Dis­cov­er­ing roots

An en­gag­ing and in­spir­ing com­ing-of-age story.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by SULOSHINI JAHANATH star2@thes­tar.com.my

IRIS is a first gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can who has grown up lis­ten­ing to her fa­ther’s sto­ries of In­dia, and who is vis­it­ing In­dia from Amer­ica for the first time with her fi­ance Danesh. Think­ing it would be a good idea to take the train, Iris con­vinces Danesh that it would be fun to go on a 24-hour train jour­ney.

Un­for­tu­nately, she wakes up thirsty when the train stops at Sham­bala Junc­tion and de­cides to step off to buy wa­ter. A few min­utes of dis­trac­tion cou­pled with a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate events lead her to miss the train when it leaves the sta­tion.

Stranded in Sham­bala Junc­tion with lit­tle money, barely any grasp of the lan­guage, and with Danesh still on the train (he is asleep when she leaves), Iris is lost and ter­ri­fied. But with a lit­tle help from stall holder Maitri and doll-seller Aman, she be­gins to find a way back to her fi­ance, and along the way dis­cov­ers friend­ship and some cruel real­i­ties about life that she had never re­alised be­fore. She also learns what is im­por­tant, and to love In­dia with all its charm and cracks.

In­dian-Amer­i­can au­thor Dipika Mukher­jee won the Vir­ginia Prize for Fic­tion (given by Bri­tain’s Aurora Metro Books to women from around the world who are writ­ing in English) for Sham­bala Junc­tion, which is not sur­pris­ing be­cause this is a re­mark­able and unique com­ing-of-age story. This is my first foray into Mukher­jee’s writ­ing, and what a pleas­ant in­tro­duc­tion it has been.

What is re­ally in­ter­est­ing about this book, aside from Iris’ com­ing of age and the love story, is how Mukher­jee ex­plores the rich­ness and di­ver­sity of the In­dian cul­tural land­scape and the dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters she has cre­ated.

Iris starts off as not very like­able, stereo­typ­ing the peo­ple she comes across; Aman makes a de­ci­sion based on his cir­cum­stances that he quickly re­grets and tries to rem­edy; Maitri and Lilavati (Aman’s moth­erin-law) are both fire­crack­ers and un­apolo­get­i­cally hon­est to the point of abra­sive­ness.

I’ve never been a fan of mul­ti­ple view­points be­cause if it’s not done well it be­comes too messy, but Mukher­jee has con­verted me. She ef­fort­lessly switches be­tween per­spec­tives with­out los­ing the fo­cus of the story and it’s ac­tu­ally a plea­sure to read and see things from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

With a nat­u­ral story-telling flair, Mukher­jee has also added an­other plot­line, one which is both a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue and very cur­rent: baby traf­fick­ing, which has been on the rise in In­dia.

In the novel, in her at­tempt to get back to Danesh, Iris col­lides with Aman, de­stroy­ing his dolls.

While ini­tially fu­ri­ous with her, he comes around and takes her to his house (with Maitri) to wait till the next morn­ing when the train comes in.

We find out that Aman hasn’t been hav­ing a good day. In fact, he’s been hav­ing a ter­ri­ble day. His wife Roop had just given birth to an­other baby girl, adding to the two they al­ready have, and in a fit of rage at once again not get­ting a son, he drops the new­born off at an or­phan­age.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, how­ever, he changes his mind, but the or­phan­age denies that he dropped the baby off. Guilty, ter­ri­fied, and at a loss at what to do, Aman is numbly sell­ing his wares when Iris col­lides into him and his stall.

Iris finds out about this in her at­tempts to reach her own fam­ily and even­tu­ally de­cides to help. This is where Iris be­comes more real and lik­able as a char­ac­ter, and be­comes the pro­tag­o­nist she was meant to be – some­one in­te­gral to the story, and this in turn, makes the book that much more invit­ing and grip­ping.

Mukher­jee is ob­vi­ously in her el­e­ment here, as her pas­sion for story-telling shines through in ev­ery page of the story. She doesn’t shy away from the harsh real­i­ties of life in In­dia, but she tem­pers that with the lit­tle joys one can find along the way.

A truly en­gag­ing and lovely read, Sham­bala Junc­tion is a book that tugs at the reader’s moral­ity while at the same time telling a truly in­spir­ing com­ing-of-age story.

Dipika Mukher­jee Corgi Books, fic­tion

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