Santosh Bakaya is a teacher and an author from Bharatpur, India. Teaching is her profession and writing is her passion. She has written a number of novels for teenagers(the Mystery of the Relic,The Mystery of the Jhalana Fort,The Mystery of the Pine cottage etc.) She has also written a few plays in Hindi--couple of her plays have been staged. She has also written poems and short stories,many of which have been published.
Review of THE DISTANCE
Highly recommended by an author friend , I managed to lay my hands on this 236 page literary treat, and the moment I started going through it, I was transported into a world peopled with lovely characters ;their fads and foibles, their whims and fancies ,their desires ,aims, ambitions, their dreams and aspirations. The opening line of the book hits t...he reader like a power-packed punch: “My grandmother had a heart attack.’’ She had a heart attack because an untouchable Bikau had the insolence to contaminate the water which supposedly belonged to her. Told in the first person singular, the protagonist, is a twenty year old collegian, Mini who is in awe of her college friend Amitav ,whose tongue has the” sharpness of a razor “and who is in “search of a great cause ,a cause that required extreme sacrifice, unimaginable pain.” Mimi’s time is divided between going to the college, where she has many friends—Samita being the closest—and home, where she is constantly under the eagle eye of her grandmother, Thakuma . Roychowdhury tells the story masterfully, and is at her best when describing Thakuma’s constant nagging of Mini about her complexion, acne, wedding, her thinning hair, uneven teeth. Granny’s life revolves around ‘fasting, praying and nagging. Thakuma despite her autocratic behavior, flings a surprise us when we learn that she is no widow but a woman who had willfully left her philandering husband because he had impregnated the maid, and now prefers leading the life of a widow, following meaningless rituals .One feels like giving this feisty woman a standing ovation for her rebellious step in cocking a snook at the deeply entrenched patriarchal set up.
Roychowdhury has very deftly captured the subtle nuances of existential angst, anxiety and anguish of a twenty year old girl of a middle class Bengali family who falls in love with a classmate Amitav, who is neck deep in revolutionary politics and consumed by a desire to remove injustice and inequality from his country. Mesmerized by the fiery rhetoric of his speeches, she wishes she could do something for him, work for him in some small way.
Mini wants to escape from the suffocating monotony of life in a middle class home. In such yearning, is she trying to escape reality? Is she trying to escape from Amitav? “The thought of flying away to a foreign country, away from my father’s control “is quite appealing.”I wanted to have my own apartment, make my own decisions, and live my own life….living in a foreign country also meant living without the in-laws.” Was this not an attractive proposal? After a lot of tearful self -introspection, she does decide to marry Neel, who is studying for his doctorate in Vancouver. Now starts her journey of assimilation in a foreign land tinged with nostalgia and retrospection ,Amitav continues to lurk in a corner of her mind pricking her conscience, at times making her hate her privileged status and telling her that consumerism seems to be ‘feasting ‘on her .In Vancouver, she feels like’ Rip Van Winkle who just wakes up from his hundred years of sleep and tries to find his place in a remarkably different world’165,-the glitzy world of rock music, ice hockey, rowing, mountain biking, skiing, skateboarding, kayaking which so far had only a Hollywood like mystique for her and now she comes face to face with people who are actively engaged in all these outdoor pursuits!
She has indeed travelled a long distance, away from her parents, away from Amitav, away from playing badminton outside her apartment building, skipping rope and kho-kho, away from the dust and grime of her motherland. Initially she likes the” newly found freedom “ is stunned by the display of wealth, greatly excited by the exclusivity of possession which she experiences by owning her own gas stove, her own fridge, etc. and yearns for the microwave ,the CD player which is still beyond her reach. The soft fairytale- like quality of her elevated status has her enthralled and she feels like Alice in wonderland not wanting to get up from her dream. But slowly, she realizes that despite this new found freedom, she is actually not free –shackled as she is to her nostalgia, her guilt and to Amitav. Consigned to a double edged life, she is caught between her desire to go back to her humble home and the compulsion to stay on in a foreign land where her husband has worked very hard to climb up the corporate ladder and who scoffs at her nostalgia about the” third class life in a third world”. With every passing day, in a foreign land her sense of displacement gnaws at her heart, every fibre of her being cries out for the warm comfort of her “crowded two bedroom apartment “at Gariahat, she misses the human voices, the chaos, the hustle and bustle of crowded domesticity. Her life becomes lackluster, she loses interest in her surroundings, she practices the ragas on the harmonium but it now lacks spontaneity. What a tragic irony, that in the land of plenty she yearns for the sound of laughter and gossip. One can almost feel her ambivalences, uncertainties and dilemmas. Having moved from the’ pieces of wood and concrete, ’that was her house in Calcutta, she still carries the memories in some corner of her mind which continue to haunt her. In addition to her compelling portrait of Mini, Roychowdhury treats us to a study in contrast between Mini’s mother and her aunt Rini. Having voluntarily accepted the humdrum life in a tiny damp flat with two dark rooms bare of most electric appliances merely because she is smitten by the handsome looks of Mini’s father, her mother is asked to cut off the heels from all her shoes, as she is taller than her husband, thus symbolically stepping down from the elevated status of her parental house, where original Jamini Roy and Tagore prints hang from the walls and antique furniture and a mahagony piano adorns the drawing room .
Aunt Rini, who married into a very wealthy family , is a high heeled, cigarette smoking ,party hopping socialite moving around with the crème de la crème of Calcutta society ,playing pool and tennis smelling of rich perfume and scented lotion, a far cry from her sister who is caught between a demanding mother-in law and a dull husband with nonexistent ambitions .Confined to the needle, thread and ladle she frequents only banks and post offices and plays second fiddle to her lackluster husband, the typical ‘submissive wife and sacrificing mother’, the sort Amitav wants should resist the conditions imposed upon them by the feudal patriarchal society. Long after the story is over, these characters remain with you.
Her father who has spent an entire lifetime in the house at Gariahat gets his peace in that modest house and when he is being evicted he feels devastated, and exclaims, ’I never asked for a king’s ransom. I just wanted to hold on to what little is mine’, unlike the covetous world around him which is lamentably besotted with the baubles and trinkets of life, where ordinary everyday dreams are crushed and bulldozed brutally. With an almost heart-warming candor, Roychowhury deals with the dilemmas of Mini, the choices she is faced with, her small pleasures, her pains, her doubts; the reader feels an overwhelming sense of empathy with Mini and earnestly wants to do something to ease her pain. She tries to let go of Amitav completely, but he has infiltrated her very being. Whether or not she is able to exorcise his spirit is something the reader will need to discover upon finishing this wonderful book.
At times one has a sneaking suspicion that there definitely is some autobiographical element in her debut novel, because of the way she describes minute details. I strongly feel that such a wonderful book should be an essential part of every college and university library and of course a part of one’s personal library. I have it in mine!