Reviews

Agency, in Life & Death, in “The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die”

A review of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel, "The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die."

In 1966, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a reimagining of Jane Eyre that delved into the past and present of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason. Simply seen as the omnipresent ‘madwoman’ in Bronte’s novel, Rhys gave her a complex inner world and humanized her apparent madness. There have been numerous spiritual successors to both novels over the years, but whether Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die can be considered one too is debatable. The novella draws influence from the Gothic romance themes and hones in on the idea of womanhood wasted; but, at the same time, the novella also breathes new life into these ideas with an entirely new cultural context, sharp humor, and several intriguing female leads.

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die follows Somlata, a young Bengali woman married off to a noble family that has fallen upon hard times. Employment isn’t an option for men of this status, and so all that’s left is some land, prestige, and a large family home with several unexplored rooms. These rooms belong to Pishima, widowed as a child and living the rest of her days as a wizened matriarch. When she dies, Somlata is entrusted with her secrets, and her very spirit. Years later, we’re introduced to Somlata’s daughter, Boshon, a spirited young woman with modern views and a poo-pooh attitude when it comes to matters of the heart. These three generations of women are the heart of the story, and it’s their agency, in life and in death, that propels the plot forward.

Mukhopadhyay’s take on Gothic romance tropes is surprisingly fresh, in part due to its humor. Pishima is no pitiable figure. Her ghost is bawdy, cruel, and free to express herself in death, after years of repression in life. She is more than comic relief and a hypothetical devil on Somlata’s shoulders, but rather a force for Somlata to survive and succeed. When Somlata is told of her husband’s lover, Pishima is defiant:

“Are you crying? Cry away, cry to your heart’s content. Let your heart burn. If you want to survive, tell your shoshur to his face, ‘I know about Chameli’. Understood?…You’re burning, aren’t you? Now light a fire under their arse. Let them burn too. Let the family go up in flames. Your brothers-in-law, your husband–shove poles up their backsides. Let them die of cholera, of leprosy. Are you listening? When you burn like I do, you’ll learn.

With Pishima’s influence, Somlata lifts the family out of poverty and lays the groundwork for a more prosperous future. Boshon, born into this prosperity, has even greater aspirations. Her strength is not her mother’s quiet, subtle strength, nor is it Pishima’s loud, frantic strength. Rather, it’s an expression all her own. In this way, Mukhopadhyay strays even further from Wide Sargasso Sea and, especially, from Jane Eyre. Modern critics are quick to note Jane’s passivity, accepting fate as it comes and rarely asking for more than what she has. Bertha, while more spirited, is never able to overcome her situation in life. Somlata and Pishima demonstrate a fully realized iteration of these characters, in similarly oppressive circumstances.

As a novella, The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die is succinct and colorful, barely discernible as a translation when it comes to pure prose. If anything, it cries out for more development. Here I acknowledge my own tastes as a reader, and my desire to see point of view characters balanced evenly. While Somlata’s narrative is well-developed and takes its time, Boshon’s narrative is somewhat limited. I found myself wanting more from her character, her intellectual pursuits, her reflections on how she was raised. Additionally, a longer length could’ve allowed for a more fleshed-out setting, sensory imagery, and other subtleties. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this short, engaging story.

I admit to never truly enjoying Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre. I respect them as landmark contributions to the literary canon, but never considered them reads for pleasure. The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, however, features some of these Gothic tropes with an irreverent, modern touch. Nothing short of enjoyable.

FICTION
The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die
By Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay
Harpervia
Published July 28, 2020

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