A lot of things about the blurb and the first chapter of Chronicles of the Lost Daughters by Debarati Mukhopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha from Bengali, and published by Harper Collins India) remind you of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. The blurb refers to a family who “end up in an overcrowded depot near a port, soon to be packed into a ship sailing to Surinam, where they will be sold as sugarcane plantation slaves,” bringing back the memories of Sea of Poppies. It makes you wonder; what will be different about Debarati Mukhopadhyay’s novel? As you read on, you realise that the two books could not have been more different in their themes and style both.
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India and her daughters
Titled Narach in Bengali, Chronicles of the Lost Daughters is, truly a chronicle of the daughters of India – those daughters who were lost, who were murdered, and who were obliterated without a trace in the name of tradition.
Debarati Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali bestseller follows two main story-lines. The first is of Bhubonmoni, a young widow, whose family decides to leave their village after she is raped by two men and Bhubon comes under the radar of other predators in the village. Her brother, Krishnoshundor, is a learned but meek and somewhat naive brahmin who believes in the vedic teachings. He has named his two daughters Awpala and Lopamudra, and hopes that they will become as learned as their namesakes one day. The sheer force of society, however, means that he and his family cannot survive in the village after his sister’s rape and they leave the village only to fall in the clutches of Nobokishore Datta, a rich but corrupt merchant who is willing to go to any lengths for two things – money and a son.
The second strand of the story follows Chondronath, a young musician who comes to Metiabruj hoping to get a place in the court of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. These two separate strands run parallel for most of the novel, but come together towards the end.
Debarati Mukhopadhyay and her sprawling canvas
The canvas of Chronicles of the Lost Daughters is huge and it is filled with multiple characters whose stories diverge from one another as the novel progresses. Krishnoshundor is packed off as a ‘girmitiya’ to Surinam along with his wife and his son, while fate keeps Bhubonmoni, Awpala and Lopa in Calcutta, but under very different circumstances. Debarati Mukhopadhyay gives us the fates of all these characters, amongst others, and we move from chapter to chapter in the lives of these people. Besides these, some real life characters also find place here. Apart from the Nawab, we come across a young Robindranath Tagore and Kadambini Ganguly, the first Indian woman who became a doctor.
The novel is set at a tumultuous time for Indian society. The backbone of the story is the then on-going tussle between those who want to subjugate women in the name of religion and tradition, and those who believe in giving women a life of dignity and equality. The supposed upholders of what they consider the Indian culture, tradition and values are personified in the book by the charlatans Dhononjoy and Paanchkori Mukhopadhyay, who support social practices such as gauridaan and child marriage; and take advantage of young widows and young girls under the garb of religion. On the other side are people like Darokaanath, Shourendro and others who fight for betterment of women’s status. As the drama in Chronicles unfolds, it does so in the background of the fight to get the Age of Consent Act passed, which would make it punishable to have intercourse with a girl less than twelve years of age.
They were bad times…
The title of the novel is Chronicles of Lost Daughters, and the women do leave an impression. Debarati Mukhopadhyay pulls no punches as she describes the situation of the country’s daughters at the hands of the country’s supposed upholders. We see women, like Bhubonmoni outcasted by society because they have been raped; we witness a ten-year-old Awpala bleed to death because she cannot survive her husband’s ‘love-making’; we witness the plight of child brides, and the dire consequences in case child marriage does not, for whatever reason, take place.
And if a girl is unmarried past puberty, her father and brother go to hell when they die. In the midst of all this, the gradual transformation of Bhubonmoni from a shy, down-trodden widow to a human naraach – a weapon against the evils of society – is satisfying to behold. The English translation also inclues a glossary which gives the non-Bengali and the non-Indian reader enough idea about the various terms, people and events covered in the novel and is quite useful in understanding the historical and social context it is set in.
Debarati Mukhopadhyay also details the life of the indentured workers and their suffering under the white plantation owners and the hyprocritical and double-faced Nawab who on one hand is a romantic writing songs under the name Akhtar Pia and on the other a lustful and careless ruler who doesn’t care for anyone and anything beyond his pleasures.
Too many cooks…
One of the weaknesses of the book is that there is too much going on and we move too soon from one group of characters to another to develop any bond with them. We feel for them, yes, but the breathless shifting between the storylines makes some characters and storylines feel somewhat superficial. And while Debarati Mukhopadhyay does a wonderful job of bringing the historical aspect of the novel alive through the debates and discussions between the various characters, the novel feels like a history lesson at a few places.
Then there is the ending of the novel, which will perhaps evoke mixed feelings in a lot of readers. The last few chapters of Chronicles reminded me of Victorian novels that end too neatly; where long-lost brothers unite; where the just are (mostly) rewarded and the unjust punished; where co-incidence plays too big a role to maintain balance of the good and the bad. It makes the ending feel a little forced and convenient.
Despite its flaws, Chronicles of the Lost Daughters by Debarati Mukhopadhyay is a book with its heart in the right place. Mukhopadhyay’s writing is fiery and no-hold-barred and she does manage to make an impact in the reader’s mind with Narach.
You must have heard of the weapon named naraach. It was used in the battle of Kurukkhetro. Bhishsho used to slay many foes at the same time with each naraach. To go to war against conservative society, we need a human naraach, each of whose potent blows will destroy all the injustice society heaps on us.
Final verdict: 3.5 stars
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