Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra
Title: Suralakshmi Villa
Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2020
Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.
In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit) intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small measure a testament to the author’s immense storytelling skills.
The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi. For all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.
Suralakshmi’s story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.
For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident. There is a conscious and carefully calibrated structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.
The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely convincing.
In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression and travails of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession portrayed in the stories of their mother, Ruksana and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched, too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted to one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have been created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.
Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.
Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it is a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring.
Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving her son Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance. Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since, there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.
Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’ in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review