Writing a book review becomes enjoyable when reading the book has given one some pleasure and I have to say, writing this review is one of the easiest things I’ve done. Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman is the story of Jana Laird, a woman with a mission to save Hamara Nagar, a town where she has recently moved, to a house which was a part of the heritage left to her by her grandfather. It is a place which she has fond childhood memories of.
Reading the novel is akin to watching a Bollywood movie. You have a very Indian setting with a town aptly called Hamara Nagar (Our Town) and the town truly belongs to each one of us. It’s that town which you visited over the summer in your childhood and carry fond memories of. It is that town where your twelve year old self spent evenings enjoying the cool breeze, strolling around with an ice-cream in your hand. You’d say hello to every shop owner as you amble your way through the Bazaar with the ice cream dripping on to your navy blue shorts or your red frock. Feroze, the philosopher tailor, Ramachandran, the owner of the antique store, Rambir, the reporter, Bandhu, the bullying police officer, Zohra, the elegant neighbor, Mary, the caring ayah, Tilku, the cute, errand boy, Moustapha, the small town boy with big city ambitions, Sandra, the typical American girl in a boarding school- all of them come alive in the form of reminders of some distant past. These characters are charmingly eccentric, yet so real that they remind you of the same people in your life. At the same time, there are some good old emotions thrown into the story with which the characters come alive and resonate so well with the reader. And there is chaos, a typically Indian experience.
The novel tries to be a little Rushdie-sque (but, not quite) in the portrayal of an imaginary town and its people in the 1960s. However, it has a charm of its own. Jana, the fifty five year old matron is an Indian citizen but of Scottish heritage. She seems more Indian than a foreigner and more twenty five than fifty five as we come to know of her penchant for adventure and a desire to be away from the mundane. At the same time, she seems full of wisdom and knows very well how to soothe troubled spirits. Her parrot, Mr. Ganguly, is an interesting character in itself, with its extraordinary intelligence and an ability to judge correctly the intention of people it comes across. Her household and the neighborhood also consist of a mix of interesting characters.
This novel is written about a specific time in India from the standpoint of a foreigner, for whom India seems to be like this toy you can get endlessly fascinated with. However, the story is charming, funny in places and very endearing. It’s fast and does not bore you, or try to go on different platitudes. However, it subtly comments on various serious topics (especially through the mouth of Feroze, the simple, religious tailor). It resonates with you when he says, ‘Development is always somebody else’s development’ or when he writes in his notebook, ‘Life comes and hits you with first one thing. And then a second. And then yet a third. Who would voluntarily be an archery target for others?’
When I finished the novel, I thought, ‘Well, this should have been a series instead of one book’. I wasn’t surprised when I read on the back page later that it was the first book of a series on Jana Bibi. I, for one, am looking forward to reading more.
Note: The reviewer was provided a copy of the book by Random House.