Author Indrani Ganguly based her historical novel in Lucknow, India, a city renowned as the most refined of the Muslim kingdoms where she, her mother and grandmother were born. In 1857 the Siege of Lucknow was also the scene of some of the most brutal fighting during the country’s uprisings.
Indrani Ganguly’s novel is an illuminating blend of fact and fiction. Twins Mukti and Lila Chatterjee—the eponymous rose and thorn compared to a black rose in their garden—are the heart and soul of the story. Ganguly’s research is comprehensive thanks to an academic background, and her foreword mentions some family memories. She explains the book is not a personal history of her family, although I think there are insights which add to the charm of the narrative.
Two parallel movements emerged in India in the 19th and 20th centuries, the national movement of Independence and the social reform to uplift the most vulnerable sections of society. During this time of national and social upheaval, the role of Indian women makes enlightening reading.
There are six families in “The Rose and The Thorn”. The main characters are Jai Chatterjee, history professor, his wife Shanti and their twin daughters Mukti and Lila. Then follows The Mukherjees, The Alis, The Johnsons, The Banerjees, and The Maharajas. It is easy to keep track as the years unfold, events develop in clear progression and the tension builds.
Young Mukti innocently reads the signs of civil unrest in a 1922 pamphlet calling for a boycott on foreign clothing, and the event is witnessed by her British friend Elizabeth and father Alan when riding in a tanga (horse-drawn transport). Protesters burn clothes on a huge bonfire, quickly followed by police aggression. One of the police inspectors, Anil, is a Chatterjee family member.
Around this time, non-violent resistance advocate Mahatma Gandhi is arrested and imprisoned for two years for publishing seditious material.
The twins Lila and Mukti grow up, marriages are arranged and their resilient personalities emerge to deal with life; the loss of loved ones, writing for radical newspaper Chandpur Barta, social work at a women’s centre, and an eventful protest march for women’s rights.
As a young woman in 1970s I was woven into the women’s liberation movement but did not realise how long Indian women had faced their own battles. They were invisible, they survived as long as they had a man, otherwise they were classed as nothing. From a 21st century stance, I find it difficult to comprehend the household dictates of that time and the shocking treatment of widows.
The character portrayals of the men and women in the story are strong, and they have firm opinions on the subjects of politics and political activism—handsome Rashid Ali spices things up! His mother Ruksana is also a driving force. Mosquito-hating Krishna Banerjee and the Maharaja are men not to be underestimated. Societal revolutions are brewing but the big question is ‘Will Congress win?’ If women had the vote things may have been different.
I was interested in the chapters dated March 1923 because that was the year my mother was born. As my mother grew up, I wonder how much she and her Australian contemporaries knew of the Partition turmoil in India? I knew India was part of the British Commonwealth but certainly didn’t learn about their struggles. To quote the prologue “There are no martyrs’ monuments or eternal burning flames…” for the ordinary women who led extraordinary lives.
On a lighter note, Chapter 25, March 1923 “The Governor’s Ball” has an outrageous encounter with the Governor’s wife. And during a family visit to the Taj Mahal, a wandering minstrel strolls by, strumming his ektara (traditional one-stringed musical instrument) singing a saucy song:
There was a rose and a thorn in my life
One was my lover and one was my wife.
Which was which I could not tell
It changed day-by-day and as night fell . . .
. . . I don’t want to give too much away, dear reader, but I will say there is a secret.
Author Ganguly explains that representing the dialogue in English was a challenge. The two languages used in the book are Hindi and Bengali which have very different grammar syntax. She overcame this and the result is flowing dialogue containing a smattering of Indian words which enhance the story.
The woven cloth khadi, and sweet and savoury food references enticed me to look for translations. I found a recipe for Mukti’s favourite dish, freshly fried luchi and eggplant.
My curiosity was piqued by the influential roles of India’s royals, the Maharaja and Maharani, in the story. I read a quote from modern-day Princess Shivranjani of Jodhpur who doesn’t have a problem with only male heirs inheriting but aptly retorts “If you say a boy is everything and a girl is nothing, well, I have a problem with that!”
Powerful Goddess Durga, whose name is spoken several times in the book, also got me researching. “Durga” in Sanskrit means “invincible” and numerous Mantras are chanted for her throughout the year.
The era of Indian history from 1916 to 1947 is brought alive by Indrani Ganguly through the eyes of Mukti and Lila, and the wise and courageous women who supported them. While I did not choose a favourite between the rose and the thorn, I enjoyed their journey and learned a lot about the faith and endurance of families in India during those turbulent times.
The epilogue narrator says “I myself travelled many different paths till I joined my father in Delhi but that is another story.” I look forward to reading it!
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Indrani Ganguly was born of Bengali parents in Lucknow, India. Her parents imbued her with a strong sense of Indian and world history and culture, and a great appreciation of diversity in all its forms. Indrani studied English Honours and sociology in India and did her PhD on the impact of British occupation on revolution and reform in West Bengal from the Australian National University. In 1990, Indrani married an Australian with whom she now lives in Brisbane, Queensland. They have a son, daughter and grandson.
Published by Boolarong Press
[NOTE General photographs are for illustration purposes only]
Here is the YouTube link to BBC’s Great Indian Railway Journeys video which documents the history and scenes of Lucknow, and shows the buildings which Indrani Ganguly writes about in her book.