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Rhododendrons by Sreetanwi Chakraborty

Rhododendrons by Sreetanwi Chakraborty

Reviewed by


Dr. Navamalati Neog Chakraborty

Former Guest Lecturer

 University of Calcutta

West Bengal, India

Rhododendrons | Novella | Sreetanwi Chakraborty

Penprints Publication, 2023, pp. 96, INR 200

ISBN: 978-81-956197-9-5

Sreetanwi Chakraborty’s debut novel Rhododendrons is a huge metaphor about the human condition, spelling out the complex social and mental turmoil that both men and women face in present times. A novel is a product of history, and the twenty-first century is reeling under the grip of such realism that the criteria that judge our present times with earlier centuries are absolutely different. Our times leave us in a space where men and women, and even school-going children have to visit psychiatrists, unable to keep their footing rooted. They all react in diverse ways. Bi-polar, as psychiatrists term such reactions, affect not only the victim of such a situation; but it also affects the family visibly. Social factors have always affected the plot of a novel, for a novel is just a reflection of social mores and ways. The characters of a novel are however not aware of what is going on, or how he or she can help himself or herself to remain apart. That is not possible, for the temper and the tendencies of a given period of time leave behind its mark on the lives of people. People can neither down-play or ratiocinate; or live in a world of fantasy. They cannot go on such a drive unmeaningfully, finding themselves justified about their own behaviour or reactions. They will find at the end of the day that they have spun sufficient rope to hang themselves. Time now has grown different, and we can neither press the brakes in life nor start anew. Rhododendrons is a wonderful novel that makes us think about the suspense of donning the mask:

            “She stood beside rows of glossy, azure magazine covers, pollen-kissed fairy-tale notebooks lying on the burnished wooden tabletops across the local coffee shops.” (Chakraborty 16)

 Sreenandini…Sreeor Nandini is the heroine of the novel. She was in love with her college class-mate Baisakh. They were a perfect made for each other couple, greatly in love, married for twelve years. They understood each other, lived for each other, finding nothing that they could seek further. In each other’s arms, there was solace and warmth. But is life ever perfect? Even the moon has those dark spots. There was the practical side of life when life has to go on and Baisakh had to look after his work, to have a better place to live in with his dear wife Sree and not be contented with the small North Kolkata flat. In the meantime, despite their warm togetherness, Sree began misunderstanding her husband. The fact that she had not really turned to a mother ached within her. An abortive bid didn’t help matters. She thought of a suicide bid too. Every woman seeks this maternal side to their life, as a fulfillment yardstick.  If the couple would have had openly discussed the matter, things would have been comforting and problems could have been sorted out.

Sree had to visit Chennai on work related matters, and it was not really a drive at adultery that made her spend warm, hot nights with Amudhan in bed…after they had worked the entire day. Sree was in fact feeling unbalanced and was therefore looking for love, for acceptance, for a rightful place in Amudhan’s life, for romance that has a strong respectable base and every other desire that a woman craves. This was a sexual indulgence alright; but then what was going on in Sree’s mind. Somewhere, she who was even then so much in love with Baisakh and was drifting away from him was unable to see her path. In some corner of her being she was visibly hurt for she had lost a baby. She hadn’t conceived after that and wanted Baisakh closer but was not prepared to speak out. Was it a deep feeling of being disrespected as a woman, a visible hurt? Or was it the painful emotions, to which she herself denied a rightful existence? Somewhere she wanted Baisakh to ask her further about this creative writing project in Chennai, but when she had informed him, he only wanted to know when she will return back to Kolkata. That hurt deep. He was busy with his Nirwan & Associates project but that didn’t mean that he could be so cold. On his part Baisakh however trusted her wholly. Between husband and wife, can such a yawning gap come in when they loved each other so much. Why did he not understand? Why were the two of them unable to speak to each other without any hesitation. What stood between them? Pride or reluctance to open up. Sree was already prescribed medication for her depressive state, and she would skip them at times, the way patients suffering from depression did. When Baisakh enquired about the same, she felt deeply wounded as she would have much rather want him to be the old lover he once was.


