Literary Review

Tales of survival

A Love Story for My Sister; Jaishree Misra, Harper Collins India, Rs.350.  

The 1857 rebellion finds documentation aplenty in narratives as well as popular culture, especially the ‘Cawnpore Massacre’ survivor stories. Jaishree Misra has re-entered this rich reservoir of stories, after her historical fiction on Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, titled Rani.

This time, Jaishree writes up a binary narrative, which merges the tales of disappearance of two teenagers, Margaret Wheeler, and Tara Fernandez. The latter is a modern day Delhi girl, while Margaret is the daughter of General Wheeler, who was killed at the Cawnpore massacre in 1857. And both girls disappear, at approximately the same age, only a hundred and forty years apart in history. Tara is kidnapped from Delhi, and Margaret from Cawnpore. Both have mixed parentage: Margaret has a Eurasian mother and Tara’s mother is English. And most important to the storyline is that both of them suffer from the Stockholm syndrome.

The narratives are set in the structure of a novel within a novel, and narrated by Pia, Tara’s younger sibling, who is a writer fascinated by the parallels in the lives of Tara and Margaret. It’s Pia’s quest for Margaret rather than Tara, which unravels the story for the reader.

Jaishree has done her research well, and the historical part of the storyline this time follows facts laid out in numerous documentations. Sources that come to mind are The Indian Mutiny: 1857 by Saul David and the journals of Amy Horne, the other Cawnpore survivor who made her way back to her folk.

The journals of Amelia Horne, which can be read as both mutiny memoir and a captivity narrative was once scoffed as a highly coloured narrative. But it has lately acquired the status of reportage of a front-line eyewitness in 1857 historiography. Jaishree uses a professed part-documentation by Margaret of her life in post-kidnapping times as an instrument to propel the story forward.

What also strikes the reader is the Nirbhaya story that appears in the contemporary narrative part of the book. The life of a lively urban teenager all set to take on the future is snuffed out by the brutal scheme of a group of men with no regard to womanhood or humanity. Tara could be any of the unfortunate girls we have been reading about, and it’s even more frightening, even in fiction, that she is not from an unprotected, troubled family, but very much urban, confident and loved and regarded.

The dangers that our girls are exposed to and the decisions they take, and their reasons for it could set many a parent thinking, although the voice used is hardly that of the parent. It’s the quietly anguished voice of a sibling used here that saves the book from being a sentimental and darker version of what it could have been.

The book is a one-sit-read, and the alternate voices of Pia, Tara and Margaret keep us turning pages. But I did wonder if it would be so easy in real life to access with such ease the personal documents of a person so far gone in history, as Pia did. Again it’s easy to believe that Margaret resisted becoming a demimonde by returning to normalcy. But surely Tara had different sensibilities, as a modern teenager? Does social pressure for performance prompt youngsters to go to such extremes? But that’s what psychology is all about I suppose, it’s never easy to explain why someone does something, in a book or in real life.

The book is very well produced and easy on the eye. The different narratives are easily recognisable in different fonts. The decision to number the pages of the book at the margin spaces is something that appealed to me as a reader.

A Love Story for My Sister; Jaishree Misra, Harper Collins India, Rs.350.


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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 8:55:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/suneetha-balakrishnan-reviews-a-love-story-for-my-sister/article7512441.ece

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