Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Sleeping Dictionary includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sujata Massey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When a tidal wave wipes out a tiny village on Bengal’s southwest coast, a young girl known as Pom is set adrift in the world. Found near death by a charitable British headmistress and her chauffeur, Abbas, Pom is christened Sarah and becomes a servant at the Lockwood School for British and upper-caste Indian girls. When Bidushi Mukherjee, whose family owned Sarah’s home village, arrives at the school, Sarah believes she’s found a true friend. Bidushi is engaged to a handsome young lawyer, Pankaj Bandophadhyay, and the two girls dream that Sarah will become Bidushi’s personal ayah after Bidushi marries. Sadly, Bidushi succumbs to malaria, and Sarah is accused of theft and runs away. With the help of Abbas, she makes it to the larger town of Kharagpur, where she hopes to work as a children’s teacher, but her lack of qualifications make this impossible. A glamorous Anglo-Indian woman, Bonnie, invites her to luxurious Rose Villa, where she is renamed Pamela and inadvertently falls into a life of prostitution. Rose Villa caters to British railway men and military officers, and Pamela’s unhappy experiences there spark her interest in the burgeoning freedom movement. Secretly, she plots to save enough to leave Rose Villa for Calcutta, where she hopes to study for a teaching certificate. Her hopes are dashed yet again, this time by an unwanted pregnancy. Believing it’s the best thing she can do for herself and her newborn daughter, Kabita, she leaves the baby in the care of Abbas and his wife and sets off for Calcutta, hoping to find respectable work. By a stroke of luck, she becomes the librarian and house manager for Simon Lewes, a young British Indian Civil Service officer who has a massive collection of books on India. She tells him her name is Kamala Mukherjee and allows him to believe she is well-born and well-educated. With her new freedom-fighting friends, Kamala reconnects with Pankaj Bandopadhyay, although he does not remember her as the servant girl from Lockwood. At his urging, she spies on Mr. Lewes’s work and finds that he’s tracking Indian revolutionaries. As they work together, she wonders if he could ever look past the unknowns about her and become her husband. However, as time goes on, Simon becomes more sympathetic to Indian independence, falls in love with Kamala, and convinces her to marry him. And, while their relationship is tested by the stresses of World War II, the reappearance of Kamala’s daughter, Kabita, and the truth of Kamala’s difficult past, their love for each other and for India carries them through.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
Discussion Questions 1. After losing her family, Kamala goes through several identities— from Pom to Sarah, Pamela, and finally Kamala. Can any of them be said to be more “real” or “true” than the others?
2. Kamala’s life is strongly shaped by loss: her family, Bidushi, even Abbas, the Lockwood School’s chauffeur. How do these deaths shape the course of her life? How effectively does she deal with these losses?
3. Discuss the race relationships in the book as exemplified by the administration at Lockwood School, the clients at Rose Villa, and Kamala’s relationship with Simon. Are there generational forces at work, as well as class and caste, in terms of how the British and Indians interact?
4. Instead of treating her sympathetically, the Indian housekeeper at Lockwood goes out of her way to bully and abuse Kamala. What inspires Rachael’s antipathy toward her? What does it illuminate about relationships within Indian and British society?
5. There is a large gap between the paths of the Rose Villa girls and the activist Chhatri Sangha girls. How is Kamala able to move from one world to another? What real differences (if any) are there between these young women that lead to their respective circumstances?
6. Kamala decides to give up her daughter, believing she is making the right choice both for herself, the child, and Abbas and his wife. Do you believe it was the right decision, considering what we know about Kabita’s life at the end of the novel? What would you have done in Kamala’s shoes?
7. Kamala has three real friendships throughout the novel: Bidushi, Lakshmi, and Supriya. How do these friendships shape her and her ambitions? How do they impact her life, for worse or for better?
8. When Pankaj discovers who Kamala works for, he asks her to spy on her employer. How does this subterfuge affect Kamala’s feelings about Simon Lewes?
