Author Dilruba Z. Ara transforms the river behind the Chaudhury family house in Gulab Ganga, a Bengali village where Daria, the only female child of the family, is born and grows up, into a metaphor for the trajectory of her life. From the moment of her birth, Daria has to navigate and overcome the tumultuous waves of personal crises as she tries to find her true purpose. In doing so, she ultimately rejects adhering to the stereotype of the “normal” woman, as required and defined by her culture, mother, and in-laws.
Daria is different from the moment she drops out of her mother’s womb. She is born with white hair. As soon as the midwife notices this unusual fact, she loses control of her bladder right in front of the newborn. The tongues of superstitious gossips in the village start to wag. They feel as if there is something “not earthly” about this new living and breathing creature. Jharna Begum, the child’s mother, has the new baby’s head immediately shaved so dark hair can grow in. The baby’s white locks fall to the floor and mix with chicken excrement. So, part of Daria’s essence is already devalued, mere moments after her birth. Daria will regain her true self as strands of white hair abruptly appear on her head after emotionally draining interpersonal crises, especially with her in- laws, the Baba’s, who obviously resent and hate her, a mere village girl, for, in one sense, robbing them of their son and brother, Ali. The family’s ties to him are practically incestuous, especially in the case of his sister, Rani, who goes so far as to attempt to murder Daria’s and Ali’s daughter, Jhinuk. In spite of the fact that it is their behavior that is pathological, they head in the direction of having Daria declared insane so that they can take her daughter away from her forever. Back in her natal villa, Daria, after she escapes the Baba’s household, finds that at 24 years of age, and with a head of extremely long hair that, once again, like at her birth, is totally white, and looking, overall, like a very old widow, finds herself devalued once again by the villagers and cannot appease her mother who has always believed that appearances are everything, that nothing else should matter.
As she grows up in Gulab Ganga, one sees that there is more about Daria that points to the fact that there are other reasons besides the circumstances that surrounded her birth that point to her being different. Because she has a keen interest in animal life, she surrounds herself one night while in bed with butterflies and snails. When this is discovered, rumors abound that she is insane because the behavior seems so out of the ordinary. Instead of spending most of her days playing with girls, she gravitates towards and considers as her best friends the males in her life, especially a boy named Mizan, who demonstrates a never-ending penchant for reading books and is adopted by Daria’s family. He experiences a kind of love for Daria that never dies, even after she marries the very handsome Ali Baba, who becomes a successful lawyer. And then her father, a successful businessman who had been the benefactor of a progressive education in England, who believed that women should be allowed to become independent; unselfishly facilitates Daria’s ultimate emancipation, at the risk of causing almost inevitable friction between himself and his other family members.
Any woman, no matter what culture, who has rejected centuries-old, status quo behavioral traditions when it comes to fulfillment as a person, and not just as a woman, will appreciate this emotionally wrenching story that is told against a backdrop of vivid and colorful descriptions of Bengali landscapes and customs. Ara uses metaphors, especially to describe people, which are so unusual that it causes the reader to pause over them, almost in astonishment, so that Daria’s point of view can be grasped, understood, and appreciated. Her point of view is indeed “unusual” in her own culture, but definitely not one of a diseased mind, as most of the people she has cohabitated with and all the superstitious, ignorant gossips would contend. She has a mind that, in the end, refuses to be held back and heads back out on a river that has a new, pleasant, and inviting fragrance that beckons her to head in the direction of independence and fulfillment. Daria, in the end, frees herself from the double-bind that has plagued her throughout her life, that is to say the cognitive dissonance that occurred because of culturally prescribed gender norms, rigid and unyielding, engrained family values that always undermined her developing need for independence and freedom.
This book is exquisitely and powerfully written – well deserving of the book hitting the top ten list in South America. Dilruba Z. Ara is an exhilarating writer with a gift for irony and a gentle, perceptive heart. A List of Offences is a gritty book, where beauty and strength come to life. The customs and food and smells of the city; We can imagine we are there, and we can share in the sights, the smells, and the challenges Daria had to experience. This story will make you smile yet cry and will touch you deeply. It will remind us of the problems other people go through and give us insight of other countries.
Barbara R. Cochran, Pacific Book Review, 4346 Willow Glen Street Calabasas, CA 93444, USA
April 5, 2013