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Book Review: Dwellings Change by Ramapada Chowdhury. Translated by Tania Chakravertty, Sahitya Akademi, 2023.

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Reviewed by Bidisha Nandi

“People change when they become landlords. The privilege or dignity of the tenant then ceases to matter.” (54)

The Sahitya Akademi award-winning book Dwellings Change by Ramapada Chowdhury (1988) provides a poignant portrayal of the challenges faced by contemporary urban middle-class families. Drawing from the author’s own experiences as a tenant, the novel explores various issues such as the younger generation’s inclination towards transitioning from joint families to nuclear ones, their constant relocations to different houses, the perennial tension in landlord-tenant relationships, and the illegal eviction of tenants. Through the novel, the author presents a very realistic depiction of how common people respond to these tribulations, deal with them, and ultimately adapt over time. Translator Tania Chakravertty has scrupulously captured the essence of the original work, providing an engaging portrayal of traditional Bengali family life and the socio-economic conditions of the time.

The novel provides a backdrop of the 1980s, a time of rapid urbanisation and increased migration from the suburbs to the cities in search of better opportunities. The majority of these migrants were tenants. The initial depiction of a family facing eviction at the outset of the novel holds significant thematic weight, serving as a portrayal of the constant conflict between landlords and tenants, as well as the profound humiliation experienced by the tenants at the hands of landowners. Such unlawful evictions serve to underscore the prevailing notion that the supposed legal protections for tenants were merely nominal, and expose the fact that “laws existed only on paper” (101).

 At the heart of Dwellings Change are Dhruva and Preeti, a couple living in a joint Bengali family in a rented house in south Kolkata on Harish Mukherjee Road. They dream of owning a flat in the city. After a “two-month experience of flat hunting”, they come to realise how challenging it is to find even a small space within their modest budget: “it was as if one had no right to live in Calcutta” and finally being able to find a flat in a town like Kolkata felt like winning “a battle”.

 

Through the lens of changing dwellings, the story also explores the freedom to leave behind past connections and embrace new identities. Chowdhury raises the question of whether it is selfish to sever the ties of family in pursuit of personal freedom Avinash makes the writer’s stand clear with the words, “there is nothing better than freedom. Even parents become trivial in this context”(60). Though The book does not entirely align with the traditional nuclear family structure, the author, in many ways, has vocalised the disadvantages of a joint family set-up. The author effectively voices the burden placed on women in a joint family, emphasising how they often prioritise the needs of others over their own desires; as Avinash says: “Ma has spent her entire life cooped up in the kitchen…it was as if a wife could have no wishes or desires of her own”(59)

The novel very realistically touches on the theme of urbanisation. The passage “The look of Lansdowne Road was gradually changing, becoming lovelier by the day. Our Calcutta! A huge supermarket was coming up next to Dhakuria bridge…Calcutta would turn very beautiful indeed” clearly reflects the impact of the increasing urban population on the demand for living places, leading to the exponential growth of new cities and rapid expansion of existing ones. The conundrums of urbanisation and its spatial dimensions, particularly congestion and compactness, are also explored throughout the novel. For instance, Preeti’s response to Dhruva’s complaint about the south side being blocked “how many flats will you get in Calcutta which are breezy?”(67) highlights the scarcity of well-ventilated flats in Calcutta, emphasising the importance of urban spatial considerations.

Apart from reflecting a plethora of existing issues, the narrative also delves deep into the protagonist’s psyche through which the readers perceive the constant turmoil that is coexistent with existence and the never-ending dilemma that makes the human mind vacillate tirelessly. The author skillfully portrays the transformation of the protagonist, Dhruva, from a distressed tenant to a proud landlord and from a compassionate individual to an opportunist, reflecting broader themes of shifting attitudes and values in life. The protagonist’s journey, from being empathetic towards tenants to seeing them as a threat and a “nuisance”, is presented with subtlety and nuance by the author.

By and large, Chowdhury has skillfully weaved together themes of urbanisation, landlord-tenant feud, and the evolving dynamics of family structures, presenting a compelling reflection on the evolution of living spaces and human psychology. The author’s succinct sense of humor and realistic and insightful narrative make Dwellings Change an engaging and thought-provoking read, shedding light on the socio-economic condition of 1990s Bengal.

As the translator, Tania Chakravertty has done justice to the original work by adroitly capturing the essence of the book.

Bidisha Nandi is a Research Scholar at the Dept of English of NEHU, Shillong.

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