28 Jun / Bijou Roy by Ronica Dhar
Six months after Nitish Roy’s death, his wife and two daughters gather in Calcutta, India where Bijou Roy as the oldest must send her father’s ashes down the holy river to eternal rest. The haphazard ceremony – made even more so because she is not a son – exhausts an already disoriented Bijou, who has arrived in India for the first time in her life. Her Kashmiri mother and Bengali father, who met in Paris – the story is romantic family legend, Paris where her father picked up ‘bijou’ as his favorite word which he would save for his beloved firstborn daughter – inexplicably severed their ties to India decades ago … and only now has the splintered family returned.
Even a decade-plus of progressively debilitating multiple sclerosis which kept Nitish trapped in a hospital bed for much of that time could not prepare his surviving family from their searing loss. Bijou tries to make a life for herself in Washington, DC, working in medical research while planning (someday?) to be a doctor. Her mother and much younger sister have remained in their long-settled Michigan family home, their lives stalled and broken.
Now reunited in Calcutta with her mother and sister, staying with her childless maternal aunt and her husband, Bijou slowly emerges from her fog of mourning enough to begin to understand her parents’ past. She meets Naveen, the son of her father’s late closest friend, who has photographs and stories of her father’s early life that she has never known. Both she and Naveen are fatherless, searching souls … and with great reluctance, Bijou listens to disturbing details of her father’s rebel past, and must come to terms with perhaps a less-than-altruistic image she has always held of her gentle father.
After a bit of a faltering start – too much elliptical imagery, as beautifully written as it is, and not enough details of what is actually happening in the story – Ronica Dhar’s debut proves to be a thoughtful, multilayered family saga of entwined pasts and possible criss-crossed futures. She seamlessly enfolds two stories, two times, two main voices, effortlessly moving between Bijou’s devastating Spring 1999 present to her own short past, and Nitish’s precarious young adult activist involvement in India to his short stopover in Billie Holiday-infused Paris to his contented life as an Indian American family man. The reader remains privileged, knowing more than the characters ever will … ultimately making for a richly infused literary experience.
A very astute book club buddy likes to remind me how my preferred titles always have two cleverly intertwined narratives. She is, of course, so very right. This title, which debuts late next month, is definitely a preferred find … and one I’ll certainly be recommending to many.