Review: Mee and Juhibaby by Susmita Mukherjee
Actor, screenwriter and playwright Susmita Mukherjee’s debut novel is an attempt to showcase the fragility of mother-daughter relationships across generations against the backdrop of the changing socio-political and cultural conditions of the day. The story opens with a struggling jatra troupe whose members travel from village to village in an overcrowded wagon performing before crowds of hecklers and barely saving enough to make ends meet. In the midst of this is Juhibaby. Named after the travelling theatre group’s star performer, she is the fifth daughter of a poor couple in the troupe, who is looked after almost solely by her eldest sister. The book charts out Juhibaby’s life from rural Bengal to Calcutta, to being married off to a Delhi-based government employee at 16 and, subsequently, her own challenging equations with her only daughter, Mee.
Written in a simple prose, the narrative tries hard to bring to life authentic portraits of relatable, flawed female protagonists struggling with their inner demons as they navigate patriarchal society in their quest for love and happiness. The narrative includes visually rich scenes which attest to Mukherjee’s background as a screenwriter. One, in particular, takes place on the train as a newly-wed and extremely hungry Juhibaby is seated next to her stranger of a husband who, as he senses her hunger, opens up the neatly-packed tiffin and feeds her the oil-laden fish dish.
However, as the story follows Juhibaby’s daughter, Mee’s headstrong teenage years, her life as a student at the National School of Drama, her failed marriage with a cheating husband, and her own short-lived fling with fame followed by another affair with an aghori baba from Banaras, the plot becomes too episodic for the reader to be able to connect with the characters and understand their motivations. Though the novel doesn’t fall into the Madonna/Medusa binary trap, some of the minor female figures come off as one-dimensional and are done away without preamble. This includes the slightly judgmental portrayal of Sunanda Sen, a sexually liberated Bombay socialite who has an affair with Mee’s husband only to later leave him and her husband and run off to Paris with a young Frenchman. There is Reshami, who cons her way into Mee’s life and keeps her in a drugged stupor allowing her to be raped and abused when under the influence of alcohol and drugs. There is no discernible reason for her hatred. Then there is Pratyusha, Mee’s friend, who comes to her aid later in life but who is mostly used as a narrative ploy.
With a plot spread across four cities and several decades, Mee and Juhibaby aspires to draw out the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship in a changing India. Mukherjee is at her best when she writes about emotional vulnerability and brings out how the need for companionship is a constant in all of Mee’s relationships. But towards the middle of the 269-page book, the narrative begins to feel stretc hed. Mukherjee’s debut novel touches on the complexities of familial relationships, the insecurities and constant fear of rejection that make up the human condition and the difficulties of making it as an independent middle-class woman in a still-oppressive hetero-normative framework but fails to draw the reader into its world and connect with the characters on a deeper level.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.