Reviewed by Henry M Bourgeois
by Nandini Bhattacharya
ISBN: 978-1-951547-08-0, October 27, 2020, 260 pages
In this debut novel, Love’s Garden, set in British colonial India between 1898 and 1950, Nandini Bhattacharya, herself a native of Bengal and professor of English, Gender Studies, and Film at Texas A&M University, takes us on a journey through the lives of several women who struggle with the perennial issues of caste, sexism, colorism, miscegenation, patriarchy and colonial oppression. She is uniquely qualified to give us a very authentic view about the women and their struggles for equality in the context of colonial India leading up to the struggle for independence from their British colonial masters. The plot is anchored in the principal female character Prem who marries a rich man Sir Naren, “the Brown Baron Frog Prince,” at age 15 and moves into his palatial mansion in Bengal’s main city Kalkota. She becomes the matriarch whose life is intimately intertwined with the other important women characters in the novel: Roma, daughter of Prem’s childhood friend Kanan; Lilian, the Englishwoman with whom her husband had fathered a male child Roderick; and her emotionally distant mother Saroj who later in life goes to live with her daughter in Kalkota.
Through times of upheaval and across three generations, the novel exposes ever changing yet deeply ingrained relationships among social groups (men, women, castes, foreigners). But it specifically focuses on the changing relationships between mothers and daughters. Motherhood connects and disconnects the women. Mothers are lost. Mothers are found. Roma loses her mother in childbirth to find one in Prem. Prem feels disconnected from her emotionally distant mother Saroj but connects with her maid servant Munia. These women who lean on each other for sustenance and support also experience personal conflicts with each other. Roma becomes alienated from Prem once she talks about aspiring to be an actress and actually participating as an activist in the incipient rebellion against British rule. However, they seem to have reconciled when they trace their steps back to their home village to live a new chapter in their lives.
The novel also explores to a lesser extent men and women relationships dictated by patriarchal norms. Saroj’s brother-in-law wants to claim her as his property after the death of her husband. Prem becomes the prized light skinned wife that helps her husband Sir Naren move in high society. Sir Naren has a son with Lilian but refuses to recognize him or marry her because of social and cultural norms and because “he doesn’t want to anger his British colleagues.” Prem, Roma, and Saroj marry wealthy men, but they don’t really love their husbands.
Love’s Garden does not shy away from controversial issues. One that resonates with me is the question of colorism in India. Roma is dark-skinned unlike Prem and her aspirations to become a film actress are frustrated by perceptions of color in the Indian film industry which privileges lighter skinned actresses just as the majority of classified marriage ads in Sunday newspapers in India require light skin in potential wives. The novel also exposes the arrogance, racism and white superiority of the British who “regard Indians as children unfit to rule”; and who have used racial hierarchies to divide and control their colonized peoples not only in India, but in the rest of the British empire; and who regard miscegenation as white Americans do with their one drop rule. By this token, Indians, even Anglo Indians like Roderick, “can never be Britons.” Or the arrogance of Churchill who refers to Gandhi as a “seditious half-naked fakir”.
The author’s style is simple and straightforward, and her use of highly descriptive prose generates excellent dialog and tantalizingly paints her characters as well as the tumultuous events in which they participate. I particularly enjoyed the alliterative flourishes: (“tawny tangy dancing woman”; “she senses sin and shame standing sentry”; “maggoty men”); the challenging vocabulary: (“termagants”; “tumescently proud”); and plastic descriptions: (“fish belly pale inner forearm”; “moon whipped water”; “soda bottle eye glasses”; “ the barbed wires of consolation”).
So, what is Love’s Garden? For me, it seems to be a garden of many loves: love between mothers and daughters; love of mothers for sons; unrequited love; carnal love; improbable love; lost love; first love; love that does not conquer all. But this garden is also strewn with the thorns of unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of women shuttered in silos of despair and desperation trying their utmost to cope in uncertain times. I highly recommend this well written, appealing, and imaginative first novel.
About the reviewer: Henry M Bourgeois is a trainer/facilitator, and a curriculum developer who runs workshops for creating consensus around sensitive inter-cultural, race, gender and disability issues and enabling effective diversity communication and awareness. He has extensive experience effectively working in local, national and international settings and using creative multi-media tools for communicating the above-mentioned issues.