Friday, 10 June 2011
Kim's Review: The Collector's Wife
The Collector's Wife by Mitra Phukan is the first novel I have read, set in North East India and I thank Zubaan books for translating these brilliant authors into English, so more of us can enjoy their works.
The female protagonist, Rukmini Bezbaruah's husband Siddharth is the District Collector (administrative head of the district) of Parbatpuri, a small town in Assam. She herself is a part-time lecturer in English at the local college. Her in laws live in Guwahati and are busy with their own lives, as is Siddharth who is constantly on tour.
On the surface, she lives an extremely comfortable life in a government appointed bungalow, with plenty of household help, a chauffeur driven car and the respect that comes with being the Collectors wife.
However, her personal worries and fears are multitude - of not yet being a mother, her own thwarted ambitions of being a writer, a husband who seems to grow more distant by the day, her students who are involved in the Assam Students agitations, insurgency, kidnappings, illegal migration, extortion and the ever present threat of violence.
Her days are routine and empty and she finds no solace or company at the Mahila Samaj's (Ladies Associations) of which she is honorary chairperson or at the clubs where she and Siddharth sometimes spend their evenings echoing trite conversations.
It is in this scenario that Manoj Mahanta - a traveling tire salesman (albeit a manager) bursts into her scene. The excitement of meeting someone new, outside the government/academic circles that she normally moves in, brings a frisson into her life.
But the murders and kidnappings start occurring closer to home. The blurb at the back pre-informs you that the final denouement is horrifying and true, where the personal is so closely interwoven with the political, so you know that the ending isn't going to be pretty and the reader is constantly watching to see what could cause such a final denouement.
The novel twists and turns and Mitra Phukan uses some wonderfully evocative language that makes the book a pleasure to read. "she hitched up her mekhela chador as elegantly as the puddle in front of the gate allowed" or "she returned the hollow smiles of the elderly men affably flashing dentures and spectacles at her" "She deposited the large carton onto the brides orange and gold lap. What a relief it was to have got rid of that 'Keep Warm Casserole' at last" "Since there were no shops nearby, the daily household shopping trip had to be planned and executed with the meticulousness of an army manoeuvre"
Its a wonderfully evocative look into small town Assam at the heights of the student agitation and rebellion against illegal migration from across the border. It personalises what we only saw as newspaper headlines, 30 years ago.It delivers a message and imparts information on these causes, without being preachy.