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Semeen Ali
‘The Awasthis of Aamnagri’
Semeen Ali

The Awasthis of Aamnagri | Fiction | Shubha Sarma |
Niyogi Books | 2020 | ISBN- 978-93-89136-71-5 | pp 186 | 350

A novel with strong women characters

On families Arundhati Roy in her book The God of Small Things observes- “This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt.”

The Awasthis of Aamnagri written by Shubha Sarma takes on this observation as the novel unfolds. Spanning over a few years divided into episodes, the book gives a glimpse of a family that initially sets out to live together. The novel opens with Pandit Dinanath Awasthi, fondly known as Panditji moving into a new house along with his family. Tired of living in a small rented house, Panditji wants to create memories in the new house and it is those memories that transform into this novel. In the first few pages, the reader is given an insight into the personalities of the family members. The matriarchal hold on the house by Mrs. Shakuntala Awasthi, wife of Panditji has been described in a very interesting manner as well as how things are supposed to be run according to the way she wants. The novel cleverly brings in all the characters into limelight through the various incidents into which the book has been divided. The men in the house have hardly much to say except for Panditji, his man Friday Munshi Shymalal and Chedilal, one of the retainers of the household.

The novel has strong women characters and there are times when even the women of the household are at a fault and that has been brought out really well. No one is spared and Sarma makes sure that neither is anyone given an entirely negative portrayal. And this makes this novel shine. There are no rights and wrongs; there are no good or bad people. The grey area remains and everyone moves back and forth over this thin line. Women also turn into informers on others’ lives. The history of Mrs. Awasthi to her present dynamics with all of her daughters in laws has been brought forth through a conversation between the two women. The main characters are not always allowed to speak for themselves rather their histories and their ideas on how to lead their lives is described in the third person. The narrator makes sure that it is done this way. Of course, many a times we have read works where it becomes the duty of the character to slowly unravel himself or herself in front of a reader but Sarma makes sure that the overall conversation of the book is not lost in this process. We see Mrs. Awasthi as a God fearing woman who believes in god men. One of them hilariously dupes her as well. Again this incident also becomes an observation on how gullible an iron lady like Mrs. Awasthi can be. There are moments throughout the novel where kindness shines through and we see a humane side of hers but it is towards the end of the novel- the last chapter when the narrative tugs at the heart’s strings but more about it later.

“I realized that being well- mannered does not translate into sacrificing one’s dignity.”

– One of the most powerful lines spoken by a very timid character and her rise as a strong woman in a household where women do not give her the respect that she deserves. Indu is one of those women characters who remains in the background but is the backbone of the house. Her subsequent leaving the house with her family leads to the crumbling down of the household. The deliberate ignoring of another’s suffering and distancing oneself from it has been highlighted powerfully through the way Indu is treated in the Awasthi household by the women. And it extends to Gauri at one point of time, who works for the household. Gauri is accused of theft and the accusations that are hurled at her as well as the inability of Gauri to speak up for herself as she is not at the same bargaining position like the rest of the women of the Awasthi household makes one feel sympathetic and at the same time one realizes how power works. Power remains in the hands of the few who can change the course of a narrative but not for long. As Gauri’s innocence is finally proven.

A very interesting chapter is dedicated to the pets of the house- in this case it is the household parrot called Totalal. The birds and the animals are given a space to speak for themselves and it reminds one of the book titled The Conference of the Birds written in 1177 by a Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar where birds gather together to discuss the philosophy of life and are given human qualities. Here of course the agenda for a gathering is an entirely different one and of a more urgent nature. This chapter is a refreshing one and also turns into an interlude before the novel skips forward several years ahead and all has changed in the Awasthi household. A more sober Mrs. Awasthi is shown as the novel draws to a close. The entire house lies vacant except for the old retainers and Panditji. Rest of the flock has left- and left behind shards of their memories that makes life unbearable for Mrs. Awasthi. It is in these final pages of the novel that a stark contrast can be observed between a coloured lens through which the household was seen at the beginning to a more darker, grey world that one confronts. But Sarma makes sure that the novel does not end on a sombre note, for the world has seen enough of strife and suffering at the moment to take in another loss – at the level of a novel. Sarma makes sure that she drives this point strongly across that a family can be torn apart and can at times come together- what keeps them together is an invisible thread that runs through the hearts of all, tying them all together. Of course, there are reasons why the family in the end in this novel comes together but the learning curve comes for one and all in this book.

The language has been kept simple and day to day vocabulary has been used to not intimidate a reader. At times the idea behind writing a book is not to keep a select audience in mind but to keep it open for people from across fields to read it. Sarma does a wonderful job of not limiting/restricting her novel but inviting people to read it and be a part of it like the Awasthi family.


Issue 95 (Jan-Feb 2021)

Book Reviews
  • Ananya Sarkar: ‘A Year of Wednesdays’
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘Amma’s Gospel’
  • Devika Basu: ‘Hibiscus – Poems that heal and empower’
  • Deepa Agarwal: ‘The Zoo in My Backyard’
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Across And Beyond’
  • Pinaki Gayen: ‘The Afterlife of Silence – Still Lifes of Jogen Chowdhury’
  • Pinaki Gayen: In Conversation with Anuradha Ghosh
  • Priyadarshi Patnaik: ‘THE GITA – Mewari Miniature Painting (1680-1698)’
  • Revathi Raj Iyer: ‘RETREAT and Other Short Stories’
  • Sapna Dogra: ‘The Blue Jade’
  • Seema Sinha: ‘Mirror from the Indus – Essays, Tributes and Memoirs’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘The Awasthis of Aamnagri’
  • Sukanya Saha: ‘A Bengali Lady in England’