Babli, sixth in the line of nine siblings, is carrying dried cowpats – fuel she has to deliver to her father, who runs a wayside dhaba. On her way she is overtaken by a well-dressed college teacher who asks: “Is my bindi properly centred?” “Yes,” gasps the child, aghast at being noticed by such a grand lady.
The encounter seems inconsequential, but it lodges deep in Babli’s mind. When the novel ends, many years later, Babli understands how much this image – of a labouring child bewildered at being addressed by an educated woman – has driven the twists and turns of her life.
The world of Babli’s family is the distillation of small-town India. Through her we live among farmers and markets, lawyers and louts, casual romances and dying marriages, drunk men and resilient women, festivities and superstitions, and the changing colours of an evening sky. The dust that hangs over everything is the pressure to marry, settle down, and reproduce a world along lines dictated for centuries by men, siblings, family, neighbours.
Does Babli have what it takes to withstand all that she sees so clearly through her questioning eyes?
As we learn the answer to that question, it becomes apparent that no-one has observed the everyday variety and atmospheric essence of small-town India as empathetically and poignantly as this narrator. The spiritedness and unmonumentality of Babli’s world, its human warmth and gentle liveliness, subsume the grime and poverty of her surroundings.
This novel understands the soul of middle India like no other and shows it to us delicately and powerfully.
Neelesh Raghuwanshi is a Hindi poet and novelist who has published four acclaimed collections of poetry. Known for her precision of language and sympathetic record of small-town psyche, she lives in Bhopal. Ek Kasbe ke Notes, her only novel, was published in 2012.
Deepa Jain Singh was born in Lucknow and grew up speaking Hindi-Urdu. She did her Master’s in English Literature from Delhi University and then joined the Indian Administrative Service. Since her retirement she has devoted time to reading and writing.