Book Review | Retro Indian heroine ticks off her milestones

Update: 2024-02-10 06:12 GMT
Cover image of Swallowing the Sun
Years ago, I read Nayantara Sahgal’s marvellous Prison and Chocolate Cake, a memoir about growing up in the Nehru family where the adults, most of them leaders of the Independence movement, were constantly going to jail. Since then I’ve been craving books set in the pre-Independence period that focus on people living their personal lives while drama and excitements surround them in the wider world. So when my editor suggested that I review Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri’s Swallowing the Sun and I read the blurb, I was ready to be hooked. Unfortunately, in spite of my desire to delight in what I was reading, and in spite of the fact that I loved the first half of it, I ultimately had to force myself to finish the book.

Swallowing the Sun is about Malati who, along with her sister Kamala, is one of the only two girls going to school in their Ratnagiri village in 1918. That the girls are being educated is due entirely to their father who believes that the only thing holding women back from fulfilling themselves and their beloved country is the lack of education.

Even as an eight-year-old, Malati takes her father’s beliefs to heart, determined to be a pioneer breaking fresh ground for all the other girls who will soon take baby steps into worlds beyond their homes. This determination takes her through the hard years after her mother’s death, her enrollment with Kamala at an orphanage/boarding school far away from her village home, her older sister’s marriage into a complicated but wealthy family, to college in big, bustling Bombay, to love and decisions, to marriage, to motherhood, and finally to the early years of a free India, sweeping through issues like education for women, independence for women, caste, the freedom struggle, violence and nonviolence in activism, and gender equality along the way. The scope of the story, as you can see, is epic.

What’s not epic though is the length of the book, and this, I believe, is what caused my reading to decelerate from the exhilarating pace of something like seven pages per minute to the tedious plod of a chapter a day. At 412 pages, Swallowing the Sun is not a short book by any measure, but it’s just not long enough to contain the story it aims to tell. Trying to fit nearly 50 years of the life of a thoughtful and active woman who lives in interesting times into 412 pages is like squeezing 49 people into a Maruti 800 and driving for miles. It can be done (the Limca Book of Records says so), but you can’t exactly call it a good journey.

Had the writer and publisher of Swallowing the Sun been braver about making it a really lengthy novel, as epic in length as in concept, both Malati and the India of her times might have dazzled the reader. As it is, after a point, the story and its heroine simply tick off one milestone after another.

Swallowing the Sun
By Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri
Aleph; pp. 412; Rs 899


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