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Sujata Massey, award-winning author of the Rei Shimura series, has stepped confidently out of her mystery mode and into the realm of historical fiction. Her novel The Sleeping Dictionary breathes new life into both the well-worn tale of an orphan against the world and the always popular coming-of-age narrative by utilizing unusual settings and unconventional challenges.
The narrator, given a succession of names representing the four major changes in her life, must recognize her situation, use her wits to find a solution, and learn from her mistakes more than once. In doing so, each phase of her life builds upon the previous to make the next more successful, just as India moves steadily toward independence.
The novel is set between 1930 and 1947, when the narrator ages from 10 to 27 and is constantly caught between who she was and who she believes she can be. Considerable emotional ground is covered: the sorrow of loss, the joy of friendship, and the promise of love. As if that weren’t enough, there is caste conflict, espionage, betrayal, survival, heartache, heartbreak, and the fire of activism in the nearly 500 pages of this captivating odyssey. Massey handles all of it beautifully with language that shimmers and shines as brightly as her heroine’s hopes, dreams, and determination.
As Pom-then-Sarah-then-Pamela and finally as Kamala, the story’s narrator endures much, is tremendously likeable, and takes the reader’s hand as she makes her journey. She holds on tightly because while she may seem outwardly confident, she’s often unsure, scared, or overwhelmed, and all for good reason. She survives a cyclone, servitude at a British Christian boarding school, a turn at a high-class brothel for high-profile customers (where she learns what a “sleeping dictionary” is), and the Calcutta riots of 1946.
Pom/Sarah/Pamela/Kamala is a clever girl who is intelligent, but she is naïve in the ways of the world. Within that naïveté, however, the basic notions of kindness, right versus wrong, and justice help to propel her forward. It is that inherent decency that allows her to find ways to work within the system to get what she needs without harming those for whom she feels affection.
“One thing I felt strongly about keeping true was the fact that women couldn’t speak out to others about their feelings during these years,” Massey told me in an e-interview. “Kamala had to put up with a lot of nasty things said and done to her, because to rail against it would make her appear to be a lunatic who was seeking to lose employment, friends and worse.”
Along the way, those cruel characters are contrasted by ones that are genuinely good and kind. Portrayed as having open hearts and minds, some of the positive characters in Kamala’s life are British. Those characters were born as a result of Massey’s research.
“As I worked on this book,” she explains, “I came to believe that not all British residents of India during this time were evil people. It’s so easy to label people because a government’s policy is unjust. The characters of a teacher called Miss Jamison, the government bureaucrat Simon Lewes, and the liberal minister John McRae show how some British people opened their eyes and grew to love India: treasuring its literature, making real friendships, and acting responsibly to right wrongs. Of course, the prejudiced, destructive British characters are there, too.”
As if the novel were a watercolor, a wash of humanity is portrayed within. Kamala becomes acquainted with girls, women, and men from different walks of life, social classes, religious backgrounds and different political viewpoints.
“India was then—and still is now —a multiplicity of small kingdoms of different religions, languages and tastes,” Massey said. “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians were quite peaceful in their coexistence during this period, and I really wanted to share that and expose the roots of misunderstanding and hatred that grew out of the 1946 Calcutta riots. I also seek to illustrate that when freedom activists yearned for a free India, they sometimes had different ideas about which political parties would represent their communities fairly.
Just as we do today, every time an election rolls around.”
The Sleeping Dictionary is as far-reaching in its breadth as it is in its depth, and part of that is because Massey takes a different look at the bid for independence. Rather than focus on Gandhi, she chose a different freedom leader and his movement. I asked her if the book was always going to be about the last days of colonialism.
“I’ve been traveling to India since childhood,” she said, “and while I have been to many places, I’ve always been drawn to the richness of my family’s ancestral city, Calcutta (Kolkata). When I was in Kolkata in 1998 and 2002, I began learning things that were new to me about its history, such as the “other” freedom movement led by Subhas Chandra Bose, and the active role women played in underground independence work. I relished the idea of writing something set in the city’s past, when streets had different names and a very grand, yet divided, lifestyle truly made it a “City of Palaces,” which is what my Indian publisher titled the book for its release there.”
Massey’s four years of research and writing reflect her desire to adhere to historical truths and authenticity. Her research was as varied as her heroine’s life, and it took her to the Ames Library of South Asia at the University of Minnesota, the British Library in London, and the National Library of India’s Reading Room in Kolkata. She also studied Hindi because Bengali wasn’t available to her, and Bengali, of course, is the narrator’s first language.
Nevertheless, studying Hindi allowed her to structure the appropriate dialogue correctly.
“Another aspect to the research I really enjoyed was working with my father who’s from Bengal,” Massey explained. “He not only reads and speaks Bengali but was a young boy during this historical period. I drafted my father to translate proverbs out of an aged Bengali-English dictionary, and what he found jogged his memory and became some of the epigraphs in the book.
“Almost every political event that occurs in the book is true, as well as a lot of the spy-craft,” Massey revealed. “I found many more documents than I expected related to freedom fighting and the daily life of old Calcutta. I read these memoirs, novels, newspapers, and nonfiction records. All the politicians I’ve named are real, and even the college girls’ political group, Chhattri Sangha, was a true organization founded by female students in Calcutta.”
There is a Facebook page called “A Mighty Girl,” a resource page dedicated to helping “a new generation of girls to grow and pursue whatever dreams they choose.” Kamala exemplifies everything “A Mighty Girl” should be.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.