9. Is Kamala wrong to hide her past of poverty and unwed motherhood from the people she meets in Calcutta? Does she become a less likable character because of her dishonesty, or do you think she’s doing what she must in order to survive?
10. Would Pankaj ultimately have been a better match for Kamala than Simon? Were you surprised at the way their relationships turned out?
11. Simon is surprisingly accepting of Kamala’s daughter and past. What does this show about his character’s development?
12. How much of Kamala’s success does she attribute to luck, how much to her own hard work, and how much to destiny?
13. What did you already know about India and its struggle for independence? Were you particularly struck by any of the historical details in the novel? How does it compare to other fiction set in the same time period?
14. How does the inclusion of real historical figures (Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose) affect the reading experience? Do they add additional dimensions or pull you out of the narrative?
Enhance Your Book Club
Enhance Your Book Group 1. While novels like The Sleeping Dictionary are set in real historical situations, they are ultimately fiction. Discuss the group’s attitude towards historical novels: How much do you expect to be accurate and how much fictionalized?
2. PBS’s Story of India offers a full history of India, and includes background on Nehru, Gandhi, and the Indian National Congress. Learn more at www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia.
3. Sujata Massey offers information about the inspiration for the book on her website, sujatamassey.com. She is also willing to join book clubs by phone, if time permits. Email sujatamassey@mac .com for details.
4. The novel mentions many delicious Indian dishes. Have each member pick one to make for the group’s meeting! A few recipes are included here.
5. Explore the role of Indian women in the colonization and independence of India. Consider figures like Commander Lakshmi Swaminathan, who commanded women’s forces in the Indian National Army during World War II, and the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, who was killed fighting against the British in 1858, and Indira Gandhi, the world’s longest serving woman prime minister.
A Conversation with Sujata Massey
In your website’s introduction to The Sleeping Dictionary, you mention the difficulty of switching from writing about one culture to another. Tell us more about that; did you have to employ different writing techniques, along with doing new research?
Up until the present, I’ve been writing a long-running mystery series set in Japan. I had the ease of continuing characters in every book and a very familiar setting where I’d once lived. Writing those mysteries was like slipping into a warm old jacket. I’d say The Sleeping Dictionary was more like a slippery, shimmering sari—quite tricky the first time you wear it, and for a long time thereafter, too. Although one side of my family is from Bengal, and I’ve enjoyed visits there and to other parts of India, I faced the challenge of not having really lived in India nor been able to speak Indian languages. For this reason, I hesitated to write about India, but as Kamala’s story formed in my mind, I longed to share it. I was writing the book while living in Minnesota, where I could not find a Bengali language course. I was able to study Hindi for a year to get the sentence structure, idioms, and feeling for dialogue. I did most of the historical research at the Ames Library of South Asia, within the University of Minnesota, which turned out to be a treasure trove of rare books and documents relating to colonialism. Some choice snippets from these books are shared in the epigraphs. Midway through writing the first draft, I took a research trip to Kolkata, Midnapur, Kharagpur, and Digha, to walk through all the locations of the book. I also did research at the British Library in London where all the old records of the India Office are stored.
You also mention on your website that you interviewed many Bengalis for the book. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned during those interviews?
I was very interested in meeting anyone—Bengali or not—who could recall daily details of life and politics in 1930 Calcutta. In India, I met a former Gandhian freedom fighter, Tapan Raychaudhuri, who endured a prison experience, and also Krishna Bose, the widow of Sisir Kumar Bose, the nephew who aided Netaji in his daring escape. But my favorite interviews were at home with my father, Subir Banerjee, who grew up in Bengal and Bihar. From a child’s perspective, he recalled incidents like the Japanese bombings of Calcutta, and his father angrily railing against English soldiers who wanted to throw their family out of a train compartment. He also revealed that a relative on his father’s side, Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, was the founding president of the Congress Party—and that going back a bit further on his mother’s side, those ancestors, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family, leased to the British the three villages that became Calcutta. So the beginning of colonialism, and the struggle to end it both are a part of me.
There were so many possible paths for Kamala to take as her life develops. How did you decide on her trajectory?
I originally wrote an even longer story, giving Kamala a few more work experiences—as a children’s ayah, and also as a nurse during the war—but I realized that I might lose my reader with an 800-page book. Streamlining the novel into four discrete books that are narrated by Pom from childhood through womanhood hopefully make the mother-daughter story, as well as the love story, have more of an impact. I was tempted to follow Kamala to the West after her marriage . . . but that story could be picked up in another book.
Kamala’s time at Rose Villa is complicated from moral, ethical, and racial standpoints. Was it hard to find a balance in portraying the different characters and their interactions?
There were many times I wished I didn’t have to send Kamala to Rose Villa, but I felt that with her vulnerable status, this would really have happened to her, as it continues to happen to young homeless women worldwide. The basis for Rose Villa was a prewar high-class brothel one of my elderly sources described as located in Chandernagore and staffed by beautiful French women. Each patron, upon leaving, was given a bottle of French perfume for his wife. The existence of places like Rose Villa points out the hypocrisy of the British saying they were uplifting the moral development of Indians. Natty, Doris, Bonnie, and Rose Barker also illustrate how families were broken and left in poverty when many English soldiers repatriated to England. At the same time, it’s important to know that only a minority of Anglo-Indians became prostitutes; most lived comfortable, respectable lives.
What issues did you consider when writing Kamala and Simon’s relationship?
I knew it would be controversial to have a relationship between a British man and an Indian woman that could turn out to be nonexploitative. Some might have preferred a fairytale ending with Pankaj. But I felt that Simon had grown so much through the years of knowing Kamala that he really was the right person for her. I believe that our hearts dare to go where our heads won’t, and that we always need to listen to the heart.
Which sections of The Sleeping Dictionary were the most fun to write? Which were the hardest?
I found the Rose Villa section the hardest to write, because of my concern for all the girls’ well-being. It was also wrenching to leave the baby Kabita behind when Kamala pursued her new life. Bringing the old Calcutta alive, with all its intellectual hangouts, pastry shops, and residences, was the best part for me, because I love the city so much.
How do you feel about the way the struggle for Indian independence is portrayed in novels? Do you have any favorites written by other authors?
I very much enjoy the writing of Amitav Ghosh, who touches on the history of colonialism in many of his novels, as well as Rabindranath Tagore, whose novel The Home and the World was significant for Kamala. British writers like E. M. Forster, M. M. Kaye, and Rumer Godden have written novels and memoirs that share the British perspective beautifully. My complaint with most novels about the British colonial era is that there are few Indian female characters playing any type of role, although we know from historic accounts that this was not the case. Young women walked away from their families to serve with the INA. Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, died while a political prisoner. I hope this novel, in some small way, celebrates these strong women.
How do you balance historical accuracy with the demands of plot? Were there any liberties you were afraid to take with the historical details, or is all fair in fiction?
I did the best I could to make sure every real event that happened is reported at the right time and place, such as the Christmas Eve bombing of Calcutta and all the details of Bose’s escape. There are of course some events that are fictional—like the particular Subhas Chandra Bose speech in Town Hall and a train sabotage—but they are based on real happenings during the period. The newspaper quotations I’ve included are all real, as are the various political leaders and Chhatri Sangha, the female students’ group.
Do you plan to write another book set in India, or to continue writing about any of the characters from The Sleeping Dictionary?
Yes, indeed! While I am continuing my Japanese mystery series about Rei Shimura, I’m planning another historical novel, possibly featuring Kamala’s daughter, Kabita, as its narrator. There is so much exciting South Asian history over the last seventy years—and fortunately, people who are still alive to tell me their stories.