In the northeastern Indian state of Assam, a young girl grows up to become a successful politician despite the qualms of her traditional family in Kumar’s debut novel.
This family saga traces the life of Mohuva Sharma, the daughter of an Assamese Brahmin priest, and her extended family between the 1960s and the present. Mohuva was born with an inauspicious horoscope, a major barrier to marriage in traditional Hindu culture, and slowly comes to realize that her only avenue to a fulfilling life is through education. In school, she becomes a student leader during a period of great unrest in the 1970s, but at home, she’s still constrained by her parents’ expectation that she be a good, conservative girl and confine herself to traditional female roles. When she finally returns to school to become a teacher, she meets Noyon, an engineer whom she eventually marries. They have a son, Neelav, but after just five years of marriage, Noyon dies of cancer. Mohuva’s drive for social justice leads her to run for political office, and she ultimately becomes a representative in the Parliament of India. Mohuva’s story is entwined with the lives and loves of her numerous sisters and cousins; some run away to marry for love, others languish in abusive or unfulfilling arranged marriages, some fall afoul of local politics, others succeed. In the background, traditional Assamese culture slowly, but not entirely, succumbs to the onslaught of modern India; roles open to women expand but not too far; religion and superstition loosen their grips but remain central to everyday life; and everyone goes to the movies. The political turmoil of India’s northeastern states, marooned in a sea of Muslim and communist nations, is ever-present, and its repercussions touch everyone’s lives. Kumar provides some background and explanation for what’s going on in the culture, but what she chooses to expand upon is fairly hit or miss. An expedition to see the 1975 low-budget blockbuster film Jai Santoshi Ma, for instance, revolves entirely around how the family bought tickets and arranged transportation but tells nothing about how family members reacted to the film’s story of divine intervention in an oppressed woman’s life—despite the fact that the transformation of women’s roles is a theme that dominates Kumar’s narrative.
Readers acquainted with Indian history and culture will likely find this story intriguing, but others may find themselves lost.