A major criticism that a book reviewer encounters is “His criticism is nothing but retelling the tale”. That is why it is such a pleasure to review Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s novella, “Sheet Sahasik Hematolok” (Defying Winter) because there is no tale that is being told in this novella.
Instead of telling a story, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, through the eyes of the inmates of ‘Twilight Shelter’ paints a mosaic portrait of the society at large and also ruminates about old age. The ‘Twilight Shelter’ is an old age home for woman and the novella talks through the different women who populate this shelter.
It starts off with a novelist – Nabaneeta Dev Sen says in the introduction that this character resembles her – Aparajita’s thoughts about old age and we hear how she came to this old age home due to her own volition. Then we hear her ‘sambandhi’ (her daughter-in-law’s mother) narrating how she feels when Aparajita moves to this home. Then we start hearing the voices of other inmates as well as the voices of some of their relatives. The important fact is that all these are voices of women.
The inmates come to the shelter for various reasons: some want to keep their freedom intact, some are left here by their relatives, some because they don’t want to be a burden to their children. The interesting fact is that not all these women are helpless. Infact many come there because they want their freedom and because they are strong and independent personalities. So you have the author Aparajita here, you have a schoolteacher here and you also have a woman who through her hard work ends up owning 13 houses in Calcutta.
The novella is as much rumination on old age as it is on what freedom and individuality mean to women. Aparajitha, who is suffering from terminal illness, doesn’t want to be a burden to her son. She has always been an independent woman and wants to live that way. We also see another woman refusing to go with her niece to Delhi because she doesn’t want to be the caretaker of her niece’s kid. We also have the strong willed Nistarini, who moves to this home because she doesn’t want her son’s marriage to suffer because of her. It almost looks like the more individualistic you are, the more difficult it becomes for you in old age to tolerate the lack of freedom.
Nabaneeta shows us that old age does not necessarily bring wisdom along with it. In cases like Aparajita, it expands her vision about humanity whereas in other cases old age concretizes some of the prejudices that people hold. A fact that is underlined when the inmates want one old woman, who is demented, to be thrown out of the shelter. Only to be told that the shelter is basically for people like her. The stories of the inmates also reveal various facets of society to us and give us a glimpse of how elderly people are treated in their homes, though that part is not all encompassing.
Since the novella talks through the eyes of different characters, the interest would be sustained if each character had a unique voice. This is where we encounter the limitation of translation. (Limitation of translation and not of the translator.) Both the author and translator say in the introduction that each voice in the novella spoke a different type of Bengali, which would immediately provide a clue of their class and their social upbringing. Similarly English mixed with Bengali would give an idea of the character. Unfortunately these are difficult to translate and uniformity creeps in when translation to English happens. That doesn’t detract from the story being told though. We get glimpses of Aparajita’s cultured style and Nistarini’s lack of style in the writings. I am sure reading this novella in Bengali would be a great experience. The Aparajita part especially reads very poetic and reading Tagore and other poets in their own tongue would be fulfilling.
This is a very apt book for this computer age. We have lots of middle aged woman as the workforce now. These independent and freedom loving woman will not want to be constrained in their old age. At the same time as families become more nuclear with both parents working, the demand on grandparents to be the keepers of the grandchildren is increasing. Grandparents taking care of their grandchildren was a given in an earlier era but will it be so in the years to come? How will the independent women of today end up ‘Defying Winter’? This novel of Nabaneeta Dev Sen may provide some clues.