Train travels and quaint stations are arguably the key ingredients that lend to an Indian journey its quintessence. Who can resist the aural pull of a chugging locomotive or the delicious scenes it greedily draws from the outside and into a passenger’s view? But once you’ve peeled from these ingredients that layer of romanticism, be ready to face the grunge lurking beneath. This paradox is what Iris Sen, a young Indian-American must taste when she unsuspectingly disembarks at Shambala Junction for a sip of water. Iris’s coveted train trip from Kolkata to Delhi turns into a series of accidental beginnings and discoveries in an imaginary city called Shambala.
An accident caused by a spilled cup of tea — minor for Iris — literally upturns the livelihood of Aman as Iris’s fall destroys his doll stand at the station. A cocktail of fate and circumstantial compulsion leads Iris into the heart of an India she knows little about and perhaps didn’t sign up for at the start of her trip. It is the India that negotiates, with astonishing resilience, wretched living conditions and systemic institutional exploitation.
Despite the pause in her journey, things move fast, sucking Iris into the muddied eddy of Aman’s life. From a lost babe in the chaotic woods of an Indian railway station, she finds herself transformed into the central character pursuing the rescue mission for the doll-seller’s newborn daughter. It’s interesting to see how Dipika Mukherjee uses the familiar trope of journeys to explore the grimy underbelly of child trafficking.
Aman, unable to bear the burden of being the father of a third daughter at 60, drops the baby at an orphanage. The doll seller is alluded to be the illegitimate son of Meena Kumari, the legendary tragedy queen of Hindi cinema. The story of his daughter’s birth has chilling parallels with the actress’s own birth history (she had also been abandoned and later reclaimed by her father). Aman’s distraught family takes Iris in at a particularly vulnerable moment in her life. As a payback, she must help with the recovery of the baby.
Mukherjee’s deftness isn’t limited to unveiling the events at a cracking pace but also in revealing the characters who take you through the novel’s twisting alleys. We read the story through multiple viewpoints — there’s Iris, of course, but there’s also Maitri in sharp contrast with her feisty independence. In the cavalcade of the cast the reader meets in Shambala Junction, women convincingly come on top — as Maitri and as Leelavati, Aman’s outspoken mother-in-law, as Lakshmy Mittal, the indefatigable lawyer-activist, and as Kiku — the “other woman” who comes across as anything but that given her empathy and clear-headedness. Then there’s Emily — the Canadian woman who is in Shambala to adopt a baby girl and start a family as a single parent and her antithesis, Shabnam — who runs an orphanage. The stink of Shabnam’s role as a child trafficker is foreshadowed with her very introduction — as “Madam,” a euphemism often used to refer to women who run prostitution rackets.
If a journey is her preferred trope, Mukherjee finds in the railway junction a fitting metaphor for channeling the narrative. One can see why she chooses to tell the story through a number of viewpoints. It’s similar to different trains arriving at a station from their separate points of origin — to find closure, change tack, or carry on with their voyages. And in Iris’s case, to begin anew. Each venture links to the other, and a few tragic derailments happen. But in mapping the course of the different networks, Mukherjee doesn’t lose sight of sticky questions — a woman’s right over her body, especially with regard to abortion, and feminism. Take for instance Iris’s sequestered habitat as opposed to the capaciousness of Maitri’s hard-fought yet liberating living environment. This, despite Iris’s privileged first-world upbringing, or probably as a result of that.
Mukherjee demonstrates a keen grasp of the NRI lens when viewing India. The frustrations of Danesh, Iris’s volatile fiancé at the fickleness of service in India–be it for internet connectivity or finding a missing person–aren’t atypical. What makes them worth a reader’s while are the dialogues that convey the emotions. Crisp and hilarious, the dialogues bear a stamp of Indianness even when the character speaking them is a non-resident.
Going by Iris’s accidental discovery of her calling in life, it might be easy to place Shambala Junction in the coming-of-age shelf of books. But to pigeonhole it into a single theme motif would be a mistake, for the book is a multi-layered package involving investigation and expose.
More importantly, though, Shambala Junction is a primer on the less tourist-pretty face of India. It’s a face that outsiders, and even its own people, are either happily oblivious to or conveniently avoid confronting.