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Melding Past And Present


Kirti Narain

THE COURTESANS OF KARIM STREET
By Debotri Dhar
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 217, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 8 August 2016

The book cannot be categorized as belonging to a particular genre as far as its story line is concerned. Undoubtedly a fiction, the reader is left wondering if the protagonist was actually a ‘real person’ who did not wish to reveal her identity, and yet wanted the world to know about her life and the people linked with her—their experiences, their mindsets, and their thinking that most of the time directed their actions. What comes across is a level of honesty that existed in the primary players and an acceptance of human failings—if one may call it that—of their loved ones. The story spans across three decades. Present day experiences are related in the third person, and the past through diaries, that the reader gradually realizes have been written by Deborah, the mother of the protagonist. Megan Adams, the protagonist, a PhD in English Literature from Princeton, is thirty and single, beautiful but darker skinned than the typical American. Megan’s voyage of discovery begins when she receives an anonymous note that says, ‘You are not a scholar. You are a whore, as your mother was before you, and your grandmother. Ask anyone on Karim Street.’ She had always wondered why she was darker than her parents, and it seems that the truth lay somewhere in a place called Karim Street. The place, or even the country, where Karim Street may be located is not known! Surprisingly, she is not unduly disturbed and carries on with her life as usual. Though extremely close to her father, Stanley Adams, a former diplomat, she never mentions to him the note she has received. However, she suspects that he did want her to know the truth of her birth and this takes her to Delhi where Karim Street is located in the congested ‘galis’ of the old city, that had once been the capital of the Mughal Emperors. An excerpt from the diary succinctly comments on heritage and laments the neglect of the old at the hands of the new. ‘Newer cities, with, buildings so tall their prices touch the sky, while the older cities and their counter-histories are razed to the ground. A few centres of opulence, and vast numbers of languishing peripheries, soulless, stripped of their past and present, existing only to serve. The very rich and the very poor; that is all we have.’ The male character, ...


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