Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Sleeping Dictionary

This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books.

As ten-year-old Pom watches from the relative safety of a palm tree, her family and the village of Johlpur in West Bengal are washed away by a massive wave and left underwater.
Dead people were also part of the tide. At first I did not want to look at them, but then I knew I had to, for with every one I didn’t recognize, it meant that my family might be safe.
Her family doesn’t survive, but Pom does, and Sujata Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary takes us on her journey, one that spans seventeen years, from the calamitous flood of 1930 that ripped apart Johlpur to the night of Indian independence in Calcutta.

As she works the fan in the back of a classroom—her refuge after escaping the flood—Pom discovers that she has a love for the English language, and the ability to teach it. She also secretly falls for Pankaj, her best friend’s fiancé, over ghostwritten letters. These dual desires—to teach, and to be with Pankaj—set her on the path to Calcutta, a perceived promised land. It is not an easy passage, however; Massey does not allow the relaxing assumption that Pom is ever safe.

Pom is young and alone in a decidedly patriarchal British India, and Massey doesn’t shirk from describing the realities of that situation. On her way to Calcutta, Pom’s fluency in English puts a roof over her head; her naiveté about the the kind of work required soon becomes apparent. It’s a place where she hears of “sleeping dictionaries”, a term used to describe the local mistresses from whom British men learned the language and the ways of the land.

As Pom moves from place to place, each time changing her name, religion and caste in a bid to survive, it becomes clear this is more than a story of a young woman’s struggle for survival if not success in pre-independence India: at its core, it is about dealing with the repercussions of a shocking past. The relics that hang on from the places Pom has left behind threaten to derail her every attempt at a new life.

When Pom gets to Calcutta, Massey creates an intriguing dynamic between her and Simon Lewes, a man in the Indian Civil Service who employs her to organize his library. The Indian freedom movement becomes an integral part of the final section of the novel. Pom’s motivation to aid the movement arises from her infatuation with Pankaj, now a lawyer deeply involved with the struggle. She must manage this while working for and living under the roof of the mysterious Simon who, she suspects, plays a larger role in keeping the freedom fighters at bay than he lets on.

We also see through Pom’s eyes Calcutta transition from a city of hope to one torn by a World War fought by its colonizers:
Trenches had been dug in Park Street and Chowringhee. Calcutta’s worn tongas and carts and buses looked like battered toys next to massive military vans and lorries. Most private cars had been taken by the military; one could see their drivers patiently waiting outside the cafés. The Allied military elite dined at Flury & Trinca’s and the Golden Slipper by day and slept in the Great Eastern and Grand Hotels at night. How ironic that our city, once the jewel in Britain’s crown, was the only Asian metropolis she had left—and the ones able to afford her pleasures were foreigners.
Through Pom’s journey, The Sleeping Dictionary brings up the societal issues of the time. She constantly encounters discrimination on the basis of her gender, religion, caste and race. When she interviews for a filing position in Calcutta’s Writers’ Building, she is told, “This is a seat of government where men do serious work.” Simon is different, however, from the other men who’ve treated her poorly, and Massey develops their relationship with nuance and patience—but Simon’s discovery, towards the end, of a secret Pom’s been holding on to doesn’t result in the conflict that their characters seemed to be heading towards.

Barring the odd narrative thread—there is a section with an Australian photographer that doesn’t advance the story—the many topics that this book touches upon are brought back full circle. This is an ambitious and, by all appearances, meticulously researched novel, that interweaves a personal journey and a historical narrative. Massey tells it engagingly; we end up rooting for Pom.

And with the story ending on the night of Indian independence, a moment of transition for the country and its people, one suspects that Massey’s also laid the groundwork for a potential sequel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


For a six-year-old who can’t spell, there are few things as frightening as an English exam in a Singaporean primary school: a classroom silent but for the furious scratching sounds of pencil on paper, overly zealous classmates protecting their answers from wandering eyes such as mine, and of course the bespectacled Miss Das at the front of the classroom whose patience I had exhausted that morning with my inability to tie my shoe laces. I looked at the fill-in-the-blanks section on the sheet in front of me. “Insert the right question words,” it said.
I knew what the right question words were, I just didn’t know how to spell them. But I knew someone who did.
“Miss Das… can I go to the toilet?”
The kids around me sniggered, unaware of my genius plan. Miss Das’ eyes met mine and I dropped my gaze, worried that she’d see right through them and read my thoughts. The sound of pencil on paper dimmed as Miss Das contemplated the question.
“Yes, but hurry up,” she said. I laid my pencil case on top of my sheet to mimic the studious lot and walked briskly out of the classroom, my shoe laces flying in all directions.
The school had a wall mounted telephone near the restrooms, and I pulled out from my pocket the prepaid telephone card I had been given for emergencies. I looked around to make sure I was alone. I then picked up the receiver with confidence—I was going to ace this exam!—and dialed my home phone number.
I heard a beep, but then nothing else. Had I dialed the wrong number?
I said the number out loud as I navigated the key pad to make sure I got it right the second time.
Again, a beep, but then nothing else. Was the line busy?
“Hey!” yelled a voice behind me.
I slammed the receiver down and turned to see Ajay, my nemesis. Just a week ago, I had been accused of stealing my neighbor’s eraser, and my claim that I would never steal a pink one did not fly with Miss Das. I later found out, when the pink eraser fell out of his pocket at the playground, that it was Ajay who had taken it.
“Who are you calling?” Ajay asked.
“No one.”
Cheeeater,” he sneered.
“I’m not a cheater.”
“Do you want me to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheeeater?” he asked, an evil grin on his fat face.
I looked down at my shoe laces that lay sprawled on the polished floor. I didn’t know how to spell question words, my mom wouldn’t pick up my phone calls, and Ajay was going to get me kicked out of school. My life was over.
“Are you crying?” he asked with a laugh.
“I’m not a crybaby, stupid!”
“I’m going to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheater and that you called me stupid,” he said, walking back towards our classroom.
“I know the pink eraser is in your pocket,” I said softly, stopping him in his tracks. I blinked back my tears and walked up to him. “I saw it fall out in the playground.”
“My dad bought that eraser for me,” he said, his right hand slipping into the pocket that housed the stolen item.
“Your dad bought you a pink eraser?”
He stared, speechless, and I knew he was stumped. But within a couple of seconds, he was smiling again.
“We’re friends,” he said. “And friends don’t tell on each other.”
“I won’t tell Miss Das you took the pink eraser,” I said.
“And I won’t tell her that you are a cheater.”
“I’m not a cheater!”
“I saw you on the phone!”
“I tried calling… but my mom didn’t pick up,” I said.
Ajay commiserated with a sad nod of his head, and then said, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you out.”
“That’s what friends do.” He put his arm around me as we walked back towards our classroom.
“I don’t know how to spell questions words,” I admitted, now that we were friends.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Always put the ‘h’ at the end.”
“So, it’s W-A-T-H?” I asked.
My new friend’s face widened in a smile. He nodded and held the door open for me. I bent down, stuffed my unruly laces in the gaps of my shoes, and walked in with swagger.
I was going to ace this exam.