond between the two. Yet, so scarred he was after her marriage, that he never saw her until his deathbed and nor did she initiate any contact. Throughout the book, even though she shuns her kinsmen, she forges a close association with Bengali as a language, her daaknaam echoes in her soul even after years of not hearing it.
The story also captures the stereotypes of the Indian middle class: Her siblings had maintained ties despite her elopement only to put up at her house during their visits to London as a cost-cutting measure. They fancied the expensive gifts she sent to Calcutta and her impeccable hospitality in London. On the other hand, Mandira also picked up a few nuances of the English society, typically the distinction in tone / mood when people say “How nice” “Really nice” or “wonderful”. To an innocuous Mandira, they all seemed the same! She even picked a few ironical similarities between the two cultures:
“The husband’s mindset is that the wife will look after him like a slave. In this regard, there is striking similarity, between the British and Bengalis. The wife is as though bound to make a bunch of sacrifices for the husband’s career and fame”
But in all her laments, she realised through the span of her life, that she’d always remain an outcaste for both communities.
The author has drawn a powerful character sketch of the protagonist, you can feel her loneliness and crisis as she no more “serves of any purpose” to her husband or children. Like every marriage after a certain number of years, she is in loss for any value addition of her presence to her immediate family and even to his political ambitions and campaigns.
Almost, all her activities after the divorce, was towards existing as a nonentity, ultimately driving her to a nondescript town of Calcutta living in isolation. And as fate would have had it, her life gets embroiled into the local political scenario. Much of the story then centres around the age-old conflict between capitalism and communism, her voice pitted against her long lost childhood betrothed. It’s kind of amusing to watch the power wielded on account of unrequited love. Almost reminded of Gabriel Marquez’s Love in the times of Cholera, the extent to which men would go to prove their depths of undying love!
Set against the socio-economic backdrop of rural bengal, the author captures the inequity in India and how political vote banks are still created on communal grounds, their unity for a common cause to drive out industrialisation out of Bengal. Apart from valid ecological concerns of depleting Sunderban biosphere, the book indicates that there lies an underlying anti-capitalist sentiment among the village folk. As seen in real life, the ousting of Tata Nano, Nandigram violence , local political support for the movement has stalled major long-term development projects in Eastern India. Election campaigns for the incumbent Matir Manush had been designed based on opportunity in the form of conflict between the village folk and industrialists. The author also highlights that after years of independence, Indian politicians still rely on religious votebanks, leading to rise of religious fundamentalist propaganda by parties prominent especially after Babri Masjid demolition. Rather than evolving into Hagia Sophia, enshrining both Hindu & Muslim culture, it sparked a series of blasts and riots in the country. Both fundamentalists groups, aimed at purging the country of the other, a sentiment not befitting a country almost fifty decades after independence in the 21st century.
Coming back to the book, the ending however seemed very abrupt with emphasis on her sexual emancipation and self-recognition. Mandira reprimands the sexual advances made by her brother-in-law and then later her childhood betrothed, more so in Sukhchar. Men, she mused, relish the helplessness of women and assume that she would be craving physical pleasures. And so it would appear, from Mandira’s longing of men. But, it appeared unseemly for a women of her nature to sleep with her own rapist, and then introduce him to her own daughter as husband. This man, despised by the entire local Muslim community for his violent outbursts, the same man who compelled her to leave Sukhchar overnight and move to London by attempting to rape her. It left me wondering, if this was all part of her new rebel nature? Or was her carnal freedom a solution of her perpetual loneliness?
Bottomline: I’d give it an average rating. The writing style is fluid and simple, a neat 3-4 hour read. The book, wonderful in the first half, becomes drab towards the middle. Still, a decent read.
Name: Soiled Clothes (Dhulibasan)
Author: Sujal Bhattacharya (Published in 2008)
Genre: Bengali Fiction
Recognition: Translated from Bengali by Sunil Gangopadhyay