        The novelist has beautifully brought out the bruised state of mind of a woman and her anger, and at the same time she gave evidence of how and why the reactions were working. The title, name and cover, Rhododendrons is highly significant. Sree was a clever student, a good teacher, loved by one and all. Blazing! Poetry was in her blood a living impulse and Rabindra sangeet was her energetic vibe, and the colour of the rhododendrons was always in her breath. During her days as a college student moving up and down College Street, with the elections in her blood, together with Baisakh, posters, festoons, banners, slogans were her boosters. Her losing the election with Baisakh hurt, but she managed to take it in her stride as Baisakh too was there and concentrated instead on her studies and passed brilliantly in her exams. She and Baisakh were the ideal couple, always about…be it the Thanthania Temple, the College campus, singing Tagore’s songs or mouthing Dickinson:

            “College Street, known as the ‘boipara’ was a potpourri of various sounds, sights and smells all throughout the days: smell of brown paper-covered old books, freckled, fragile pages that resonated with the history of English literature, failed jurisprudence, beleaguered lovers, or the tragic downfall of the Renaissance hero.” (Chakraborty 28)

It was the ignominy of the hurt she felt, that had driven her to Amudhan. Amudhan too had a separation, but he was not that serious or sincere as these pair of lovers Sree and Baisakh. It takes a lot of understanding to understand the depth of their pain. Amudhan brought nectar to Sree’s mornings in Chennai, hunger to her nights, and was a worshipper at her altar. Sree was almost taken in by his amour, but later the mention of the name of a ‘Shyama’; made her realise that Amudhan had a lot of room in his life, and she felt greatly humiliated. Sree was left with a yawning gap, and her mental state was crumbling. No one could make out this fact from the surface. The rhododendrons were there bright and invitingly beautiful as a felt sentiment. She made them be the petrichor in her world.

 Afroz occupied her mind’s sphere as the perfect occupant. He was her delirium of love, and a passion. He became that sentimental chord of love, with his playful manners and light-hearted charm. Sree’s Afroz was a 52-year-old man to her 37. Although Baisakh had despite situations not really moved away from her, Sree’s hurts made it seem so. In her mental dilemma she failed to see things clearly. The novel ends with her nights spent with Afroz with the background of the rhododendrons that elevated, inspired, enthralled, heading on and on after that final moment of achievement. Amidst the pitch darkness she was looking for some anodyne. She made Afroz that anodyne. Her going to bed and making love was in her mental sphere a bid to conceive, to conceive the child that had become an impossibility. She has never learnt to accept her condition. Her womb needed to be blessed. She herself didn’t realise how deeply she loved Baisakh.  Baisakh was her other self. They can neverbe ever parted. And the fear that the Afroz of her imagination would ever stop loving her made her condition even worse. Amudhan’s mention of Shyama had frightened her. Will Baisakh desert her? In her mind she held on to Afroz who did not exist at all. Her condition had grown pathetic. She needed medical care and love. The novel is a study in psychology, of a state that is almost becoming a viral preponderance in both men and women. Times change, ailments change, and social realities also change, just like how Sreenandini reflects upon the winters settling in Kolkata:

“Winters in Kolkata had settled like a half-eaten lollipop in a child’s hand. It was time for the Kashmiri shawlwallahs to truncate their stay in the city and go back to the amber days of their Chinar.” (Chakraborty 50)

A very modern-day novel, a tale that could be anyone’s story, makes one think and develop butterflies in the tummy. The modern-day rush, ambitions, heaped up desires to climb up the social ladder, to have an enviably rich life…is the basic reason for people getting unhinged. No one seems to be contented these days. Something or the other, is there to set their dreams soaring. Dreams however vanish, as they are never real; never grounded.Their lies the irony of Rhododendron. The flowers are about one’s longings and desire, the flowers are beautiful, but they too wither. A huge symbolic metaphor woven into an excellent debut novel. It is Sreetanwi Chakraborty’s gift to the readers. Bless her soul.