YOU ASK FOR MY NAME, THE REAL ONE, AND I CANNOT TELL. IT IS NOT FOR LACK OF EFFORT.
In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world. Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is . . . and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills—for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her—to fight for her country’s freedom and her own happiness.
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The Sleeping Dictionary
The Flower says I was born from the dust.
Let me forget it
Let me forget it
Let me forget.
—Rabindranath Tagore, “The Flower Says,” Chandalika, 1938
JOHLPUR, WEST BENGAL, 1930
You ask for my name, the real one, and I cannot tell.
It is not for lack of effort. In a proper circumstance, the narrator must give her name. In fact, one of the first English phrases I learned was “What is your good name?”
Over the years people have called me many things. Not all of them are repeatable. But in the early days, I was always called Didi or Pom, the last being a village nickname you will not find in any book. To me, Pom sounds hard: a hand on a drum, or rain pounding on a tin roof. Both are sounds that I remember from the Bengali village where I was born: Johlpur, the Town of Water.
Pom, Didi, Pom! Those who shouted for me the most were my younger sisters, Rumi and Jhumi, twins who looked as similar as grains of rice. But what a difference between them! Rumi was the easy one: quiet and helpful. Jhumi cried more and always demanded to be carried, even when she and Rumi were big strapping girls of six. Double curses was what my grandmother Thakurma called them. But when our father, who we called Baba, was alone with us, he would sometimes say that a daughter’s birth lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred.
I tell you this only so that you will understand how rich I once was.
But nobody in my family understood that those days were perfect ones. Most mornings when my mother made her prayers, she whispered her hopes for a son. If Goddess Lakshmi would bring one, my mother was willing to give her a goat. Or five rupees. Anything, for the boy everyone wanted. Then, in the spring of 1930, the flatness under Ma’s sari rounded. Thakurma and Dadu—my grandparents—were suddenly happy with everything she did, and my father sang songs every evening.
As summer came, my mother’s belly expanded to the size of a good pumpkin. I marked my tenth birthday, and we ate sweet payesh pudding to celebrate. It was the same time that the daughter of Jamidar Pratap Mukherjee, the landed aristocrat who owned all the rice fields, was studying with a foreign governess. The jamidar’s daughter had long been my object of fascination because of her lacy pastel frocks and the white-skinned doll she carried. I did not know the little girl’s name then, for we could not ask such a thing of our superiors. In my mind I called her the Princess; and that was not out of envy but amazement that another little girl could be so different.
My acquaintance with the jamidar’s household formed at the time I was about seven, old enough to walk distances carrying a bundle of homemade brooms that Ma and I sold throughout the villages. When we reached the jamidar’s estate, the ritual was always the same. A servant would call for the jamidarni to see us; she would come out with her daughter hiding behind the folds of her shining silk sari. Then our two mothers would examine the brooms: hers looking down, and mine squatting on the stone veranda, turning over each of our brooms to find her the best. The jamidarni would suggest that her sweeper didn’t really need a new broom, then my mother would counter, Jamidarni-memsaheb, the rains are coming and with them, mud! Or, if it were a few months earlier: This is a frightfully dry season, please look at the dust on your veranda; it’s a shame that your sweeper missed it. Not the woman’s fault, just the broom’s.
On our last call to the estate, my mother was heavily pregnant and could not make her usual bright banter. Perhaps because of my mother’s condition, the jamidarni gave me a gaze that seemed especially soft. This gave me the bravery to ask where the Princess was hiding herself. The jamidarni replied with a word I hadn’t heard before: school. Two Ingrej women came to the house to teach the Princess reading and writing and numbers—all in English! The Ingrej had turned a parlor into a proper schoolroom with a desk and chair and a blackboard on which they wrote with a short white stick.
“Would you like to see her?” the jamidarni asked in her gentle voice.
As I was nodding my head, Ma said no. Disappointment flooded me, but she ignored the look I gave her.
The jamidarni asked my mother why I wasn’t in school. She’d heard some village children were learning to read and write under the banyan tree behind Mitra-babu’s shop.
Then I understood what she meant by the word school, because I’d seen boys sitting in Mitra-babu’s yard, scratching with reeds on palmyra leaves. For a girl like me, there would never be time to sit under a tree; that was why Ma hadn’t wanted me to see the jamidarni’s daughter in her special room.
