The Sleeping Dictionary

Written by Sujata Massey
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1930s Bengal, ten-year-old Pom is orphaned when a tidal wave sweeps through her coastal village. She is rescued by a tongawalla (horse carriage driver) of an English boarding school near Calcutta. Pom, renamed Sarah, is hired there first as a fan-puller and later, having picked up English, as a helper of a rich Indian girl, Bidushi, who becomes her best friend. Sarah helps Bidushi write letters to her betrothed, Pankaj, a handsome young man studying law in England. Through this correspondence, Sarah falls secretly in love with Pankaj but, accused of stealing Bidushi’s ruby necklace, she has to flee from school. Although her train is bound for Calcutta, Sarah gets off in a smaller town and, without money to continue her journey, she seeks employment. Unable to find a job, she resorts to scrounging for food. An Anglo-Indian woman takes pity on Sarah and gives her shelter in her villa, which turns out to be a high-class brothel (somewhat like the one fictionalized in Cleland’s Fanny Hill). Here Sarah becomes a “sleeping dictionary” and endures sexual tortures but continues to think about her first love, Pankaj. After several misadventures, and upon hearing his name whispered by the wind, she departs to search for him in Calcutta.

This novel’s theme will remind readers of Jane Eyre. Evocative descriptions of the late Raj period’s Indian cultures, customs, cuisine, flora and fauna are narrated delightfully. Although hers is essentially a story of love and human endurance, Massey, an award-winning author, has admirably woven the events of the Indian independence movement into the plot, particularly the efforts by Subhas Bose. This is an informative and entertaining historical novel. While the ending is unlike that of Brontë, it’s just as intriguing a page-turner. Highly recommended.