~Neighbours, Everybody Needs Good Neighbours~
Moyur is young and confused. He drapes himself in his mother's saris, puts on make-up, dances around the room and scares his family with his effeminate ways. The only person who really understands him is his neighbour, Jonali, a girl who's happy to play 'dress up' with him, to lend him her eye-liner and lipstick and indulge in his strange behaviour. When Jonali's mother finds the two of them together in Jonali's room she suspects they are up to no good but her daughter tries to explain that Moyur just isn't 'That kind of a boy'. As the two friends grow older, Jonali excels at school and wants to go to college whilst Moyur is more than happy to take up his place in the family business, a sari shop. What could be more pleasurable for him than surrounding himself with beautiful fabrics and making women happy by finding the perfect colour, the perfect texture, the perfect fabric?
Jonali moves from being Moyur's confidante and best friend to being the girl he loves from a distance. But theirs is not a friendship that's going to be allowed to progress to romance. For a start, Jonali is of a higher caste and her family are going to want a Brahmin boy for her husband. Moyur is only a Kshatriya, another high caste but not quite high enough. However for as long as neither needs to marry, they can continue to be friends.
Moyur gains a new friend, a poor woman called Boshonti who comes to visit him at the Bengal Silk House, paying a few rupees each time towards her dream sari. Jonali falls into a strange arrangement with Mr Mollick, a clerk from the university who's smitten with her and arranges for her to be admitted to the college after her paper work goes astray. These two supporting characters become the catalysts that drive Moyur and Jonali apart when both are separately caught up in misunderstandings, each of which bring shame upon their respective families.
Punishment is swift and both families arrange quick marriages to other people. Jonali moves away to a new neighbourhood, returning only occasionally, getting thinner, more hollow faced and damaged each time her family see her. Jonali's husband, Suman, is a violent drunk, Moyur's wife, Shiuli, a good, honest woman, frustrated by his continued feelings for his old friend. Can the Moyur and Jonali find a way back to each other, given the complications of their surroundings?
~Like the Curate's Egg - Good in Parts~
I'm torn on how to rate this books as there are parts I loved and other parts I would happily have slashed from the book and left on whatever the book equivalent of the 'cutting room floor' is called. Most of the story had me hooked with the sweet but complex friendships but the occasional lapses into third-rate 'magic realism' irritated me intensely. Moyur's 'strange' feminine ways are repeatedly explained as being due to the twin sister who died in the womb and who continues to cling to him in spirit form. This spirit sister narrates the book in a haphazard way, popping up now and then, whenever she's needed to explain some kind of strange behaviour. Aside from having a sort of relevance at the beginning and the very end of the book, I was deeply irritated by this wishy-washy spirit nonsense in a book that would - in my opinion - have been considerably stronger without it. I wondered if the author started out intending a very different type of book and got lost somewhere along the way.
I was also a bit miffed that Moyur's sexuality which had the potential to be a fascinating aspect of the book, was so easily brushed aside. No, he wasn't gay, bisexual or even just a bit confused - that was all down to the sister spirit hanging around him. Please, do me a favour - if you're going to put this confused sexuality into the book, then explore it, deal with it and don't just conveniently brush it away with a ridiculous excuse. There are gay and effeminate men aplenty in India but I'm sure they're not all 'that way' because of a spirit hanging around them waiting to be reborn. There was an opportunity to really address taboos but it was sadly missed.
So now that I've dumped my ire onto the silly spirit stuff, I can focus on the excellent aspects of the book. Compared to Bombay or Delhi, Calcutta is not a city that gets anything like as much attention in Indian English-language literature and I enjoyed adding this to my small pile of books set in the city. I don't know Calcutta (or as it now is Kolkata) or Bengal in any way other than through literature but I loved the details, the carefully described scenes and particularly the insights into Bengali ways. We learn a good deal about the importance of the Durga Puja (the biggest festival in Bengal) and how it impacts on the local economy especially the sari shop. I also enjoyed the characters' visits to the most important local temple to the goddess Kali, where those with money and their own private priests could jump the queue. I found the storyline about Jolani's college application going missing and her clerk 'friend' finding an alternative way to get her an education, completely believable and almost equally shocking. Some of the minor characters are beautifully written - especially Boshonti the 'tart with a heart' and Suman the evil drunk. Shuili the nurse is unquestionably the most thoroughly decent person in the entire book although I'm still not 100% sure that I've interpreted the ending exactly as the writer intended. Damn that ambiguous silly sister spirit.
~First Novels Often Leave Questions~
The Dancing Boy is Ishani Kar-Purkayastha's first book and whilst I'm very frustrated by the things she didn't develop - the dancing for one, the feminine behaviour for another - and by some of the sillier aspects of the spirit 'stuff', she still manages to squeeze an excellent story into this book. Cut back on the waffle and stick to the core story and there's a great book hidden between the covers the The Dancing Boy.
I bought this from a book store in Mumbai and it's not easily available in the UK despite the writer living here. If you are willing to pay Amazon £12.59 and wait one to two months for them to deliver then you can get a copy but I can only assume that they are importing copies from India where the RRP for a copy is 350 rupees - about £4.50. I'd suggest to stick it on your non-urgent 'wish list' and wait to see if a second hand copy comes up sometimes in the future. If Kar-Purkayastha writes more novels, I'd definitely give her another go but I'd keep my fingers crossed for fewer mystical spirits and a bit more gritty realism.
The Dancing Boy
Published by Harper Collins.