Fiction: Eden Gardens by Louise Brown
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The title of this debut novel refers to one of the oldest parks in Kolkata designed in 1841 and named after the Eden sisters of Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India. It is the park where Maisy plays with her ayah, Pushpa, while her alcoholic mother is at home entertaining her legions of 'uncles'.
Maisy's story begins in 1934 just before an earthquake shatters their home. She recounts how her mother fled England after the First World War in search of an exotic life and a rich husband in India. Instead, her fate led her into prostitution, servicing the pen pushers of the Raj. Chapters alternate with Pushpa's point of view, dovetailing the native experience of growing up in the second city of the Empire. The gritty backstreet slums and lurid sexual encounters that were the underbelly of the Raj are channelled through the two women. But only Maisy can save her mother from ruin, and all hopes are pinned on her. Ultimately, Maisy's love for one man casts her future as the Second World War strikes and the empire begins to crumble.
In a faithfully researched, colourfully rendered portrait of life in Calcutta before partition, Louise Brown has drawn on extensive experience of India, and her academic interest in sex trafficking in South Asia, to create a vivid and compelling read. With a deft touch, the city in all its noise, colour and smells comes to life on the page.
The authentic historic detail and acute observation is no surprise, as Louise Brown's non-fiction includes Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia; The Transition to Democracy in Nepal; War and Aftermath in Vietnam and the Dancing Girls of Lahore, for which she stayed in a house of courtesans to research life in a brothel.
Sunday Indo Living
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