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Illusions and Realities

Radha Chakravarty

By Chitrita Banerji
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2014, pp. 408, Rs. 499.00


At a key moment in this novel, the protagonist Uma reflects upon a Baul song by Lalon Shah, evoking the mysterious allure of Mirror City—‘a place that adjoins one’s home, yet remains forever unreachable’. This is also the feeling we get about the city of Dhaka as it appears in Chitrita Banerji’s debut novel, which derives its title from this song. A city in the throes of convulsive political change, a culture in crisis—yet a scenario experienced at one remove, for we as readers never quite feel the living pulse of the place. In part, of course, this is because Uma is an outsider in Dhaka, a Hindu girl from India who refuses to change her religion after her marriage to Iqbal, a Bangladeshi she meets during her student days in America. Though warmly accepted by Iqbal’s close circle of friends, and absorbed into her new job with an international aid agency, Uma finds it hard to develop a sense of belonging in her new home in Dhaka. Her predicament is complicated by the machinations of Maqbool, a government official known to be close to the Prime Minister, and the dramatic appearance of the mystery woman Nasreen. An aura of dark political intrigue hangs over the young couple’s relationship like a cloud.  As her marriage disintegrates under these pressures, Uma finds herself attracted to the married businessman Alim Chowdhury. The assassination of the Prime Minister and the altered life of the city under a new military regime, provide a vital turning point in the private and public lives of all the characters who inhabit this slow-paced narrative. As dream turns to nightmare and friends prove to be unsuspected foes, Uma begins to realize the extent of her separation from the inner life of this ‘mirror’ city, so near, yet so far, from her hometown Kolkata, from which she has exiled herself after her family’s refusal to accept her marriage.  Once blinded by illusion and romance, Uma now confronts more than one difficult choice.  The strengths of this novel lie in the author’s willingness to address a relatively neglected area in Indian writing in English: individual relationships between Indians and Bangladeshis, framed within the intertwined histories of East and West Bengal, the aftermath of Partition and the Liberation War, and the situation in post-Liberation Dhaka.  History is omnipresent in the narrativization of private ...

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