In The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has created one character who far exceeds the book’s limitations.
All men must die, but some aunts don’t.
The thing is that you don’t want the Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die to die. Instead, you want to set her up with a Twitter account and set her off against an army of trolls, or a battalion of men who abuse their power, to say things like:
“Each of them is worse than the other. All bastards, swines. You think your shoshur’s brother or your bhashur are innocent? Both have concubines, even two, a wife at home means nothing to them…They were debauches and they left me to play with my jewellery box at home…now light a fire under their a**e. Let them burn too.”
Because pishima (aunt) is a ghost, she can’t be killed. For what is dead may never die. What is dead may also never be intimidated by PILs, threats of violence or being dragged to court on obscenity charges, for this is one oshobbho (uncivilised) pishi.
Sometimes it feels so good to hear the voice of unrestrained fury, a voice that wants to tear it all down, let it all burn, bring good honest truth to our dirty rotten world. Done in all seriousness, such fury can change the world. Done in humour, in a tightly-crafted novella, it can provide a delicious, malicious laugh – exactly the kind of laugh that can brighten up a metro ride and brace one for a long day at work.
The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, a deft translation of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Goynar Baksho, tells the story of a large East Bengali zamindari family in decline, focusing on the lives of a mother, Somlata, a daughter, Boshon, and the ghost of a widowed aunt-without-a-name, whose merciless haunting of Somlata forms the crux of this delightful book.
Somlata is an archetype of the dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, a women who uses all her gifts to care for her husband and his family – helping them set up a successful sari business, helping them shore up the family resources, helping them de-escalate long-standing feuds, helping them wean themselves off their mistresses. She is intelligent and kind. She is also practised in the art of what used to be called “managing” a husband, working behind-the-scenes, gently and quietly, to ensure that for the most part she gets what she wants. Her victories, though, are always limited, negotiated in a piecemeal fashion from the men who control her in a world that is both patriarchal and feudal.
Mukhopadhyay, though, knows exactly what he is doing when he has Somlata say things like “Men are inconstant and fickle. I will not take it to heart if you do the same thing again. Only promise that you will not conceal it from me” when speaking with her husband about his mistress Kamala. For her subservience makes her the perfect foil to the haunting-taunting ghost who follows her around from the minute of pishima’s bodily death.
Pishima, widowed as a child, is unhappy, unfulfilled and justifiably furious. She forces Somlata to see the unbridled hypocrisy and moral debauchery of the world that Somlata works so hard to nurture and preserve. And she does her best to make Somlata recognise and explore her desires, sexual and otherwise, without restraint. “Eat him up, eat him up, eat him up, eat him up…” exhorts pishi. And, in her own way, Somlata eventually does.
What results is Boshon, Somlata’s daughter and the book’s most disappointing character. We first encounter Boshon as a baby and stay with her as she grows into a serious, angry and introspective young woman, who says things to her friends like “You’re a fool. So you’ll be happy. You can’t be happy in life unless you’re a fool.”
Boshon has some of pishi’s fire, but she has little idea of what to do with it. This in itself is not a problem, and is more than reasonable in someone who has just started college. The problem instead lies in the author’s choice of the big dilemma that preoccupies Boshon, and the decision that she ultimately makes to resolve it. These choices are unsatisfying and demonstrate the limits of Mukhopadhyay’s vision. I don’t think that pishi herself would approve, for in her Mukhopadhyay has created a character who far exceeds the novella’s limitations, a fury who won’t be domesticated and can’t be exorcised.
It is pishima’s desire and her explosive anger, humorously rather than tragically explored, that removes this novella from the long tradition of sad-widow Bengali novels and brings it into the more contemporary cinematic ambit of a Lage Raho Munnabhai, that blockbuster film about a gangster who is haunted by M.K. Gandhi’s ghost. It is no coincidence that the book has enjoyed a successful Bengali cinematic adaptation, one that liberally reinterprets the original story to make it harder-hitting and more political. I for one would be interested in a sequel involving a feminist ghost who speaks filthy, funny, truth to power. I think the time for her has come. #MeTooMashi.
Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own. She acknowledges the use of two Game of Thrones catchphrases in this piece.