Bena's Summer - A Book for All Times by debut author Shibal Bhartiya

Rarely has a book left me breathless with its command of language and subject. Rarely does a book bring to mind a line of a Hindi film song: Saara pyaar tumhara…maine bandh liya hai anchal main….All your love have I bound up in my veil…

Bena's Summer is a paean to love ­and a grand riposte to our hate-filled times. It’s really a mystery why this cracker of a book has not yet got even a look-in at book awards. It deserves to be feted on every platform for the depth of thought, the riveting word images, the felicity of language, the vivid descriptions of place and time.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.

Shibal Bhartiya makes an assured debut with her keen observations of the workings of power in a household; the caste equations; the barriers of class and religion that thwart love, and the presence of evildoers within and outside the family; all of which comes together in a dizzyingly luscious tapestry. It’s a nostalgia rush for the author as it’s also autobiographical and harks back to a time when joint families prevailed and homes milled around with children of all ages; when Ambassadors had 'pink frilly and floral' curtained windows; when kids played a game of hopscotch called kitkit, using chalk squares on which a chess pawn was to  be picked up with the bare toes without stepping on the chalk lines. This last filled me with joy as it’s the first mention I’ve come across of a variation of the absorbing game from my childhood played with a shell or a stone, which alas, kids nowadays seem not to play.

The beginning of the book deals with the marital home Altamash Manzil in Gaya with forays into Raj Niwas to meet Bena’s friend Jyotsna and her family. The second half deals with the maternal home in Sultanpur. And in an interesting touch, while earlier Bena’s mother Azra remains more or less a shadowy presence, she blooms more fully once she’s at home at her own home in the midst of people whom she’s grown up with. Then Bena returns to Altamash Manzil where the finale unfolds. The sojourn to and fro gives the book its title referring to the summer vacations often spent at the native place. Interestingly, in an interview, the author shared that as she exchanged WhatsApp messages with her friends and cousins, she found that most of them distinctly recalled one particular summer, which became the heart of the book. 

Bena flitting from person to person and the details of the inner workings of her childlike mind are a delight as are the sweet depictions of her escapades with her cousins and friends Zareena and Saifa; her little brother Meer’s lisp rewording Coca Cola (read the book to know what it is!); the renaming ‘ceremony’ brought on by her friend Jyotsna with its borrowing of emblems and phrases from other religions. These are just some of the many instances where the author has captured the frolic of children wonderfully. Through it all, the author does not fail to hold to the light to how children can be much influenced by what they hear and see adults doing such as how caste prejudice creeps into little Bena’s mind and actions in her interaction with Kishni Nani who cleans the toilet pits; the abusive words innocently picked up by her brother Meer; the public chants Bena and her cousins sing oblivious to the communal import of their words. 

There is also a dose of humour running through the narrative, such as in the feisty interactions over religion between Azra and her mother and husband; the mauling of words by Bena and her friends when reciting prayers; how quickly Bena forgets all the promises she makes to people she’s fond of; and in the descriptions of characters such as ‘Zulekha Bua, of indeterminate age and doubtful lineage’.

A Must Read

This smorgasbord of a book is a must-read! It should be read for the wonderfully etched characters, such as the ‘crumpled, rumpled, and wrinkled’ Rano and Saamo Phuphis; the vicious Sabeeha Chhoti Ammi; and Haffiji’s silent love for an inhabitant of Altamash Manzil to name just a few of the sprawl of characters jostling together in a book about people and how they influence children.

It should be read for its stunning prose full of colour and fragrance such as in 'If Bibbi Khala were to paint the day, it would be lilac and mauve and pink and blue and yellow. All unsaturated shades, muted as if through age. Blending into each other. The patina of old wood lovingly polished eighty-four years ago. Vieux rose.' The descriptions of Phalgu are equally breath-taking, The book unspools like a film reel complete with visual and sound; be it while capturing the cadence of quiet conversations between fathers and daughters; the haunting recitation of verses from the Quran or the brilliant use of mehndi to mark the passage of time in full Technicolor.

