A review of Rhododendrons by Sreetanwi Chakraborty

Reviewed by Ketaki Datta

by Sreetanwi Chakraborty
Jan 2023, 91 pages, RRP Rs.200/$12, ISBN:978-81-956197-9-7

This is a debut novella by Sreetanwi Chakraborty, who is a poet, painter, novelist, reviewer, and editor apart from being a full-time academic in a University in Kolkata, India. The novel has a splash of colours on the cover, drawn by the author herself, depicting Rhododendron flowers, from which the title of the book is derived. The plural of Rhodendron might be a pointer to sundry memories and characters that people the canvas, and in singular this would be just the protagonist. If we allow our imagination to stretch a bit, it might mean the protagonist and her dear ones, as all are colourful like the Rhododendrons. The Rhododendrons which Sreenandini loved to tend stood for many a thing, even the baby which had been scraped out of her womb, years ago.

The book has an interesting layout, in which each chapter has a title, redolent of nostalgia, meaning, perception and resonance. For example, the first Chapter is “Book Covers, the Flautist and Parijatham” and all these elements are present in the narration with proper implications, the book covers implying the discussion of books between the protagonist and her friends, the flautist calls for music that is sweet to the ears of the protagonist while she saunters around Park Street and Parijatham has a significance pertaining to love, moist and engaging. The South Indian twist in the name of the flower from Heaven, of course, has a lot to do with Amudhan, her admirer and friend from Chennai.  Similarly, the titles of the subsequent chapters are loaded with proper connotations. 

The story revolves round Sreenandini, the protagonist of the novel. She is married to Baisakh, who had been her batch-mate at a premier institution of Kolkata. The narration centres round a slew of things in the opening chapter: the student days spent in the portals of the institution, the mutual attraction of Baisakh and Sreenandini, their academic interests, love for books, discussion on the same, occasional differences of opinion in a politics-torn campus, where friends took a fraction of a minute to change into foes when mutual interests clashed and Sreenandini’s coming out with flying colours in the examinations that decided her future as an academic. Baisakh is keen on making a foray into the heart of Sreenandini and Sree yields to his expressive eyes and loving heart. Sallying out to Paramount [sherbet centre] while talking incessantly about the books they read, looking at the tubewell beneath the window in the classroom, the boy being taken to Calcutta Medical College following a rumpus— all are enough to etch a vibrant life in a leading institution of the metrolopolis where their love thrived, ramified and found roots. The description of the evening at Park Street, with all its splashing hues and music is equally authentic. An urban backdrop sees love cocooning a young boy and a girl,a dream of future rocking them in its lap . But later on, Sreenandini had to fight with the nonchalance Baisakh treated her with. She fell in love with a South Indian bloke, Amudhan, who kept arranging Creative Writing Workshops and Classes from Chennai to Darjeeling, quite regularly, with Sreenandini, a poet to the core, as the mentor of all those sessions. Amudhan expressed his mad love for her though Sree was more of a holy presence in his life than an object of amour. No doubt, inwardly she had fallen for Amudhan too. Lakshmi , his wife, was not a dampening  inhibition in their relationship. But Shama, a young assistant was. Sree felt betrayed, hoodwinked, left-out.

While on a tour to Darjeeling alone, to conduct one such Creative Writing Workshop, she got to know Afroz. Afroz went out of his way to make her happy, even walking along the narrow space around the toy-train and holding out his hands to hold Sree. Sree enjoyed every moment of her togetherness with Afroz, even she had a memorable night at Sudip-da’s place with Afroz. Sudip da and Atasi di talked about the deplorable plight of tea-plantation, which was coming out of rut lately . 

The last chapter is really a consummation of all mental failings a woman like Sree can have. The readers must read this wonderful book to get a feel of tightrope walking a woman can venture in, to give vent to her pent-up emotions and dreams. Though the presence of Afroz was found to be a chimera, he had to be there to add meaning to the novel. Sreenandini was looking for an exciting love that would take her on an everlasting flight into the terrains of never-flagging thrill, a true bond that never could slacken or snap. 

The narration is smooth as silk, easy-flowing as a mountain cascade. The concluding lines leave us in a labyrinth of emotions where reality and imagination stand at crossroads:

She was still waiting for Afroz, who had promised to deck her with raining sunshine of misty rhodendrons under an emancipated sky…
‘What did you lose?’ he asked.
‘My child, I lost ten years back,’ she answered.
‘What are you waiting for?’ he insisted.
‘Our child of the rhodendrons…’she answered. (91)

This is a gem of modern Indian English fiction, to be read and enjoyed and treasured by the avid readers of fiction.

About the reviewer: Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English in a Govt. College in West Bengal. She has two novels to her credit, A Bird Alone and One Year for Mourning. She has two translated novels[one published by Sahitya Akademi] and a collection of Tagore’s short stories in translation. She has three collection of poetry, one jointly with Prof. Wilfried Raussert of Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research on the Toto tribe has been published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, with the title, Oral Stories of the Totos in 2022.Her book of short stories is slated for release soon.