Review: Beloved Rongomala by Shaheen Akhtar, translated by Shabnam Nadiya
An intricate novel filled with asides, descriptions and observations where even minor characters show up with generational biographical sketches
Chowdhury Lorai (Chowdhury’s Battle) is a Bengali folk ballad, about a zamindar’s battle with neighbouring kingdoms in the 18th century. The ruins of Chowdhury’s palace still stand in south Bengal; there’s also a lake named after his mistress Rongomala, who was assassinated amidst family feuds.
Shaheen Akhtar, a Bangladeshi writer, came across several versions of the story when she was researching representations of women in Bengali literature. She turned local legend around Rongomala into an expansive and exciting novel about the paramour of a spoilt zamindar prince.
It opens with Rongomala’s severed head arriving at the palace. Hundreds of black crows swarmed the skies, cawing and shrieking. The palace was in uproar, everyone was terrified. “From the commotion, it didn’t seem as if it was a low-caste woman’s head that was arriving but a wildfire… that threatened to wipe out the entire Chowdhury dynasty.”
Beloved Rongomala (lushly translated by Shabnam Nadiya) is constructed around the circumstances that led to her decapitation and its aftermath. The novel is about the sexual politics of women in the life of the debauched Raj Chandra Chowdhury — his mistress, his wife, his mother, the maids, and others — all vying for his fickle attention.
In the background is 18th century Bengal where British colonial expansion first began in India. After winning the Battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company had its tentacles around every estate and control over all trade and commercial activity. Aristocratic and feudal families were grasping at dwindling resources and alliances were being forged to seize whatever limited power or wealth remained.
In this time of tectonic political shifts, Rongomala was determined to cross barriers of class, caste and custom, one step at a time: “She who made her bed in the ocean, what fear had she of the morning dew.” The besotted Raj Chandra promised to have a lake dug and named after her and prepared to arrange a ceremony to raise her caste status. But, ultimately, “Rongomala’s beauty could not conceal that original sin. Like the blemishes of the moon, that caste-sin reared its head again and again.” The novel is filled with tragedies, however it is anything but. It’s too rich a work to dwell upon any emotion for too long.
In the palace, Raj Chandra’s ignored childlike wife Phuleswari spends her days talking to her birds. Her mother-in-law spends her time plotting to have her wayward son give her an heir. Akhtar spins vivid dramatic scenes. For a brief spell, Phuleswari is able to seduce her husband by dressing like his mistress — “Rongomala was not a thorn between husband and wife; she blossomed like a flower between them each night they spent together.” As they have sex, Ma Shumitra watches with, albeit a little disapproving, satisfaction: “True, Phuleswari’s nightly attire pricked her eyes — whoring it up with that gauzy see-through sari. But if her husband was so taken with whores, what could the young wife do? It was best to pluck one thorn with another.”
The plot moves along through death and detail. There’s a vast and diverse cast of characters — Hindu and Muslim zamindars, traders, slaves, Portuguese pirates, lake-diggers from the tribal Mog community… all firmly rooted in historical events. Deftly, new characters are woven into the narrative with all their complexity, often only to be killed off. Death appears suddenly, spectacularly, poetically in slow motion:
“[He] twirled like a bumblebee and fell on top of his killer. On one side, a wounded tiger; on the other a bear wielding a kirich. The two tussled in the alcove under the slanted wall. Bhelu Chowdhury, the sleepwalker, watched the fight from the balcony upstairs.
Actually, Bhelu saw nothing. He had left his bed and exited his chamber, but his dreams still spread their wings across his eyes. He could see himself, solitary, roaming the battlefields of Karbala…”
Akhtar is an accomplished writer. She has written six novels and six short story collections in Bengali and many of them have been translated in other languages. The Korean translation of her 2004 novel Talaash (The Search, translated into English by Ella Dutta and subsequently translated into Korean by Seung Hee Jeon) won the third Asian Literary Award in 2020.
Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer based in California who has translated Akhtar’s short stories before. In an interview about Beloved Rongomala to a magazine, she said, “How could I not fall for a low-caste royal mistress who writes love letters with lines like, ‘I sought and found that I had none/You, my moon, the only one’; or a young queen who’s a fanatic about birds and hides her muddy shoes in her philandering husband’s bed to punish him; or the young queen’s chief maid, who, despite her bitterness about being used and abused, doesn’t lose her capacity for love or to do what is right?”
This is a dazzling translation. It’s an intricate novel just filled with asides and descriptions and observations, even minor characters show up with generational biographical sketches. But somehow Nadiya is able to maintain, at the sentence-level, a kind of juiciness:
“Her happiness dribbled down her plump body like oil.”
“The weavers and traders banded together like rice and lentils mixed in a hodgepodge.”
“In tent after tent, the men sat gambling… Five among them suffered a terrible habit. They rubbed salt on the dead skin of almost-healed scabs and found pleasure in the lingering itchiness.”
While reading Beloved Rongomala, I thought, and often, of both Sanjay Leela Bhansali (zamindars, beautiful women, etc) and George RR Martin (squabbling royals, death, etc). I can’t remember the last time I read historical fiction this good — so good I think I binge watched it.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.