A review of Nandini Bhattacharya’s unsparing story of families and Indian independence
“This is not a tragic melodrama movie,” one of the characters in Love’s Garden thinks, about her life. Perhaps unfortunately, the same cannot be said of this novel.
Over the course of many, many lush and searing pages, Nandini Bhattacharya paints a picture of one family’s transition from their quiet lives in an Indian village to pariahs in a ravaged post-independence Calcutta. The story revolves around Prem, a village girl who marries a wealthy Bengali Indian and follows him to the city. There, in Calcutta, Indian independence sweeps like a typhoon through her life; upending her future just like it does the nation’s. This contrast between Prem’s domestic loves and the nation’s epic struggle form the fulcrum of the story.
Bhattacharya has an undeniable talent as a writer, visible when she describes a young girl hugging a friend, “her little body still fluttering with long, perforated sighs.” The imagery of perforation lives beautifully inside the more cliché home of the ragged gasp. Or later, when Bhattacharya describes a necklace: “a fine gold chain blistered by diamonds,” turning the stones’ legendary clarity into small, foretelling bruises. Diamonds, in fact, make many appearances in this novel: as the currency by which women measure men’s love, as when one man fastens a diamond necklace around the “soft, plump throat of the girl-woman he loves,” before eventually breaking the news that he won’t marry her because she’s a Muslim prostitute and he’s a high-society Hindu. Every diamond in this story is some kind of blood diamond, offered to offset or distract from an injury.
If my own family’s experience is anything to go by, gems have an outsize importance for Indian women— not just because gems are beautiful, but because, as Marilyn Monroe sleekly informed us on a very different continent in a very different time, “men grow cold” but diamonds “don’t lose their shape.” In a time when married women could not own property, jewels formed a woman’s only inheritance; the only wealth and security she could pass on to her own daughters. Appropriately, Prem’s diamonds are almost a billable character, whether offering a moment of sly humor: “the diamond earrings that she wears twinkle as if trying to lighten the situation,” or marking an unbridgeable human divide: “her hand with its heavy diamond ring lies between them on the seat of the Rolls”, or illuminating her as the ultimate society hostess, when “diamonds glitter in” her hair. They symbolize Prem’s burdens, her losses, and the contrast between what she receives and what she can pass on.
Into Prem’s gilded cage — her sacred and domestic sphere — Indian independence extends its snaky and insistent fingers. As the movement gains traction, she finds herself torn between the Britishers she’s been taught to revere (and who have enriched and knighted her Indian husband) and her growing awareness that the occupation is wrong. She doesn’t take to the streets; she tries to protect her family.
Let’s be clear — this book does not excuse empire; in fact, it paints Britain’s injustice in a light that is both accurate and unyielding, as when describing the Raj’s pernicious efficacy at pitting Indians against each other: “For decades, maybe centuries, they [the British] played the gadfly, the ambassadors of hate. Set this Hindu Raja at that Muslim Nawab.” The story spends several pages on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, perhaps one of the most notorious events of the British occupation, in which a British officer ordered soldiers to murder hundreds of unarmed protesters in a locked garden: “Women tried to save themselves by jumping into wells with their children. They couldn’t. Death’s angel in the form of a zealous English officer picked off each soul thrashing toward life.”
The story climaxes with Partition, the division of India and Pakistan; a sort of perverted parting gift from India’s erstwhile overlords. Divided against themselves, Indians turned on each other in a series of bloody massacres that claimed thousands — possibly millions — of lives. The horrors of Partition are depicted in gory detail by one of the characters, who finds herself stranded on the streets as mobs take over the city. Everywhere, she sees body parts:
“It’s a hand. Possibly a woman’s. Chopped off at the wrist, fingers cactused, clawing inward as if something has been ripped out of them. The stench is much stronger. She sees dark, reddish splashes pulsating with black flies. Dark smears on the pillar…A child’s head…A woman — young, longhaired — staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. Her breasts are gone.”
These harrowing chapters are Bhattacharya’s best work: atmospheric, revolting, visceral, necessary. And later, Bhattacharya highlights a part of Partition’s history sometimes overlooked: mobs kidnapped, mutilated and gang-raped women, so frequently that a special law was later passed to attempt to repatriate some of the survivors. From this point onwards, the novel has a near meteoric velocity.
Prior to the climax, though, it dawdles along. Many chapters pass without noticeable advancement of plot or character. Prem, for all her gestures towards familial solidarity, seems inexplicably ineffective at times, spending long hours moping about.
It’s a bit of a spoiler to say it, but this is one of those stories where none of the happy coincidences happen. Everyone arrives too late or dies too early; people go into their graves with words left unsaid. Really, really bad stuff happens over and over again.
And that’s my real, singular complaint against this novel: it’s too uniformly depressing. Yes, colonialism and patriarchy sucked, but I feel like I’ve read so many novels that seem weighted down by these twin burdens, as if the author doesn’t want to risk us — the modern reader — forgetting how bad it was, or perhaps not realizing how bad it was. And I understand that desire — part of the goal of retelling difficult histories is to challenge us not to turn away from them. But at the same time, I don’t think it would have been untrue to the characters, in this setting, to allow them to feel a few more moments of joy, if only to light up the rest of the darkness.
Thanks to Aubade Publishing and NetGalley for providing a digital ARC of this book.