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.