I said to myself that it didn’t matter; I didn’t want to be the only girl studying with those boys, and I was already doing something more important than they: I was with Ma, earning money for the family. And I didn’t need a numbers class to know how to count coins; by the age of ten, I was proud that I couldn’t be cheated. All this I wished I could say to the jamidarni, but it wasn’t my place.
Ma was murmuring something about needing my help now that a baby was coming. She placed her hand on her belly, emphasizing this, and the jamidarni pledged that she would make a special prayer for a boy. Ma smiled at this, looking as grateful as if the jamidarni had bought ten brooms. And that day, the jamidarni bought her broom without bargaining.
We did not have such luck at other places on our route. By mid-afternoon, my mother and I slowly trailed home, the heat wrapping itself around us like a scratchy woolen shawl. We were still a month from the arrival of the monsoon, and the last weeks were always the worst. By the time we were home from broom selling, I was as wet as if I’d played the Two Turtles game in the pond with Rumi and Jhumi. I knew that for my mother to carry her waiting baby during that last hot month was not only uncomfortable but also physically risky. Some women in the village had even muttered to one another that it would be a blessing if Ma lost the stone she carried, because three girls first was only likely to bring a fourth.
Everyone knew that we’d had trouble. Dadu was forced to sell the one rice paddy he owned to meet the debts of our family, and now his son, my Baba, farmed for others, receiving as payment a portion of rice. Still, we were not poor like the ragged ones living in the alleys of the village. These were the ones my mother called lost souls, and if they came for food, she still always gave something. We had potatoes and eggplants and tomatoes and greens from our own vegetable garden. Fruits beckoned from old abandoned orchards and from neighbors who did not mind sharing. To buy foodstuffs we could not grow, my mother raised a small amount from selling the brooms in summer and catching fish during rainy season. I would do all this work with her until it was time for my marriage, and then Rumi and Jhumi would do the same.
“Your face is our jewel,” Ma would say sometimes, and I would laugh and crinkle my nose in embarrassment, because I felt awkward compared to the rosebud prettiness of the twins. But I knew that of all the girls in the family, I looked the most like Ma. It might help me get a husband, especially since there was no dowry we could give. At ten, I didn’t think much about marriage, even though my mother had married at eight, moving into my grandparents’ hut to live with them and Baba when she was thirteen. I was born two years after that. Sadly, Ma’s parents died from typhoid before my annaprasan, the six-month first-rice-eating celebration of a child’s life. So I had nobody around except my two sisters, my parents, and one set of grandparents. In our village, this was a very small family.
Two nights after our final broom-selling journey, I awoke to realize that Thakurma was hovering near Ma. Baba was lighting the oil lamp. Thakurma whispered to me that my mother was going to have the baby soon, and that I should take my sisters to sleep outside and then fetch Chitra-massi, the dai who lived in Johlpur village. Thakurma reminded me to call Chitra-massi’s name four times at the door: to call her once or twice might lead her to worry that I was a nighttime ghost. I thought this was nonsense, but her door did not open until the fourth time I called. Together, Chitra-massi and I raced back to the hut, carrying her special bucket and cloths. Then Thakurma took her inside and ordered me to rest with the twins.
It was a hot night, so it should have felt easier to sleep outside. But how could any of us sleep as the minutes turned to hours and our mother’s groans evolved into a tiger’s roar? Village women flowed toward our hut like ants on the trail of a dropped piece of sweet shondesh. I knew they felt especially concerned because Ma could not go to her childhood home to give birth, since her parents had passed.
Ma’s cries grew wilder, but still the baby would not budge. Eventually Chitra-massi told my father to fetch Dr. Dasgupta from the next village. My father rode off with a neighbor in his cart; it was some hours later that they returned with the doctor. The sky was light and my mother was hardly crying at all, which made me fear for her all the more.
I watched the doctor’s black case bang against his legs as he hurried inside. What did the case hold? I did not trust doctors and their tools. If he had a knife, he could kill my mother or the baby by accident. Silently, I begged the goddess Lakshmi to watch over my mother and the baby. I was beyond wishing for a little brother; I just wanted whoever was inside to come out alive.
Morning traffic to the river was under way when new sounds broke from the hut: happy cheering and laughter. Thakurma emerged covered in sweat but with a smile as wide as the lightening sky. She told us that a little brother had been born, with big ears for listening to his sisters and lots of black curly hair. He had been locked inside of Ma, and Dr. Dasgupta had used something called forceps to free his head. She said she’d almost fainted from the sight of it, but it had worked. Ma was quite tired but wanted to see us.
