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Indo-Brit Jugalbandi


Neelum Saran Gour

THE STRAWBERRY PATCH
By Nonda Chatterjee
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2004, pp. 228, Rs. 250.00

SOMETHING BLACK IN THE LENTIL SOUP
By Reshma S. Ruia
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2004, pp. 245, Rs. 250.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 7 July 2005

What wins you over initially, as you go through The Strawberry Patch by Nonda Chatterjee, is the sentence in the Acknowledgements page: ‘I wish to thank my grandchildren… for liking my stories, and the eldest, Ananya, who said—“of course you can write a book between work and cooking”.’ The Afterword tells you that Nonda Chatterjee was born in 1938 and the Author-Intro informs you that this is her first book. Slowly, as you put the pieces together, a touching portrait emerges—of the author, at 67, writing her first book of stories.     No fantastic grandmother’s fables these. The eight stories in the volume, arranged chronologically from 1903 till 1984, are authentic resurrections of a receded civilization, restfully slow-paced and reflecting values whose eclipse in contemporary writing has left a hollow that no amount of braggart cleverness has managed to fill. The early stories are evocations of an age when British imperial enterprise intersected with an emergent Bengali cultural surge. To an author for whom a rich regional past is as accessible as the present there are lores that deserve to be aired, community memories that must be preserved and brave personal precedents that might serve to inspire and uplift. Collectively these stories recall the heroism and endurance of unsung women, some of whom have been to Chatterjee ‘a personal anchor, a yardstick against which I would forever measure my own ability to surmount whatever odds life brought my way.’       So there is the account of Surendra Nath Banerjea’s wife, Chandi Devi, who masterminded a counter-offensive against a gang of rapacious Brit ‘Tommies’ in 1903. There is the story of Rani and her sisters in pre-partition Dhaka, who live down child marriages, widowhood and humiliating dependence, and while some submit, others step out of accepted gender roles in ways that are admirably self-responsible. In 1942 the apparently anglicized wife of an Indian Railways officer makes a private and unsuspected contribution towards the Quit-India effort. The descriptions of the Bengal famine in The Trial are a moving sequence and narrate how a young Bengali maidservant helped a well-known political activist escape from jail while she beguiled the jailer with her body. Closer to our own time, a young dalit woman kills her new-born baby as a gesture of defiance and provokes a local revolt. And a nun is protected by Christ himself in ‘The Miracle’, a heartening statement of old world trust that is strangely ...


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