Is it The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, or is it the old tradition? In this novella by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay it is, sadly, both. Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha and firstly appeared in English language in 2019, this book depicts a particular landlord family and the society they live in with all the traditions and patriarchal practices they’ve been performing through generations. It’s supposed to be funny, through the actions and voices of the characters, but as the plot progresses and we get deeper into it, it’s not funny anymore.
It opens with Somlata, a poor young girl of 18, being married off to an older man from an aristocrat family that’s already at the door of bankruptcy. They have nothing left but a facade, they even have to borrow money to pay for Somlata’s dowry. And while the family tries so hard to maintain their dignity, Somlata knows they can no longer survive without doing anything.
In the knowledge of this, Somlata stumbles upon the body of her husband’s aunt, whom she calls Pishima. When she finds her Pishima is already dead, and her ghost appears out of thin air. She asks Somlata to keep her box of jewelry and not to tell anyone in the family about it, much less letting them have it―even though they both know the family is in financial crisis. Somlata is so scared of the ghost but she does what she’s told, and does not admit her keeping the box although her sister-in-law clearly knows that she does.
The family’s financial crisis can no longer be ignored, and with Pishima’s box of jewelry Somlata might just save the entire family from falling further into poverty. But her fear of Pishima, and her ghost’s constant appearance and following Somlata everywhere remind her that she cannot break her silent promise. She therefore sells her own necklace and invites her husband to open a shop. Her husband’s reluctant, and the family, except for Somlata’s mother-in-law, is resolutely against the idea. They are a landlord, upper class family, they “don’t do trade” and they “don’t be a shopkeeper”. But Somlata’s husband finally agrees, and though their business often fails at first, they can eventually pass the storm.
Somlata’s persistent efforts can be seen as her act of kindness and loyalty to the family she’s married into, but on the other hand, it can also be considered as her act of rebel against its long-lived tradition. They are too busy preserving their dignity and refuse to do any labor to stay afloat, while Somlata sees no other way to survive than to do so. She’s insistent in the face of the family’s sneer and rejection and ridicule at the beginning, and her hard work and her husband’s willingness to follow her suggestion and guidance prove to be fruitful. But this is the only line that she’s determined to cross, and that’s certainly for the sake of the family.
As the second generation, her fate is actually no different (no better?) than Pishima’s, who had to conform to the patriarchal family tradition and suffer from it all her life through to her death. She was married at 7 and widowed at 12, and never allowed to remarry or even to enjoy a little bit of worldly pleasure after that. She’s doomed to be a miserable, unhappy, caged widow all her life and what she had left to keep is her box of jewelry―that’s why her ghost warns Somlata not to give her jewelry to their family, because she holds a deep grudge against them for all the sufferings they had put her through as a woman and a widow. She curses them all the time, wishes them all dead. She also teases Somlata to betray her husband and go seeing the handsome guy who’s been stalking her for days. But Somlata resists the temptation, because there is only one line she’s determined to cross.
Her daughter Boshon though, as the third generation, is the true rebel of the family. She refuses to submit to any social mores or family rules or patriarchal system which has held down her mother and her great-aunt. She doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to be loved merely for her looks because it’ so “empty” and pointless. She even sneers at her friend Priti who’s so mooning over her boyfriend.
The narrative says a lot about how the three women of different generations and different personalities and thoughts have to face the same problem: long-lived tradition, endless sexism, and familial system unfriendly to women. Somlata is the bridge between the heavily shackled Pishima and the more free Boshon, that’s pretty obvious; her situation is not as bad as Pishima, either, but she still restrains herself at the end, knowing that she has limit she cannot break. Pishima’s ghost appearance here and there at unexpected moments throws out all of her rage and anger toward all of those system and tradition, because she is dead and cannot do anything anymore to take her revenge on her family and society. Boshon’s freedom seems relieving, but let’s not forget the fact that she has privilege of being pampered by her family, that she’s entitled to do as she likes because she’s the only granddaughter of their family whose mother has successfully dragged them out of poverty. The sexism is still there, and she’s determined to fight against it.
Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has certainly an engrossing, thought-provoking, yet funny style of storytelling in this book. Well, it’s not funny because it is funny, but because it’s ironic and it’s a mockery of the way and the condition that we live. It’s funny because it’s not supposed to be the life that we live. It’s funny because after three generations, old tradition and sexism are still lurking behind us, trying to catch us unguarded and put chains on us, though each in a slightly different way.
There are more and more books highlighting women’s problems we see being published every year, both in English or translated ones. And among those growing number there are still very few from South Asia, which is actually very rich and unique and has many things to tell the readers. Mukhopadhyay’s The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die might only be one among those few, but its poignancy is worth a spotlight.