Saborna Roychowdhury’s Glazed Calcutta Summer Shines in ‘The Distance’

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Title of Novel:                 The Distance

Author:                             Saborna Roychowdhury
Means of Acquisition:  A personal purchase – Kindle version/Amazon.com
My Current Location:  London, England

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by Susan Abraham

The first e-book I paid for, I downloaded at the time into an Adobe’s Digital Editions installation for my computer. It was a tempting Waterstones purchase in the form of the famous travel classic, Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley.  There soon appeared without warning,  upon the book cover… a larger-than-life version of half-naked tribal women, posing gracefully atop the boulders while in meditative repose and huddled close to a watchful ocean. A row of glistening dark skin and shiny humongous breasts, decorative necklaces, shimmery skirts and crew cuts all measured the keen eagle-eyed expressions of each solemn woman as she gazed wistfully into the camera.  From somewhere in the group’s middle,  a little boy with twig like arms and an obese little belly, peered out with a half-smile.

I learnt than that I was at home with my e-reader, in the same way,  a lazy curled-up cat would just as well have  exchanged wedded vows with  its comfy sofa.

I recognised the familiarity of being able to devour books like the wind on screen while being held  transfixed by a sea of words, not open to interruptions in any way and hungrily embracing a fascinating, lost intimacy. For 20 years, I have scribbled writings  only on my laptop and now read all my newspapers faithfully on the web.  Thus, it didn’t take me long to welcome e-book downloads with open arms, attributed even to the challenging rambling tale. On a tablet, I prefer  to gaze longingly at films and music bands, held aloft with their arresting images

Thus, it was with the discovery of this happy philosophy, that I plunged into American immigrant/Calcutta novelist, Saborna Roychowdhury‘s impressive and sometimes heartbreaking, novel, in The Distance. Its Bengali protagonist, Mini grows into womanhood while her story is being  narrated with splendid brisk clarity by Roychowdhury.  The novelist  in question, is eager to shroud her invention’s youthful, virginal character with the darker landscapes of college-bound social revolutions and  precarious relationship adventures before leading the naive Mini on to a subdued immigrant assimilation in Vancouver, Canada.

The pursuit of such a monumental transatlantic crossing, especially in the cause of leaving a  seemingly careless first love for a new husband bottled up with ambitious manners,  tends to be  masked as a bed of roses, by agreeable in-laws and thankful mothers.  Here are female elders who know of no other way out for their daughters. Naturally,  the two  contrasting cultures offer Mini an uncomfortable juxtaposition for harmony and even more sinister a contemplation…the threat of never being able to adjust altogether.

Now, besides the refreshing landscape of Calcutta’s striking everyday culture for millions of industrious families and this, afforded to the state’s working class – here for instance, is Mini’s irate grandmother who fights tooth-and-nail for her own  buckets of water – and seen through the eyes of Mini’s own difficult relationships; the novel does have a tendency to slump somewhere in the middle with the deja-vu themes that accompany immigrant narratives.

Think at this point… Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and especially Monica Ali’s Brick Lane or even Preeti Nair’s One Hundred Shades of White.  As a reader, I feel I’ve heard it all before as the science of social adjustments in Canada don’t seem all that different to those of Britain.  Perhaps, this simply stays a woman’s rite-of-passage that has to be covered… characters mulling over the odd show of racism, wives gossiping over the bizarre necessity for polarisation and  men measuring the subtle greed for Western currency and its accompanying materialism, over drinks.

After celebrating some of Roychowdhury’s more scarlet episodes and clamorous everyday family life played out in a modest Calcutta household and sketched out very much in the guise of  picturesque travel literature that may be  held equivalent to scenic views or unfortunate, violent escapades broached of a painting…I found the chapters featuring Mini’s Canadian life sadly lagging. I became slightly tired of the read and a little bored, if not restless.

However, the best part of Roychowdhury’s work was yet to come and the fervour would soon rise as Roychowdhury sharpened both her pen and imagination for unexpected conflicts. The mood of anticipation hurries with the racing plot as it swerves about the closing pages for some extremely memorable drama. Characters hurtle along the winding roads that end up on even stranger crossroads. At the end of the book, no individual may stay the same. Not the sad mother. Not the memory of a long-lost grandmother. Not the rigidity of Mini’s stubborn father, who through his bull-headed ways, costs his family the loss of personal belongings and a treasured heritage. And what of the husband and the lover both stranded in alien cultures and so create a confused identity for Mini. I am instantly aware of a powerful love story, fashioned very much after Rosie Thomas’s 1986 classic in The White Dove.

I suspect Saborna Roychowdhury to be a really good writer from her lucid introductory passages of modern Calcutta life in working class households, where everyday scenes like a long film reel, are described with sophisticated clarity. Roychowdury is an excellent storyteller…not at all a writer that fringes on the pensive or thoughtful but displaying instead, a splendid ease of alacrity. She is quick on the mark and doesn’t give drama a breather till the deed is done. Her stories, especially of an Indian setting grabs the reader with intensity, forcing attention on painful subjects like unfair politics, corruption, thievery and works of gangsters. The novelist is angry at the thought that such things exist in her traditionalist society, yet she is far from self-indulgent in any way. She is content always to be the ghost to her book, or the onlooker waving an invisible pen.

Roychowdhury also possesses an unusual talent – I don’t always see this in novels – where she makes good use of every opportunity…manvouring even the tiniest fictional scene to reflect, something of the real, useful or necessary current affair in Calcutta society and then too, capturing wherever the chance arises.. the disturbing feelings of an emigrant who may suddenly find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, in The Distance, the reader is unlikely to find a snippet, episode or scene, out of place.

As a by the way remark, the proof-reading services are definitely wanting towards the closing chapters. However, such a splendid story – and it’s been a long time since I read a memorable work when I consider new titles, that the author is instantly forgiven. It is the power of the story that will grip you…and the tender moments of main characters that stay in the head and heart long afterwards.

I was finally moved to tears…no different than if I had read a book in print.  This, considering that Saborna Roychowdhury is not a sentimental writer in the least. There is no passionate torrent of sonnets, no gushing Valentine displays, no emotional outpouring, no mawkishness.  The Distance does not command a saccharine flavour.

I would recommend The Distance by Saborna Roychowdhury for any reader interested in world literature, the cultural working classes or the deeper layers of Calcutta life, that go beyond the superficial. The Distance would be well settled with a Western audience and had it been published in the West, would have commanded a wider readership – I am very sure of this – rather than being rooted to a homeground where, in that famous saying, ‘A prophet is never recognised in his own country,’ the story may have ended up reaching an audience who already take their environment for granted…or where situations appear jaded. Whereas anyone in the West would most likely pounce on this novel with an interested imagination and fresh eyes, ready to be educated and informed.

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