Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Series has proved to be enormously successful, and its formula of exotic setting, colorful characters, unusual occupations within the mystery genre have inspired many writers. Much like McCall Smith, Betsy Woodman’s Jana Bibi’s Excellent Adven
tures has an exotic setting, quaint characters, and a heroine with an unusual occupation, but no mystery.
Woodman’s choice of an Indian setting is hardly surprising, considering she spent ten years as a child in India. When she lived there she thought she was having an ordinary childhood; in reality, it was anything but ordinary. In an essay included with the book, the author says, “… completely normal to live next door to three young movie stars who were the rage of India … Routine to vacation on houseboats in Kashmir, to have dancing bears, stilt walkers, and snake charmers perform for our birthday parties … My best friend in Delhi at age ten was a Muslim princess, and for a while our next-door neighbors kept a tiger in the backyard, as a gift for Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes features a titular character of Scottish descent who has inherited her grandfather’s house, the Jolly Grant House, located in fictional Hamara Nagar.
The novel is set in the sixties.
Jana Bibi is a colorful character, who like the writer, spent her childhood in India. However, one feels the heroine is not infused with autobiographical traits, but rather that she owes her personality to the author’s imagination.
The novel starts with the startling piece of news for Jana that she has inherited her Grandfather Grant’s house. As the violin teacher of a nawab’s dozen children, Jana enjoys a comfortable existence in a palace with her children’s ayah, Mary, and the charming, intelligent parrot, Mr. Ganguly, who steals some of the limelight in the novel.
Jana follows her instincts and heart and settles down in the Jolly Grant House.
Hamara Nagar is home to the Victoria Hotel, distinguished for having had eminent visitors like the Princess of Wales, Rudyard Kipling, and George Everest; the Treasure Emporium, where the locals like to shop; the English Bazaar that has a Scottish aura; the overwhelmingly Indian Central Bazaar; three boarding schools, including the Far Oaks boarding school, mostly attended by foreign students; and the Jolly Grant House with its unique architecture. A mosque, a temple, and a church reflect the multi-religious population.
Foreigners flock to the destination. Jana Bibi remembers visiting the place as a ten-year-old in 1912 when there used to be signs that read “No Indians or dogs.” Much has changed, but not at the Victoria Hotel, where even “the people seem imported from the past …”
The Jolly Grant House, boasting gabled and latticed windows and a six-sided tower, is in a dilapidated condition when Jana inspects it. A strong-willed woman, she is not dejected by its shabby appearance or the fact that monkeys have taken over the property. Nor does she get persuaded to leave when she finds out the government plans to destroy their town to create the largest man-made lake and dam to supply drinking water for the whole of Uttar Pradesh.
Jana joins forces with the merchants to convince the authorities that Hamara Nagar is too important a tourist destination to eradicate. In order to do her part and with the help of her feathery friend, Mr. Ganguly, she becomes a fortune teller. Jana Bibi doesn’t worry about her own future though her legacy from Grandfather McPherson isn’t enough to live on and provide for her household, which in addition to Mary and the bird, has swelled to include Lal Bahadur Pun (the watchman), old Munar (the sweeper), and ten-year-old Tilku (messenger boy).
To counter a woman like Jana, Woodman has created a villain who could have leapt right out of the Bollywood screen. Police Commissioner Bandhu Sharma reeks of corruption and meanness. Bandhu Sharma’s obsession in life is to make everyone contribute to the Homeland Purity Society in order to advance Hindu civilization, but the thought of the destruction of Hamara Nagar only fills him with happiness.
One of Woodman’s best creations is the tailor Feroze Ali Khan. She does a better job of getting into his head than Jana’s. She portrays his tumultuous emotions, whether it’s his love for his nephew, or his ambivalent attitude toward Jana, or his arduous affections for his young wife. Like McCall Smith, who makes his two main characters, Mma Ramotswe and Mme Makotsi habitual philosophers, Woodman gives Feroze philosophical musings.
Woodman brings Hamara Nagar to life with the cast, the physical descriptions of the place and historical details. At the end, Woodman sprinkles Bollywood magic and there is the sparkle of the unbelievable. Such sheen is permissible in a novel like Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes.
Indeed with so much tragedy and grim reality abounding in novels and tell-all memoirs, one welcomes a pleasant fictional town, where the villain can easily be outwitted and trials and tribulations can be happily resolved. The writer plans a series. Perhaps the next time around she may not be as kind to her characters? In any case, in anticipation of the sequels, like Mr. Ganguly says, “Jana Bibi, Zindabad!”
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.