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‘The Parrot Green Saree’ by Nabaneeta Dev Sen reviewed by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: The woman who flew away

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s exploration of the moral and existential dilemmas of the urban intellectual has an authentic ring to it

Kolkata, 1970s. Young Bipasha Chowdhury, a student of Presidency College and a member of the Naxalite movement — one among “a group of sharp, bright, visionary boys and girls [who] were sacrificing their present and future to fight for the deprived and oppressed people of their own country” — escapes the police by flying from Kolkata to England. Once in England, Bipasha goes to Cambridge to study English.

From a distance

She starts writing, reading and discussing poetry, and meets other foreign students like her, all wondering “[how] easy it was to express thoughts of the postcolonial mind in the calm waters of the victors’ language”.

‘The Parrot Green Saree’ by Nabaneeta Dev Sen reviewed by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: The woman who flew away

When she is seen at the beginning of the novel, Bipasha is a 50-something Bipasha Anderson, a successful academic based in Boston, the author of a book on postcolonial theory and feminism, which “had already become widely accepted as a textbook everywhere.”

In this, the last part of Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s trilogy centred on the Naxalite movement, the author continues her exploration of the ethical and existential dilemmas of the urban intellectual. With a deft stroke she brings out the disparities and the hypocrisy within the Naxalite movement when she says: “Those [Naxalites] who got arrested [by the police] were the restless groups of younger people. But the honourable intellectuals who were visible in the public eye as the supporters of the revolution, who wrote to buttress their political philosophy and boost their morale, and who had willingly become their guide and guardian when they, too, became entangled in police action and legal issues, thought it safer to retreat than getting involved with the police. To protect their self-interest in times of crisis, even breaking trust as proof of their extreme cowardice, they distanced themselves without the least hesitation.”

Bipasha certainly belongs to the rank of those who had “distanced themselves”. She has discarded idealism and believes that “[had] she followed her own inclinations, she would have been languishing in some jail in West Bengal and not been a student... in Cambridge University.”

Bipasha’s daughter Rohini is a filmmaker whose first feature film has made it to Cannes. Disapproving of her mother’s young lovers, Rohini left Bipasha at 14 to live with her father and stepmother in London. Rohini’s return to Boston after years of estrangement offends and irritates Bipasha.

Dev Sen charts Bipasha’s transformation “from the simple, idealistic, soft-hearted girl of her father’s dream to an individualistic, mature, internationally aware person who could live anywhere in the world, in whichever way she wished”.

Without apology

Bipasha’s independence is stunning but what is more stunning is the ease with which independence adheres to Bipasha, so that it often seems that it is independence that needs Bipasha and not the other way round. Bipasha is shown considering writing a memoir, since she couldn’t finish writing a novel: “For those who can write, the idea of a successful memoir was always in everybody’s pocket.” Is it that easy, even though it comes from one’s own life?

Dev Sen does not hide Bipasha’s evident flaws, nor does she give her an apologetic backstory to justify them. Bipasha sees motherhood as bondage. When she “took [Rohini] along [to her readings] to show how much she was respected”, was she showing off or inspiring the child to excel in her own life? Dev Sen’s Bipasha has a forthrightness that is nothing if not admirable.

Through the characters of Bipasha and Rohini, Dev Sen answers questions of identity and purpose. During a brief visit to Kolkata, Bipasha starts writing poetry in Bengali, her mother tongue, even though English is the language she is most comfortable in. There is a cameo by Professor Purushottam Lal of Writers Workshop, “who encouraged [Bipasha] to continue writing in English” without being embarrassed about it: “In whatever language your pen is free, is your language.” Rohini sees herself as an artist. She believes that “whatever [she created], [she created] as art” and that “[history will] decide if [her] art [is] good or mediocre.”

With her power, privilege, success and unapologetic lifestyle, Bipasha is an enviable yet endearing character. Dev Sen deserves to be congratulated for creating someone so memorable, as does Tutun Mukherjee for taking Bipasha across the language barrier.

The writer’s new book is the novel, My Father’s Garden.

The Parrot Green Saree; Nabaneeta Dev Sen, trs Tutun Mukherjee, Niyogi Books, ₹350

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:46:55 AM |

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