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Questioning Goddesses

Nivedita Sen

By Saswati Sengupta
Zubaan, Delhi, 2011, pp. 348, Rs. 395.00


Uma, the protagonist of the novel, a young woman from a well-to-do back-ground with a modicum of higher education in Delhi, is married into an aristocratic brahmin family in Kolkata, and thereafter delves into its family history with an almost unhealthy curiosity. Uma’s unanswered questions get specifically provoked by the presence of an unexplained human fixture in the household—the so-called ‘pishi’ (aunt) with the green eyes, who has neither the status of a servant nor a member of the family. Pishi’s room in a dark little alcove between two floors signifies her marginality, as does her not being allowed to participate fully in the socio-cultural ceremonies of the family. Uma determines to get to the bottom of it all but is equally focused on reading and salvaging meanings from the scholarly heirloom of the family—an edition of the Chandimangal sutured together, selected and omitted from earlier versions by her husband’s great-grandfather.   The checkered histories of both the peripheral Pishi and the literary milestone merge in a dramatic discovery that almost fractures the conjugal bliss that Uma had hitherto taken for granted, which meant not only easily adapting to her husband but pleasurably soaking in the new ambience of the living space that has the imprint of three generations of her in-laws.   Uma’s preoccupation with the Chandimangal also triggers off an explosive realization that her own grandfather’s book that included the supposedly subaltern among the goddesses was rejected by her father-in-law’s printing press. Her growing uneasiness about this as well as her disquiet that ‘if print, potatoes and poets could have been accepted by the Bengalis, then why not a pair of green eyes?’ threatens even her relationship with her husband until it is healed by his challenging the norms of the family printing press that will not accept for publishing a book about the ‘other’ among the Calcuttans. Uma had believed for long that he was only interested in profit. The husband’s dormant, rebellious streak, therefore, strikes as somewhat abrupt and not quite carefully hinted at or fleshed out between the lines in an entirely credible manner. Pishi’s looks, location and lack of locus standi, indicative of ‘thereby hangs a tale’, on the other hand, comes full circle quite logically though unnecessarily tortuously. The intricacies of an extended family tree spanning so many epochs would be somewhat difficult to work ...

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