A few months ago, a friend told me about an extremely entertaining Bengali movie she had watched – Goynar Baksho and urged me to watch, whenever it became available on Netflix/ Amazon. For whatever reason, the name stuck – mainly because it stars Moushumi Chatterjee and I did keep an eye for it in the hope of watching it. Therefore, when I read an article recently about the English translation of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Goynar Baksho (The Aunt who wouldn’t die), on which the movie is loosely based, and that too by the prolific and brilliant translator, Arunava Sinha, I knew I had to read it.
The book is rather short, a novella, which makes it a quick read. An accurate and touching portrayal of three women from three different generations, all grappling with the challenges life has thrown their way, the book gives an insight into the workings of a typical Bengali zamindar joint family in the 1940s and how it changes through time
Somlata is a young woman from a poor family who gets married into a joint Bengali landlord family known for its ancestral wealth. Somlata soon realises that the family’s wealth is just for show and in reality the fortunes were dwindling. The wealth was slowly going and so were its possessions, for typical of the landed rich, the men in the family ( her father-in-law, her brother-in-law and husband) did no work and abhorred taking up any profession or getting into trade. They were perfectly happy being completely useless and living off the dwindling family riches.As she quickly adjusts to her new family, Somlata gets to know of their idiosyncrasies and what makes them tick. She is the typical wife – the one who intelligently knows how to manage her husband – and uses her intelligence to avert the impending financial ruin (by helping them start and run a saree shop), by resolving the various disputes and quietly get what she wants – while being in the background.
Then there is Pishima, her husband’s aunt (the aunt from the title – who is by far, the most unforgettable character of the book). Widowed at the age of 12, she is bitter, lonely and angry, with her family, society and world for having been forced to lead a life of deprivation – for no fault of hers! Unfulfilled and terribly disgruntled, Pishima is furious at the callousness and hypocrisy of her male relatives – who have mistresses – when she was denied her desires, for no fault of hers. This rage and bitterness make her mean and petty and that continues after her death, when she becomes a ghost and starts haunting the poor Somlata.
Finally there is Somlata’s daughter, Boshon – modern and ‘feminist’ – angry with men, serious, headstrong and thoughtful. Many in the book feel that she is Pishima reincarnated. Fair enough, she does have her fiery temperament. However, whereas in Pishima’s case, the fury is justified; it is not in Boshon’s case. Unfortunately, it is this character that is a bit of dampener in the book. Also her whole personal dilemma, which is part of her anger, doesn’t really add up. And hence not a surprise that in the film version (according to the synopsis on Wikipedia), Boshon’s story has been etched out in more detail and reinterpreted giving it more depth and a political angle.
This shortcoming does not take away much from this fantastic book which is a must-read. Highly recommended!