At some point in our lives, we are called on to do something that we just aren’t prepared for. But we do it, and we move on, often times finding a new perspective or self-revitalization. So it is with the title character of Ronica Dhar’s significant debut novel, Bijou Roy, a study of identity and place, politics and generational differences, loss and hope.
It is 1999, the end of one era and the cusp of another for both the world and for Detroit-born-and-raised pre-med student Bijoya “Bijou” Roy. Bijou finds that her life at a standstill following her father’s death. Her academic career becomes her hiding place even as it loses its purpose. Her romantic relationship is intatters. Her grief cripples her as severely as her father’s illness had rendered him a mute shell of the man he once was. Compounding Bijou’s sorrow is the challenge of scattering her father’s ashes in the Hooghly River in eastern India, a task traditionally left to a son, and a task that is as unfamiliar to her as the country she must travel to.
Devastated, empty, confused by the recent events of her life and stuck in an unfamiliar country, Bijou begins the journey that will lead her to the truth about her father’s past and how that past will shape her own future. In this journey she is aided by Naveen, an academic rising star and the son of her father’s closest ally. However, his presence unbalances Bijou emotionally, and his knowledge of their fathers’ activities disturbs, rather than clarifying or confirming her own beliefs.
What begins as an unwelcomed chore results in a journey of self-discovery for a young woman whose future feels uncertain.
Bijou Roy’s opening is heartrending and deliberate; it is the start of Bijou’s uphill struggle to find answers and renewal, if not understanding.
Dhar’s fluid and intelligent writing grips the reader immediately and never lets go. We know from the outset that Bijou will be looking over her shoulder to find her footing, her identity, and her place. She knows she is of Indian descent but doesn’t know India. She knows her parents met in Paris but doesn’t know why they never returned to their homeland.
There are certain similarities between the author and her character. “I was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit,” Dhar says in an e-interview about her connection to Bijou. “My father was born and raised in Calcutta—[he was] a Bengali through and through. So there is this very personal attachment to both places, particularly in terms of how they lurked in my imagination growing up; although Detroit was hardly 20 miles away, it may as well have been adjacent to Calcutta for how often we actually visited either city. There was a forbidden fruit quality about both.”
What Dhar’s character, Bijou, knows of Calcutta and, by extension, her father’s past, comes from carefully-crafted, often-embellished stories she heard from him when she was young.
Bijou may be the title character, but it is Nitish Roy, her gentle-natured father, who is the core of the book.
Most of the characters are bound to his memory by flesh and blood, literally or figuratively. As Bijou realizes that her perception of her father’s past is more fairy tale than truth, she becomes more unsettled.
“…Nothing he’d [Nitish] ever told her even implicated guerrilla units and violence; whenever he’d said ‘revolutionary’ she’d never heard what Naveen seemed to hear: ‘terrorist’.”
Like Bijou’s parents, Dhar’s met in Europe, and there, too, we find a Naxalite connection, “I had read work about and by the Naxalites and found their ideals spoke to me, at the time, in terms of sussing out my own ideas around race and class,” states Dhar. “But I got really deep into writing about them when I learned that part of the reason my parents left Calcutta in 1970 was because the city was under the siege of the Naxalites.”
Dhar movingly demonstrates how the actions of one generation carry a responsibility to the next and how change is precipitated between them. In part, this is achieved because she has a deep affection for Detroit and has made it the location where Nitish and Sheela Roy made a new start for themselves.
“There was something very compelling to me about a young revolutionary moving from Calcutta through Paris to Detroit in the late 60s, as all three cities were on fire with rioting at the time.” Dhar continues by saying, “And all I knew—as a brown girl born in 1973—was that I was going to live a better life thanks to many of the changes effected by the upheaval preceding my existence. In a sense, I felt obliged to honor that.”
When Dhar began writing the novel, Bijou hadn’t been conceived; it was strictly about Nitish. However, when Dhar lost her own father, she, like Bijou, and the story, underwent changes. “After my own father passed away,” she relates, “I found I had a slightly different agenda. I was still interested in documenting … the story of a man like Nitish, but more than that I wanted to record a daughter’s grief over the loss of her father. That was real, that was timeless.”
From start to finish, Dhar’s writing is clean and clear, thought-provoking and inspiring, real and timeless. It carries deep-rooted passions without relying on sentimental ideals or clichés about political conflicts. Rather, ideals and conflicts are made genuine by virtue of their after-effects on two generations. At one point, Bijou’s mother states, “We were leaving our families, our friends, our whole lives in India. I just assumed we were leaving our problems behind, too.”How easy it would be if life was so uncomplicated, but it signifies that no age, no generation is perfect no matter how hard they try.
Bijou Roy is a many-layered, honest narrative, and in the end, Bijou’s father is the key to her future. Just as he chose to remember the good, Bijou can choose to do good.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she is a paraeducator specializing in Reading, Language Arts, and Technology. She is working on two novels for middle grade and young adult readers.