Monday, October 14, 2013

THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY


There is also a great deal to like in Sujata Massey's novel, THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY. As the author of  delightful Rei Shimura series, Massey took  her readers on a giddy romp through the fashionable world of a Japanese American woman living and loving in Japan.  It was vastly entertaining, light hearted and cool. That was then. In her latest novel, Massey put  girly effervescence aside to focus on  the somber history of the Raj and to highlight the convulsive events that preceded India's independence from Britain.She did a seamless job of mixing Indian history and the travails of a lower caste woman whose name change to mirror her circumstances--Pom to Sarah to Kamala. At each stage, she gains a better understanding of what she must do in order to survive and if that involves telling lies and keeping secrets, she will do both.

 One of  Kamala's most important secrets is that of her true identity. This self-made Cinderella keeps to herself the story of her miraculous survival when a tidal wave destroyed her village and killed her family. Other miraculous escapes take place during her  her bumpy progression towards the welcoming arms of Oxonian Simon Lewes. But while her romance  echoes Simon's fascination with India, it is her daughter, Kabita,  who is the agent of her greatest transformation. Having landed a job as Simon's librarian, she keeps adding layers to her reinvented self and as it often happens with fabricated selves, hers are always at risk as she negotiates the intricate mazes of of British and upper caste Indian society. She balances her many lives gracefully, sheds a few illusions about a freedom fighting Indian lawyer, makes and loses friends with the resilience that
often is one of the greatest strengths of the dispossessed.

 As she grows closer to women friends whose nationalistic fervour matches her own, Kamala reexamines her relationship with Simon. He is, after all, the opposition. Or is he? Here is one one my minor quibbles about THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY. Privileged Brit that he is, Simon seems to grows saintlier as the story goes on. He sheds the arrogance, the superiority that comes with being the conqueror among the conquered, in a way that suits the prince in a fairytale. That is OK. We need fairytales and heavens knows that revisiting the hijinks of a  of Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany injects a shot of  realism into the novel. Never mind that  Massey's Bose is a pale version than the one portrayed western historians. Perhaps to question the rightness of Indian Moslems consorting with Nazis even as Jews were being led to gas chambers is not one that would deeply trouble  Kamala, who had enough problems of her own. But I feel  that Massey's novel can give the reader who is unacquainted  with the history of the Raj too rosy view of Indian politicians. Bose, for example, was no choirboy. He was a radical Moslem at a time when his Indian coreligionists supported the  the less than pacific Califate. This is something Simon must have known about and I wonder why it never came up in his chats with Kamala.

Gandhi's real character--his own support of the imperialistic  Califate is not mentioned-- is something a woman of Kamala's experience might question. The  absurdity of his advice to German Jews, at the height of Nazi persecution, ought to give a woman of Kamala's intelligence pause,  "I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment . And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can." Massey's Kamala  does touch upon some of these issues. In my opinion, she touches way too lightly and thus adds credence an anachronistic,  sanitized, cinematographic view of Bose and Gandhi.  A propos anachronisms, it seems to me that Massey's editor slipped when she allowed one of the characters in the novel to  say that Kamala was right "to empower" famine victims to help each other. To the best of my knowledge the verb entered the vernacular in a fairly recent past.
Be that as it may, none of my quibbles mean that I did not  enjoy this book. I did, and I recommend it. Massey is a good writer and one of her strengths, along with clarity and versatility,  is her deep understanding and loving portrayal of female characters. Kamala is one of her finest creations, no less resourceful,  beautiful, and   fascinating than  Rei Shimura> Wjhat is best, is that she is all grown up.

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