The Storyteller’s Secret

Written by Sejal Badani
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 2000, Jaya, a thirty-something New York journalist, boards a plane for India. She has recently miscarried for the third time, and her husband subsequently left her for another woman. Heartbroken, Jaya, the only child of immigrants from India, is on a mission of soul-searching and discovery of her family’s roots. While her well-off parents love her very much, she knows little about their past life in India. Jaya’s mother learns of her own father’s terminal illness, and although he has something to give her, she refuses to go to India. Jaya is perplexed to hear that her mother was made to promise never to return home after her marriage, and she decides to investigate.

Jaya arrives too late at her grandfather’s empty village house. However, she is welcomed by Ravi who, although of the Dalit caste, was hired by the high-caste family and has become a trusted servant. He tells Jaya her grandmother’s fascinating and heart-rending life story during the days of the British Raj in the 1930s-1940s.

This stimulating novel reads like a true-to-life story, and no wonder, for in an interview, Sejal Badani has disclosed that the narrative is based on her grandmother’s life in British India. The descriptions of the lives of both common villagers and the well-off are informative. The insights into the local customs and traditions might be an eye-opener even for those familiar with Indians’ time-honored ways. The novel covers the intriguing aspect of a young girl moving away to live in her husband’s home upon her marriage, rarely to return. Furthermore, the young bride is subject to her mother-in-law’s whims and treated much like a servant. The mistreatment of the Dalit caste and the tumultuous relationships between the British rulers and the Indians are well presented.