Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2020 > Book Review: Suralakshmi Villa

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020

Book Review: Suralakshmi Villa

Saturday 30 May 2020

BOOK REVIEW:

by Monmayee Basu

Book : Suralakshmi Villa
Author : Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher : Pan Macmillan Publishing India
Year of Publication : 2020
ISBN 978-93-89109-39-9

Suralakshmi Villa by Aruna Chakravarti, the well-known novelist, translator, the Sahitya Academy Award-winner, is another excellent addition to the collection of gems of books written by Indian women writers on issues of women. Extremely thought-provoking, the novel engages the mind of the readers so intensely that even after putting down the book, one’s thought hovers around the diversified characters that the author has neatly woven and the world of pathos and hope she has created around them.

The beauty of the captivating story line is that it is placed in two diametrically opposite settings that are inextricably and seamlessly intertwined with each other and merges into a single tapestry where the variances fade away into oblivion. At the outset, the opposites are quite sharp and focussed, — a rural setting contrasted with an urban milieu, one Hindu, and the other a Muslim family, high education on one hand and illiteracy on the other, elitist prosperity vis-a-vis abject poverty. Multiple characters play vital roles on both sides, but two central figures bridge these two seemingly opposite groups.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the smooth integration of different timelines, — Bengal and Delhi of 1930s to late 1990s. The author has amazingly depicted in minutest detail the changing socio-economic-cutural context of the broad time-frame that she maps in the book.

The story begins against the urban backdrop of Delhi in 1998 where, as is typical of the modern urban world, a villa — the Suralakshmi Villa— is being razed to the ground giving way to the construction of a fancy apartment building. In the late 1940s or early 50s Suralakshmi Villa was built by Rai Bahadur Indrannath Chaudhury, an ICS officer under the British. He had bought two acres of land facing the road going towards the Qutab Minar, and developed a private colony comprising five identical villas for his five daughters — Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi, Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi. It was Lakshmi, Indranath Chaudhury’s wife, who decided everything in the house. Devastated by the untimely widowhood of her eldest daughter Mahalakshmi within a year of her marriage at the age of fifteen, Lakshmi was determined not to marry her daughters in haste, but to educate them and encourage them to build up their careers at the end of which they could marry at their own will. As a result, all her daughters were educated and pursued careers according to their choice and capabilities. The brightest of them was Suralakshmi who established herself as a leading gynaecologist of Delhi. Problems started when, at the age of 31, she decided to marry Moinak Sen, a married man with three children, older than her by eighteen years. All her family members were aghast at her decision and dissuaded her vehemently, but she would not listen.

As against this urban setting, the author takes us to an archetypal village of Bengal — Hasanpur of Malda district, where the narrative revolves around a poor Muslim family, — that of Moinuddin, a goatherd. He lived at one end of the village where the poorest Muslims of Hasanpur lived inside the broken terracotta palaces of the ancient kingdom of Gaud. At the other end of the village lived Moinuddin’s destitute mother-in-law Zaitoon Bibi. Ruksana, Moinuddin’s wife, an extremely oppressed woman at the hands of a tyrannical and remorseless Moinuddin, gave birth to children year after year, but all her sons died at birth and only her four daughters survived. Eidun, the third daughter, was perpetually exploited sexually by her father. It is noteworthy here how beautifully Chakravarti portrays the pains and anguish of Ruksana and Eidun, the hunger and helplessness of Zaitoon Bibi and her poor daughter’s inability to protect her against the savage cruelty of Moinuddin, who, along with some others in the village, set her on fire, thus killing her, declaring her to be a witch. The vivid portrayal with remarkable lucidity cannot but bring tears to the reader’s eyes.

These two seemingly irreconcilable parallel stories in diametrically opposite settings become interwoven on the basis of certain commonalities which reminds us that, after all, basic human psychology is the same everywhere. It transcends all barriers of class, religion, education, material possessions. It stimulates in all classes and communities the same passion and reaction, joy and anguish. Suralakshmi accepted the invitation of her second cousin Pratul and his wife Nayantara, who was also her close friend, to accompany them on a cruise on the Ganga. Chakravarti’s story-telling, studded with occasional accounts of the natural beauty of plants, flowers, trees, sky and the Ganga, as also the splendour of intricate, exquisite carvings, paintings, tapestries of ancient monuments of Bengal, similar folk customs and practices in Hindu and Muslim households, is simply superb. They reached Malda where Suralakshmi met Moinuddin’s family, rescued Eidun from her father’s perverted sexual assaults and adopted her formally. On her return, Suralakshmi married Moinak Sen who, along with his family — former wife and children, — moved into Suralakshmi Villa. Henceforward, the author masterfully weaves a narration where transcending all differences, the characters display unique oneness of human behaviour. Moinak Sen trampled upon the rights and sentiments of his first wife and married Suralakshmi; similarly, Moinuddin married another woman in the hope of getting a son. In the absence of opportunities due to lack of education, these two hapless women — Moinak Sen’s first wife "the lady with the suffering eyes", as the author calls her, and Ruksana — lost all dignity and voice and were mercilessly reduced to the status of mere servants. Very skilfully and subtly Chakravarti here highlights the significance of education and self-sufficiency in women’s life.

In both the parallel chronicles Eidun emerged as the extreme sufferer. She was the object of lust and exploitation of both the licentious oppressors — her father Moinuddin as well as Moinak Sen. At the time of her repression by Moinak, her confused, dazed consciousness failed to distinguish between her father and the present tormentor and both got blended into one. The shock of discovery of Moinak’s monstrous depravity drove sense into Suralakshmi of her own follies and injustice and a deep sense of regret engulfed her. She left for Malda for good with Eidun to work in a village clinic, leaving behind everything including her young son Kingshuk. Here again Chakravarti’s subtle emphasis on women’s education comes to the fore. Suralakshmi was able to register her protest and revulsion so strongly because she had the power of education. She protected Eidun from the barbarism of Moinak, — a protection that her helpless, poor, illiterate mother failed to provide against the similar savagery of her father. In Malda, Kingshuk’s future would have been completely jeopardised, so Suralakshmi hardly had any option but to leave him with his father. But at the same time this revealed her determination and strength of mind. Through her excellent power of story-telling, Aruna Chakravarti has transmitted compelling socio-psychological messages and has left her readers engrossed in rumination.

Dr. Monmayee Basu is Associate Professor in History at Hansraj College, university of Delhi. She is the author of the book Hindu Women and Marriage Law, published by Oxford University Press (2001) and also the co-author of the omnibus Women and Law in India published by Oxford University Press in 2004, and also the author of several essays pub-lished in different journals. Her book on European History is about to be published at the end of 2020 by Oriental BlackSwan.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted