Desire, duty and colonialism: Nandini Bhattacharya’s Love’s Garden

Nandini Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and has called the United States her second continent for the last thirty years. Her work has appeared or will appear in the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories from the Great American Fiction Contest Anthology 2021 (forthcoming 2021), the Good Cop/Bad Cop Anthology, Flowersong Press, 2021, the Gardan Anthology of the Craigardan Artists Residency, Funny Pearls, The Bombay Review, Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, Storyscape Journal, Raising Mothers, The Bacon Review, The Bangalore Review, OyeDrum, and Ozone Park Journal.

She’s attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, VONA, Centrum Writer’s Residency, Ragdale Artist’s Residency, and Craigardan Writers Residency (forthcoming). She was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017–2018), a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019), and a finalist for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Stories Contest, 2021, October 2020.

She’s now working on a second novel about love, minorities, racism, and Hindutva (contemporary Hindu ethnonationalism) politics in India and xenophobic mentalities and other mysteries in Donald Trump’s America, titled Homeland Blues. She ardently admires Jhumpa Lahiri, Megha Majumdar, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and last but not least, Chimamanda Adichie. She lives outside Houston with her family and serves a queenly marmalade cat.

Her debut novel, Love’s Garden, was released on October 27, 2020. Here’s an interview with Bhattacharya about that book.

What sort of research did you do to prepare yourself to write Love’s Garden? Was it inspired by any actual Indian women?

I think the past is radically different and inaccessible while also containing things that are timeless, and this was a sense of my material that came over me very quickly as I researched Love’s Garden. I’m a World War history buff (though not a war buff!), and Love’s Garden is about dramatic, heady, and complicated times when forbidden love, strange political alliances, and cross-race liaisons were possible because of war-time mentalities. War always upturns lives, of course, but there was an unprecedented cross-pollination of desires and duties in twentieth-century India, the Jewel in the British Crown, where anticolonial nationalism had to muscle its own separate cause into the halls and council chambers of antifascist resistance. These flows of unruly and sometimes forbidden desires heightened the unrest of India’s already turbulent Quit India nationalist movement (1942). A good chunk of Love’s Garden came to be set in that time and was mapped along important moments in my own family saga.

In that sense, I had to do an abundance of research, reading both scholarly and creative works about India during the wars and the struggle for independence from British rule. This also included, of course, drawing upon my own existing scholarship in that area. And yet, there is an intimacy I have with the characters in Love’s Garden, which is also the answer to your question about whether the story was inspired by any actual Indian women. My writing process took me back to the nebulous records of my family history. As I was looking for answers to my own puzzles, I started remembering old family stories, many of them involving foremothers I’d never met. So Love’s Garden is a blend of historical events and pieces of my own family saga or mythology, if you will.

What sorts of unique challenges did women in India face, and was their situation different from that of other women in the world at that time?

The main challenge that women in India faced during the time the novel is set, spanning two world wars and the Indian independence movement, was that of a new nation rising out of centuries of colonial rule and simultaneously stepping foot into a global modernity. At such times, as also in other decolonizing countries, women suffered the brunt of the challenges of transitioning from hoary tradition into a troubled modernity while not abandoning a sense of national history, and pride in that history. Indian women were faced with an immense challenge in the twentieth century in that while they were part of India’s modernity and modernization, of India’s claim to take a seat among other free nations of the world, of its proud step into internationalism and cosmopolitanism, and in some ways even made into poster children of that glorious transformation, their stories were still being written by men. Who gets to tell your story matters almost as much as the story matters. Sometimes, who tells the story determines the story itself.

In Love’s Garden, many female characters experience this frustrating bind and tug of war between tradition and modernity, and none more so perhaps than my main protagonist Lady Prem Mitter. Many Indian women — like Algerian women after the Algerian War of Independence, but also like American women who were politely led back to kitchens and living rooms after stepping out boldly to aid the war effort during the Second World War — suffered from their continued status as second-class citizens in newly decolonized or cold war contexts. So their experience was unique within the national setting but in some ways not unlike that of twentieth-century women worldwide.

How did British imperial rule change the situation for women?

Ironically, the British did bring about some reforms intended to ‘improve’ the conditions of women in India. One of these was the Widow Remarriage Act of 1876, which is the root triggering event for the life of Saroj, the nineteenth-century widow with whom Love’s Garden begins and the mother of Prem who dominates the rest of the story. Another is the older abolition of ‘Sati,’ or the burning of Hindu widows on the pyres of their husbands, abolished by a British Governor-General in 1833. But the ‘irony’ here, as I began by saying, is that the British were hardly doing these things for Indian women. As one eminent postcolonial scholar, Gayatri Spivak, has eloquently said, they were doing this to show that ‘white men were saving brown women from brown men.’ And behind all these reforms, even, there was often the collusion of powerful Hindu or Muslim men in India with them.

These Indian men benefited in one or another way from interpreting ancient religious texts in ways their new masters preferred them being read for legislative purposes. In other words, even British ‘reforms’ in aid of Indian women were really powerful men of different races, nations, skin colors, and religions getting together and deciding about women’s lives and laws behind closed doors. The Widow Remarriage Act, for instance, led to some widows being forced into marriages with their husbands’ male kin after the husband’s death in order to keep property or land in the family, as happens to Saroj in Love’s Garden. And yet, in such ‘reforms,’ the women’s consent was not sought, and her wishes often dismissed or violated, which is what threatens Saroj. So you could say the British played a very dirty hand and trick when they claimed that they had come to India to be the ‘saviors’ of Indian women, and thereby justified colonial rule.

Foreword’s review compares Love’s Garden to a silent film because of the vibrant scenery and how the characters communicate more through action than dialogue. Would you agree with that, and was it an intentional choice?

Frankly, I’d never really thought of Love’s Garden as cinematic, but many of my readers have actually told me that they read it that way, that it would actually make a great period piece. Hollywood or Bollywood, I’m ready! But yes, I can see this feature in hindsight, though at the time I think my prose was driven as much by sound as by imagery. I tend to write in a style that others have called “lush,” and setting has always excited and energized me. I love world-building, or rather I cannot not do it when I write. I come from a big country with a huge population. Maybe a sort of panoramic/cinemascopic canvas of life and society is in my marrow.

Prem seems to play a large role in this novel, would you say the story is primarily hers? What would you say would be common themes through this family saga?

Yes, I think it is primarily Prem’s story. She is also the bridge between time periods, the link between tradition and modernity that I have mentioned above. Women’s courage, resilience, and friendship are the other dominant themes in the story. Prem is also the primary exponent of those themes, I’d say. I think of her as a bit of an Anna Karenina or even a Nora Helmer, except that she neither dies nor leaves her men behind.

There’s a whole lot of diversity in Love’s Garden, both ethnically and in terms of personalities. Did that reflect Indian society of the time?

I think human society is, in general, full of diversity. India being a country with four thousand years of recorded history and currently a population nudging one and a half billion, fifty-three official languages and thousand of vernaculars, yes, the ethnic diversity is certainly immense. Which also includes the western influence, it is important to note, and the educated Indian tends to be more cosmopolitan than many other people. And while western trade and colonization began in the seventeenth century, India was invaded and occupied by waves of other nationalities from a very early point in time, including the early Aryan or Central Asian tribes who descended on it thousands of years ago, and continuing through Greeks, Bactrians, and later Islamic societies and tribes. Love’s Garden, I hope, opens at least a little window onto the kaleidoscope of cultures, religions, beliefs and practices that India is and was, and probably will always be.

Nandini Bhattacharya’s Love’s Garden is available here and from your local independent bookstore!

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