City of Palaces by Sujata Massey is the story of Pom, an Indian girl, set in pre-independent India. The Indian freedom struggle is a thread which runs through the tapestry of this tale, rising to the fore at times and remaining submerged at others. Pom’s journey starts from a village in Bengal where she’s born to poor yet loving parents, passes through a British boarding school where she works as a servant while still a young girl herself, catches its breath in a small town where Pom gets the most precious possession of her life and ultimately reaches Calcutta where she finally grows into the person she really is.
In each stage of life Pom faces intense loss but she comes out fighting, getting stronger and more empowered each time. Pom reinvents herself after each trauma, becoming Sara first, then Pamela and eventually Kamala Mukherjee. It’s in her final avatar as Kamala that she discovers love, patriotism and self worth. She is able to finally feel comfortable in her skin, to feel that she is a person who has the right to wish, dream and even fail. There’re many characters who accompany Pom on her journey. Some leave her behind and from others she herself escapes. Bidushi, Ms Rachel, Abbas chacha, Pankaj, Lucky, and Simon are some of the characters who add to the richness of the story.
I read the book in one sitting even though it’s not a small book with its 450 odd pages. Sujata’s style is simple, elegant and utterly gripping. The narrative is clean without meandering all over the place. The sensuousness required in some parts has been portrayed so tastefully. There’re evocative descriptions of the clothes, food, customs etc, but nowhere does it obstruct the smooth narrative. In fact it was so absorbing that I felt I was watching a movie coloured in sepia. Pom’s journey is intensely emotional, but the author manages to keep a tight hold on the story without letting it slide into sheer sentimentality.
Now coming to the only aspect which I was not too happy about, the descriptions of the freedom struggle and the political scenario in South Asia. It might be because I had a surfeit of political history in school but I would’ve preferred a little less emphasis on that and more emphasis on Kamala. This is just a tiny lil blip in what’s otherwise a riveting read. I love Kamala because she’s my favourite kind of heroine – brave, strong, feisty and unapologetic. Moreover she loves books ! How can I not like such a person ?
City of Palaces by Sujata Massey should definitely go into your TBR pile 🙂