Betsy Woodman, who spent most of her childhood in India, has created a series revolving around a widow of Scottish descent, Jana Bibi. Her debut, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes, (India Currents, October 2013) set in 1960, introduced the eponymous character. Hamara Nagar is a fictional hill station that Woodman has imbued with history and considerable charm. As a tourist destination it is considered to be second-rate; the government considers it dispensa
Able enough to destroy and construct a dam in its location. In the first book, its denizens conspire to save Hamara Nagar and the newcomer Jana does her part by becoming a fortune-teller.
Woodman’s follow-up Love Potion Number 10 is set a year later in 1961. The preoccupations of her sequel are interest and speculation in a suitor for Jana and protecting Mr. Ganguly, her pet bird, from birdnappers. The two themes are slow to build up and are diffused by the parade of characters and incidents that offer plenty of exoticism.
At the beginning of the novel, Jana reminisces about her life and how she acquired her parrot. She was orphaned at a young age and deprived of her adopted country, India, when her grandfather took her to live in Scotland. She married a clergyman she barely knew in order to return to India. Her daughters died of smallpox and twelve years later her husband, too, passed away from the same illness.
In the second chapter, the protagonist suffers a toothache and travels in Mr. Kilometres’s taxi to a dentist in Dehra Dun. After the effect of Dr. Sahni’s painkillers wears off, Jana goes to Abinath’s Apothecary, where the owner gives her a potion named after a song he claims “works equally well with an aching jaw and an aching heart.” Love Potion Number 10 is a wonderful Woodman invention that was inspired by old advertisements for patent medicines in The Illustrated Weekly of India.
After a sleepless night spent perusing Dr. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Jana overhears her household chatter about the possibility of her remarrying. Mary, her children’s former ayah, thinks of Kenneth Stuart-Smith, an American diplomat, as a suitable suitor, but she also considers another missionary as husband for her employer, which leads the protagonist to reminisce about a hilarious but alarming episode involving an unwanted proposal by her husband’s successor. To press his suit, Reverend Fester had said, “I’m not much older than you, and healthy, and my own dear wife has been in her grave for two months. Don’t you believe that it is Divine Providence that has brought us together?”
The reader can assess Stuart-Smith as a potential husband through Jana’s eyes when the couple have dinner together at Victoria Hotel. “Jana had always assumed that divorce would show on a person in a negative way, like the sallowness of a liver condition, but here was Kenneth Stuart-Smith, robustly healthy and happy, divorced, and rather glamorous for it. Otherwise, he was the same Kenneth, his thoughtful blue-gray eyes inspiring confidence.”
There isn’t any romance in the air though they have something in common: Indian childhoods and one marriage each behind them. Jana talks about her fears for Mr. Ganguly. She was visited by a man who posed as a reporter, took photos, and got information from her about her household. Later she received a letter claiming the parrot was stolen property and that she was to return the parrot to his rightful owner with adequate compensation.
When she learns that Lily, her friend in Bombay, Lily’s husband, and her cousin Max are coming to Hamara Nagar to buy Victoria Hotel, her thoughts turn to Max and the accidental kiss they once shared at a party. “And what should be her first words to him? Condolences on the death of his wife, she supposed, although saying, ‘I’m so sorry’ seemed like rank hypocrisy. ‘I’m so glad’ would hardly do, though.”
After Jana and Max meet, it’s clear the magic between them still exists. Though I cannot help liking the heroine, I felt indifferent about Jana’s potential suitors. What I do feel concerned about is whether Miriam, a quaint Anglo-Indian teacher at Fair Oaks boarding school, will marry her pen pal who lives in Australia. Miriam’s love story is sparingly dealt with, which means, perhaps, that it may not be the number of pages devoted, but rather more deft pen strokes that were necessary to instil that curiosity and connection in the reader.
When an intruder climbs over the wall into the Jolly Grant House’s property, Mary comes up with a scheme to save Mr. Ganguly. Again, the reader might not get caught up in this plot twist either, though the parrot is another endearing Woodman creation.
Woodman’s love for India results in an array of characters we feel empathy for and an exotic place, Hamara Nagar, we are drawn to. She tastefully takes us back to the early sixties in her novels. For diversion from this busy and violent world, dips rather than immersion into Love Potion Number 10 will work well, just as a reader may prefer to read a collection of short stories in fits and starts rather than devour the tales in a single sitting.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.