"THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY" is one of the best novels I've had the pleasure of reading this year. Sujata Massey, also known for her Rei Shimura mystery novels, is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. This is a rich, multi-layered, intense, thrilling story centered on the life of a young woman from West Bengal during the latter days of the British Raj. She began her life as Pom in a small village that was wiped out by an ocean wave, leaving her to cling to life on the highest rung of a lowly tree til she manages to draw the attention of a small rowing boat, which takes her to shore.
As a 10 year old orphan in 1930, Pom ends up in a British boarding school, where she (renamed Sarah) works as a servant and discovers she has a gift for languages. She learns to read and develops a passion for books and a remarkable facility in the English language, so much so that she can speak it like any well-heeled Briton. While at the boarding school, Sarah strikes up a friendship with Bidushi, an Indian girl of similar age from a well-to-do Brahmin family who struggles to learn English. Sarah helps Bidushi with her studies, and over time, their friendship grows, making them deeply bonded to one another.
Bidushi's family has made arrangements for her to marry Pankai, a fellow Brahmin who is studying law in London. The family encourages both Bidushi and Pankaj to maintain a correspondence. Bidushi shares Pankaj's letters with Sarah, and asks her help in writing letters in response to him. As a result, Sarah learns a great deal about Pankaj (who is among those Indians determined to achieve independence for their country from the British), and this proves to figure prominently in Sarah's later life. A life full of twists and turns that sees her forced out of the boarding school before she could complete her studies, and find refuge in Kharagpur. There she faces many challenges and experiences the darker, more sinister side of life before again, she finds she must flee. From Kharagpur, Sarah moves on to Calcutta in the late 1930s. There Sarah takes on a new identity, friends, work, and a deep, abiding commitment to the growing independence movement. The novel never flags. One you pick it up and read a few chapters, you're hooked.
I highly recommend "THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY" to everyone. It has an English/Hindi/Bengali reference guide that will further enrich your reading experience. And for those readers with a love for Indian cuisine, a few recipes are provided at novel's end under the title "A Taste of Old Calcutta."