It's appropriate I should start listening to this audiobook the day after Indian Independence Day (August 15th). It's first person voice, but listenable for once, especially since it was read very well by Sneha Mathan. I could listen to an Indian woman talk until the Brahma bulls come home, their voice is usually so mellifluous.
There was a film released in 2003, which I haven't seen, about this same topic and with the same title. The two aren't connected, and the book is supposedly different and was published in 2013. The story begins in 1930 and is about a girl whose entire family is wiped out in a tsunami, but who then goes on to be a force in the fight for Indian independence. I have to say that I felt let down by the ending, which could have been a lot better, but I'm not going to let that trip up the earlier story which was engaging and captivating.
As far as I know, this is not true, but the term 'sleeping dictionary' is supposed to refer to the mistresses that the English male occupiers of India took to bed with them and from whom they learned some language and some culture. Perhaps many people today do not realize just how many words came to England from Indian back then. Words like Bungalow (for a Bengali style house - single storey with a low roof). Cot is another one. Avatar; bandanna; bangle; calico; cheetah; chintz; chutney; cummerbund; cushy; dinghy; dungarees; gymkhana; guru; jungle; loot; mantra; mogul; nirvana; pajamas; pundit; shampoo; thug; typhoon; veranda.
Juggernaut comes from the Indian god Jagganath and the unstoppable cart upon which the god's effigy was placed for transportation during ceremonies. A word for crazy, known in England, but not in US English is doolally, which refers to Deolai, and Indian town which had a sanatorium. Another English word is pukka, meaning a stand-up guy (or girl!). The Brits often referred to England as Blighty, which is another Indian word, although not one which means Britain. Some Brits refer to jail as chokey; another word by way of India. A Brit might say, "Let's have a dekko" meaning "let's take a look." Again it's an Indian term.
Even the word 'punch' comes from Hindi. Punch has five constituents and in Hindi the count to five goes; ek, do, teen, char, panch. Char is also a word for tea in England, so the English often talk about a cup of char even though in Hindi it's actually chai or chaay, and nothing to do with the word for four, although four o'clock is teatime!
But I digress! This book tells the story of someone whose name we never know, although we have a plethora of pseudonyms. We first meet her as Pom, a young girl who is about to lose her family to a tsunami. From that point onwards, her existence become precarious at best. She manages by accident to secure a place for herself as a janitor at a Catholic school where she's arbitrarily renamed Sarah. Because of the kindness of a teacher, discovers she has a facility with languages. She learns English, and emulates the refined teacher's 'BBC English' pronunciation and accent effortlessly, and she learns to read, write, and type, and starts to pick up a smattering of other languages.
Although despised as an untouchable by other Indians, and bullied by the snobbish English schoolgirls, she is befriended by a fellow Bengali named Vidushi (sp? This was an audiobook! I'd originally thought the name was Bidushi). The two become very close, especially since it is Sarah who actually writes Vidushi's letters to her lawyer fiancé, Pankaj, in Britain. but when Vidushi unexpectedly dies and a necklace goes missing, Sarah is automatically blamed for it.
Knowing she can never find justice, she goes on the run, aided by a Muslim cart driver who worked at the school and whom she has befriended. This means forsaking all the money (a pittance, but a lot to Sarah) she earned at the school, and talk of 'out of the frying pan into the fire', her plan to go to Kolkata (aka Calcutta) to try and link up with Pankaj is derailed when she gets off the train at the wrong stop and cannot afford another ticket.
Sarah is 'befriended' by a young woman named Bonney, who is actually a recruiter for a local brothel. Young and naïve, Sarah, now with a new name Pamela (a misunderstanding of 'Pom'), is slowly sucked into the life and spends the next three or four years there until she is raped and becomes pregnant.
Realizing that her baby, if it's a girl, will be kept in disgusting conditions and raised to be a whore, Pamela flees the place with her newborn, again leaving her accumulated earnings (five hundred rupees - a substantial amount this time), and leaving her child Cabeta (again, sp?), with the Muslim driver, she finally makes it to Kolkata where she's unsuccessful finding work or finding Pankaj.
Now going as Camilla, she happens into a job organizing the substantial personal library of an English government official, Simon, who pays well. Finally she feels like she can settle and put her past behind her. She can send gifts and money to the family taking care of her daughter, and be stress-free. But that's not going to happen! She ends up spying on her employer and reporting back to Indian freedom movements, but she also finds herself falling for him.And that's enough spoilers! I really enjoyed this book up until the last ten percent or so. The ending felt a little bit too trite in some ways and amateurish in others. Both Camilla and Simon suffer Harry Potter syndrome - failure to talk and share things, even when there was no reason not to. Obviously Camilla had some deep secrets, but there were ways she could have sidled into those if she had been as smart as she was portrayed as being later in the book.
But overall, I consider this a worthy read and commend it for those who enjoy a good historical story that involves romance, yet isn't sappy, and who are sick of endless cookie-cutter stories about the US civil war and the antebellum south and want to branch out - out of the country and into something that feels more real and less derivative.