The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.
One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”
Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment.
We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.