My sisters and I could not get inside the hut quickly enough. The air was full of heavy smells: incense, the afterbirth, and sweat. After kissing Ma’s damp cheek, I turned to look at the new one in the family.
“Bhai,” I breathed softly. Thakurma gently lifted part of the red swaddling cloth to show his miniature boy’s face with closed-shut eyes. His skin was fair, but the sun would darken him to the same golden-brown color as me.
“Double curses wiped out by a gift from Krishna himself. We will give ten rupees to the temple!” Thakurma hugged me against her thin frame.
It didn’t matter whether Krishna or Lakshmi or any other deity was responsible, I thought while studying my brother’s wet curls plastered from the sandalwood-scented bath he’d just taken. He was so beautiful that calling him Bhai—brother—seemed too ordinary. All the other children in Johlpur called their brothers Bhai. And they had not prayed as hard for a miracle.
As I retreated back to the sleeping mats and settled between Rumi and Jhumi, I drowsed off, pondering what kind of name my grandfather would choose for my little bhai. Then another worry came: how would we ever come up with the goat Ma had promised Lakshmi and the rupees owed to both her and Krishna?
You may think such karmic debts are old-fashioned Hindu superstitions worth as much as an Englishman’s crossed fingers or thrown salt. But I have sometimes wondered whether paying those heavenly debts right away might have kept them from becoming my burden. Then I would never have left the beautiful shores of Johlpur, and I would be able to tell you my name.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Sleeping Dictionary includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sujata Massey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When a tidal wave wipes out a tiny village on Bengal’s southwest coast, a young girl known as Pom is set adrift in the world. Found near death by a charitable British headmistress and her chauffeur, Abbas, Pom is christened Sarah and becomes a servant at the Lockwood School for British and upper-caste Indian girls. When Bidushi Mukherjee, whose family owned Sarah’s home village, arrives at the school, Sarah believes she’s found a true friend. Bidushi is engaged to a handsome young lawyer, Pankaj Bandophadhyay, and the two girls dream that Sarah will become Bidushi’s personal ayah after Bidushi marries. Sadly, Bidushi succumbs to malaria, and Sarah is accused of theft and runs away. With the help of Abbas, she makes it to the larger town of Kharagpur, where she hopes to work as a children’s teacher, but her lack of qualifications make this impossible. A glamorous Anglo-Indian woman, Bonnie, invites her to luxurious Rose Villa, where she is renamed Pamela and inadvertently falls into a life of prostitution. Rose Villa caters to British railway men and military officers, and Pamela’s unhappy experiences there spark her interest in the burgeoning freedom movement. Secretly, she plots to save enough to leave Rose Villa for Calcutta, where she hopes to study for a teaching certificate. Her hopes are dashed yet again, this time by an unwanted pregnancy. Believing it’s the best thing she can do for herself and her newborn daughter, Kabita, she leaves the baby in the care of Abbas and his wife and sets off for Calcutta, hoping to find respectable work. By a stroke of luck, she becomes the librarian and house manager for Simon Lewes, a young British Indian Civil Service officer who has a massive collection of books on India. She tells him her name is Kamala Mukherjee and allows him to believe she is well-born and well-educated. With her new freedom-fighting friends, Kamala reconnects with Pankaj Bandopadhyay, although he does not remember her as the servant girl from Lockwood. At his urging, she spies on Mr. Lewes’s work and finds that he’s tracking Indian revolutionaries. As they work together, she wonders if he could ever look past the unknowns about her and become her husband. However, as time goes on, Simon becomes more sympathetic to Indian independence, falls in love with Kamala, and convinces her to marry him. And, while their relationship is tested by the stresses of World War II, the reappearance of Kamala’s daughter, Kabita, and the truth of Kamala’s difficult past, their love for each other and for India carries them through.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
Discussion Questions 1. After losing her family, Kamala goes through several identities— from Pom to Sarah, Pamela, and finally Kamala. Can any of them be said to be more “real” or “true” than the others?
2. Kamala’s life is strongly shaped by loss: her family, Bidushi, even Abbas, the Lockwood School’s chauffeur. How do these deaths shape the course of her life? How effectively does she deal with these losses?
3. Discuss the race relationships in the book as exemplified by the administration at Lockwood School, the clients at Rose Villa, and Kamala’s relationship with Simon. Are there generational forces at work, as well as class and caste, in terms of how the British and Indians interact?