Then there are the mouth-watering descriptions of food. Savour this: ‘The gorgeous golden orbs of sunshine and sweetness, ready to be rolled into laddoos, the glorious promise of tiny explosions of joy and abandon.’ And there is great humour sandwiched in-between to add to the charm – ‘enough ghee to block at least two coronary arteries’, writes the author as she describes in delectable prose the splendiferous and aptly named hazaar waraq ka paratha. Read the book to gorge on it without guilt!

There is a reason for the detailing about food. They mark bonds between members of a family, they denote affection or not , and reflect the person’s class, religion, as well as character in the ingredients used or not used. Bhartiya uncovers the layers of meanings and the role that food plays in India in bringing together as well as dividing people. How women of different ages arm themselves with kitchen tools and ingredients to defend themselves is also chillingly portrayed. Their night-long vigil trapped in the house and the terrifying detail about the layers of clothing the girls in the family are forced to wear to protect themselves if and when violence comes knocking bespeaks of horror experienced at close quarters.

Hats off to Shibal Bhartiya for pulling no punches. She tells it like it is sparing no details. including the Hashimpura massacre by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and of localities being named along communal lines. Like food, the author also uses train journeys to make a compelling and poignant point about the state of our nation and collective memories. There is the deeply moving reminiscence between Bena and her father of how a railway platform in Mughalsarai is more than just a pit stop for him. There is also a reminder of how closely India’s history is enmeshed in memories of violence done on trains. And history repeats itself. The casual manner of why and how Bena's father is singled out for his community and then for his presumed caste and the TTE's plea to goons of where they can do their bashing, chills one to the bone. The frank dialogue between Azra and her mother on religion is timely and authentic without making an attempt to play to the gallery or to be merely politically correct.

Some not so bright spots

The cover by Priya Kuriyan captures the colour, but somehow misses out on the verve and effervescence of this book. Sometimes the piling of adjectives and descriptions drag out the narrative needlessly. 

I also felt that having evoked Bena's character so wonderfully, there was really no need to amplify its significance by evoking lineage et al when speaking of her act of courage. Somehow, the bonding between Azra and her sister-in-law, distraught over what happens to the daughters of the family, also does not quite ring true. 

Given the layered portrayal of all the women in the story, one does wish that were so for the men in Bena’s family, too. They are either quietly good and heroic or pure evil. In contrast, the male acquaintances are shown in all their shades of hate and love. But these are really minor blemishes in a stellar book.

A Different Book

What makes this book particularly delightful is that it does away with the conventional rules of grammar such as inverted commas for speech and uniform chapter lengths. Instead, chapters unfurl as per the mood, sometimes just a page or two, other times longer. The chapter headings, like the author’s prose, go straight to the point - 'Halwa, halwa and halwa!' – or get dreamy – 'Walking on a river'. The melange of chapter headings is a read in itself, marvellously informal. The loveliest chapter is "Sisters in the Night" as Bena’s mother and Bena’s aunt chat quietly into the night. 

The book is peppered with Urdu and Hindi, which is explained without interrupting the flow. I discovered the original spelling and meaning of katli from the description of suji ka halwa qatliyan. 

For other words, there’s a glossary at the end that gives a peek into the world of the book. It’s lovely to roll one’s tongue around the some familiar and many unfamiliar words. But even without a glance at the glossary Shibal Bhartiya is able to evoke the emotion behind the meanings and that’s all that matters.

Information on the Book

Bena's Summer published by Harper Collins is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, buy it as a hard copy instead of the e-book to keep the indie book stores going. You can get your copy online as well as at book stores like FunkyRainbow and Kahani Tree.

It is priced at INR 299. Buy two or more even. To gift a copy to someone else because this is a book worth keeping as well as sharing!

Note on the Author

Shibal Bhartiya is an eye surgeon and the founder of Vision Unlimited, which runs an After School Club for children of migrant labourers in Badshahpur, Gurugram. This is her first book of fiction.

Note on the Artist

Priya Kuriyan writes children’s books and is an illustrator, animator and comics creator. She has directed films for the Sesame Street show in India and for the Children’s Film Society of India. She was awarded the Big Little Books Awards 2019 for best illustrator.


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