Mamta, the oldest of seven in a rural family in turn-of-this-century India, is despised and ignored by her father because of her gender. Barely fed, overworked, and not yet married at twenty, she is considered by her father to be “someone else’s garden” that he needn’t care for. Forced into a last-ditch marriage opportunity, Mamta is sent to live with an abusive husband that her father never bothered to assess. After enduring all manner of abuse, she gathers her few belongings and most of her courage and slips away from his grasp.
Alone in the city, it is up to Mamta to find her place, secure a job, and make a life according to her own abilities.
Garden is a tale of many things, but most importantly, it is a story of the power of belief in oneself. It is also a story of pain, hardship, abuse, disrespect, and cruelty toward women. There is so much pain, sorrow, and hate in this book that it spares no class, setting, or character. The novel addresses women’s rights, social traditions, and the failings of the rural caste system. Certainly, it is an earnest attempt to show that after centuries of mistreatment, women in these circumstances find it difficult to even hope to change accepted norms.
The foundation of the novel is indeed powerful: a woman deciding to buck an accepted oppressive system to make a life of her own. Issues raised in the novel are potent, heart-breaking, and worthy of our scrutiny, but that’s where the praise ends.
The problem lies with the execution of the story. While Mamta’s success is astonishing, the torrent of suffering she endures page after page weighs down the story for too long.
Garden should have been as compelling a book as are the issues it attepts to highlight, but it is filled with author intrusions and an overload of rambling imagery. As with theatre and cinema, fiction requires the reader to suspend their disbelief. When Rai imposes her own thoughts and questions, she forces the reader to step out of the narrative.
Rai also has a tendency to state and restate the obvious, making it seem as if the author is either unsure of her writing or just writing down to the reader.
There was much in the effort of this novel that needed to be weeded out and cultivated. Rather than allowing the story to blossom and grow under the watchful eye of the gardener, it was planted without the care it deserved, which is disappointing.
A portion of the author’s royalties are donated to Pratham, the largest NGO in India working to provide quality education to underprivileged children.www.pratham.org
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from the Raleigh-Durham area, where as a recent transplant she is exploring the many hidden treasures of her new state.