4. Instead of treating her sympathetically, the Indian housekeeper at Lockwood goes out of her way to bully and abuse Kamala. What inspires Rachael’s antipathy toward her? What does it illuminate about relationships within Indian and British society?
5. There is a large gap between the paths of the Rose Villa girls and the activist Chhatri Sangha girls. How is Kamala able to move from one world to another? What real differences (if any) are there between these young women that lead to their respective circumstances?
6. Kamala decides to give up her daughter, believing she is making the right choice both for herself, the child, and Abbas and his wife. Do you believe it was the right decision, considering what we know about Kabita’s life at the end of the novel? What would you have done in Kamala’s shoes?
7. Kamala has three real friendships throughout the novel: Bidushi, Lakshmi, and Supriya. How do these friendships shape her and her ambitions? How do they impact her life, for worse or for better?
8. When Pankaj discovers who Kamala works for, he asks her to spy on her employer. How does this subterfuge affect Kamala’s feelings about Simon Lewes?
9. Is Kamala wrong to hide her past of poverty and unwed motherhood from the people she meets in Calcutta? Does she become a less likable character because of her dishonesty, or do you think she’s doing what she must in order to survive?
10. Would Pankaj ultimately have been a better match for Kamala than Simon? Were you surprised at the way their relationships turned out?
11. Simon is surprisingly accepting of Kamala’s daughter and past. What does this show about his character’s development?
12. How much of Kamala’s success does she attribute to luck, how much to her own hard work, and how much to destiny?
13. What did you already know about India and its struggle for independence? Were you particularly struck by any of the historical details in the novel? How does it compare to other fiction set in the same time period?
14. How does the inclusion of real historical figures (Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose) affect the reading experience? Do they add additional dimensions or pull you out of the narrative?
Enhance Your Book Club
Enhance Your Book Group 1. While novels like The Sleeping Dictionary are set in real historical situations, they are ultimately fiction. Discuss the group’s attitude towards historical novels: How much do you expect to be accurate and how much fictionalized?
2. PBS’s Story of India offers a full history of India, and includes background on Nehru, Gandhi, and the Indian National Congress. Learn more at www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia.
3. Sujata Massey offers information about the inspiration for the book on her website, sujatamassey.com. She is also willing to join book clubs by phone, if time permits. Email sujatamassey@mac .com for details.
4. The novel mentions many delicious Indian dishes. Have each member pick one to make for the group’s meeting! A few recipes are included here.
5. Explore the role of Indian women in the colonization and independence of India. Consider figures like Commander Lakshmi Swaminathan, who commanded women’s forces in the Indian National Army during World War II, and the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, who was killed fighting against the British in 1858, and Indira Gandhi, the world’s longest serving woman prime minister.
A Conversation with Sujata Massey
In your website’s introduction to The Sleeping Dictionary, you mention the difficulty of switching from writing about one culture to another. Tell us more about that; did you have to employ different writing techniques, along with doing new research?
Up until the present, I’ve been writing a long-running mystery series set in Japan. I had the ease of continuing characters in every book and a very familiar setting where I’d once lived. Writing those mysteries was like slipping into a warm old jacket. I’d say The Sleeping Dictionary was more like a slippery, shimmering sari—quite tricky the first time you wear it, and for a long time thereafter, too. Although one side of my family is from Bengal, and I’ve enjoyed visits there and to other parts of India, I faced the challenge of not having really lived in India nor been able to speak Indian languages. For this reason, I hesitated to write about India, but as Kamala’s story formed in my mind, I longed to share it. I was writing the book while living in Minnesota, where I could not find a Bengali language course. I was able to study Hindi for a year to get the sentence structure, idioms, and feeling for dialogue. I did most of the historical research at the Ames Library of South Asia, within the University of Minnesota, which turned out to be a treasure trove of rare books and documents relating to colonialism. Some choice snippets from these books are shared in the epigraphs. Midway through writing the first draft, I took a research trip to Kolkata, Midnapur, Kharagpur, and Digha, to walk through all the locations of the book. I also did research at the British Library in London where all the old records of the India Office are stored.
You also mention on your website that you interviewed many Bengalis for the book. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned during those interviews?
