Someone Else's Garden, being released today, is Mamta's story, but it is also the story of million other village girls, who are married off with a heavy dowry to some man, any man who will have her, even if he is an octogenarian. It is the story of mothers, who are impregnated at an alarming regularity in the hopes that many sons will fill the homes. For each son's birth that is celebrated as an immensely festive occasion, there are many other girls disappearing into the night - either as another statistic on the infant mortality graphs, or as one more exhibit in the red-light districts, or as a victim to some unnamed disease. This book is also the story of these forgotten girls and their yearnings for life and love.
Mamta is the eldest of seven children born to her mother, Lata Bai. Her younger sister has already been married off, and at twenty, Mamta is considered old. Her father routinely complains that he doesn't want to bother with feeding any of his daughters because why water someone else' gardens? That is precisely how he (and much of the backward society) views women, as someone else's eventual possessions. With her head submerged in dreams, Mamta is married to a man, who brought about his first wife's death, and now beats Mamta quite often and blames her for his downfall. When he commits a very cruel act on her, she escapes to the city. Along with Mamta, we also follow another villager, Lokend, who only wants to do good to others and see good in even the most hardcore dacoits. His brother has his eye on their father's property and assuages his hurt at not being loved enough by verbally taunting his paralyzed father. At some point, everyone's destinies cross, but before we reach there, there is plenty of pain, torture, cruelty, and tears.
Dipika Rai writes in a beautiful artistic style that vividly brings the whole village to life. I could almost taste the food, smell the hay, see the lush greens, and feel the pouring rains. There is a whole array of characters, and the author takes her time through them - revealing their petty characteristics and giving us an insight into their natures. The descriptive narration however turned out to be too meandering to me. I love it when authors share something about every character in a book - not too much that it becomes a character study, not too less that every one seems a stranger. I appreciated those character-revelations here, but I felt most of the sketch too long that I kept slipping off the main thread of the story.
The pacing of the first half of the book is real slow. It took me a while to get to know the characters well enough to want to revisit them. A while as in more than a third of the book. The last 100 pages however whiz by. It could be because I got used to the characters enough to be able to read faster. The book starts strongly, with vibrant descriptions and well-sketched characters, but it ends poorly in my opinion. A lot of books fall into the trap of fixing every single broken artifact or cleanly solving every mystery. I feel this book could have been shorter, by avoiding a drawn-out ending.
The contents of the book however are very powerful - there is so much gasp-inducing stuff in here, almost all of it to deal with the cruelty against the women gender. Lata Bai's husband is irritated when she delivers yet another baby girl. He doesn't even notice that she has delivered. He considers his daughters "someone else's gardens" (Oh, the disgusting images this phrase conjured up in my mind!) Wives and daughters are regularly beaten. If a daughter is old enough and has still not received any marriage offers, the father plans to sell her to a brothel. A married woman who runs away, if ever caught, is abused and raped publicly. Worse than that - the other women approve of this "punishment". Dipika Rai doesn't mince any word as she chalks out this story - there is a lot of graphic descriptions of mundane stuff - stuff we overlook or never bother to describe. I felt grossed out a lot. In the same vein, I could have done with a little less repetition of such parts. I appreciate that none of the harsh matter is glossed over, but too much of it only grosses the reader out.
The narration is punctuated many times with several philosophies and spiritual beliefs, either expressed as the thoughts or words of a character, or as a standalone thought supporting the context. I'm not big into either, so there were sections I skimmed past, but that's just me. I initially thought that this book will be hard to follow by someone not familiar with Indian phrases or customs. But after I turned the last page, I noticed that there is a glossary section. I didn't have any trouble reading this book, but potential readers may want to refer to the glossary. Overall, I thought this book was well-written and with a very realistic plot, but the latter half slackened considerably, as the focus fell more in connecting the dots than letting them connect on their own.