I was very interested in meeting anyone—Bengali or not—who could recall daily details of life and politics in 1930 Calcutta. In India, I met a former Gandhian freedom fighter, Tapan Raychaudhuri, who endured a prison experience, and also Krishna Bose, the widow of Sisir Kumar Bose, the nephew who aided Netaji in his daring escape. But my favorite interviews were at home with my father, Subir Banerjee, who grew up in Bengal and Bihar. From a child’s perspective, he recalled incidents like the Japanese bombings of Calcutta, and his father angrily railing against English soldiers who wanted to throw their family out of a train compartment. He also revealed that a relative on his father’s side, Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, was the founding president of the Congress Party—and that going back a bit further on his mother’s side, those ancestors, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family, leased to the British the three villages that became Calcutta. So the beginning of colonialism, and the struggle to end it both are a part of me.
There were so many possible paths for Kamala to take as her life develops. How did you decide on her trajectory?
I originally wrote an even longer story, giving Kamala a few more work experiences—as a children’s ayah, and also as a nurse during the war—but I realized that I might lose my reader with an 800-page book. Streamlining the novel into four discrete books that are narrated by Pom from childhood through womanhood hopefully make the mother-daughter story, as well as the love story, have more of an impact. I was tempted to follow Kamala to the West after her marriage . . . but that story could be picked up in another book.
Kamala’s time at Rose Villa is complicated from moral, ethical, and racial standpoints. Was it hard to find a balance in portraying the different characters and their interactions?
There were many times I wished I didn’t have to send Kamala to Rose Villa, but I felt that with her vulnerable status, this would really have happened to her, as it continues to happen to young homeless women worldwide. The basis for Rose Villa was a prewar high-class brothel one of my elderly sources described as located in Chandernagore and staffed by beautiful French women. Each patron, upon leaving, was given a bottle of French perfume for his wife. The existence of places like Rose Villa points out the hypocrisy of the British saying they were uplifting the moral development of Indians. Natty, Doris, Bonnie, and Rose Barker also illustrate how families were broken and left in poverty when many English soldiers repatriated to England. At the same time, it’s important to know that only a minority of Anglo-Indians became prostitutes; most lived comfortable, respectable lives.
What issues did you consider when writing Kamala and Simon’s relationship?
I knew it would be controversial to have a relationship between a British man and an Indian woman that could turn out to be nonexploitative. Some might have preferred a fairytale ending with Pankaj. But I felt that Simon had grown so much through the years of knowing Kamala that he really was the right person for her. I believe that our hearts dare to go where our heads won’t, and that we always need to listen to the heart.
Which sections of The Sleeping Dictionary were the most fun to write? Which were the hardest?
I found the Rose Villa section the hardest to write, because of my concern for all the girls’ well-being. It was also wrenching to leave the baby Kabita behind when Kamala pursued her new life. Bringing the old Calcutta alive, with all its intellectual hangouts, pastry shops, and residences, was the best part for me, because I love the city so much.
How do you feel about the way the struggle for Indian independence is portrayed in novels? Do you have any favorites written by other authors?
I very much enjoy the writing of Amitav Ghosh, who touches on the history of colonialism in many of his novels, as well as Rabindranath Tagore, whose novel The Home and the World was significant for Kamala. British writers like E. M. Forster, M. M. Kaye, and Rumer Godden have written novels and memoirs that share the British perspective beautifully. My complaint with most novels about the British colonial era is that there are few Indian female characters playing any type of role, although we know from historic accounts that this was not the case. Young women walked away from their families to serve with the INA. Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, died while a political prisoner. I hope this novel, in some small way, celebrates these strong women.
How do you balance historical accuracy with the demands of plot? Were there any liberties you were afraid to take with the historical details, or is all fair in fiction?
I did the best I could to make sure every real event that happened is reported at the right time and place, such as the Christmas Eve bombing of Calcutta and all the details of Bose’s escape. There are of course some events that are fictional—like the particular Subhas Chandra Bose speech in Town Hall and a train sabotage—but they are based on real happenings during the period. The newspaper quotations I’ve included are all real, as are the various political leaders and Chhatri Sangha, the female students’ group.
Do you plan to write another book set in India, or to continue writing about any of the characters from The Sleeping Dictionary?
Yes, indeed! While I am continuing my Japanese mystery series about Rei Shimura, I’m planning another historical novel, possibly featuring Kamala’s daughter, Kabita, as its narrator. There is so much exciting South Asian history over the last seventy years—and fortunately, people who are still alive to tell me their stories.