11/30/14

Neela: Victory Song

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Illustrator: Troy Howell

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Bengal, India, 1939

Plot

Neela's older sister Usha is getting married. The wedding is a large and generous party for the village, but not as lavish as Neela's mother would have preferred. But with the civil unrest due to India being under British control, and war in Europe, Neela's father thinks it's inappropriate to appear to be showing off. Too many people are going hungry.

The scaled-back wedding goes well, but the reception is interrupted by a group of young men in disguise, aggressively collecting funds to oust the British. Enough people on their side to provide peer pressure for the rest to hand over coins and jewelry. When the group leaves, some grumble that they shouldn't rock the boat, but most seem to be ready govern themselves rather than be under the control of a country thousands of miles away. Neela is proud to have contributed some jewelry, and proud that her parents and sister and her sister's new husband helped willingly too. But she's distressed when her father tells her he's going to Calcutta to see if he can do more to help the freedom movement. He's told Neela's mother that he's just going for business, but if he doesn't return, he's trusting Neela to reveal his true motivations, so that Neela's mother will know he died for a noble cause.

While he's away, the young man--really, a boy, about sixteen--who collected the offerings during the wedding shows up in dairy barn, badly wounded. Neela doesn't know enough about medicine to treat him (Samar) on her own, so she must trust her tutor and her mother to help. Both are reluctant, as they don't want to be branded traitors, but agree that they can't just let him die. Samar eventually recovers well enough to slip away just in time, when government soldiers come looking for him. He leaves a note of gratitude, with the name of a cousin in Calcutta through whom messages can be sent.

Neela also receives a marriage proposal while her father's away: a woman from a nearby village had noticed Neela and thinks that she'd be a wonderful addition to her (very well-off) family. Neela's mother jumps at the opportunity to get her daughter such a match, though the marriage won't be for a few years. Neela's only twelve, but an engagement date is set for just a few weeks away, on a date filled with lucky numbers. Neela is quite distressed at this: she knows that engagement means she'll lose much of her freedoms and she'll be scrutinized by everyone around her, and marriage will take away whatever choice she has left. Plus, her father's been gone the better part of a month now. A baoul (a sort of holy man who has been singing an illegal song about a free India) offers to ask after him in Calcutta, but when his anti-government views are disclosed he must go into hiding. He leaves some of his clothing for Neela; she can disguise herself as a man and go to Calcutta find her father on her own. Neela leaves her mother a note apologizing and explaining, and leaves.

In Calcutta, she's able to find Samar's cousin Bimala quickly. Her father is a high-ranking official, so they must be careful to not reveal Neela's intentions. The two happen upon Samar, posing as a street performer. Between him and a trusted servant of Bimala, they're able to find out that Neela's father is a prisoner not far away, and make a plan to free him and some other prisoners who will be deported that night. They're able to stop the truck they're on, leave the British soldiers on the roadside, and drive off. Neela's father is in the back. They're overjoyed to see each other.

Neela and Samar help her father to a train station--his leg is badly injured, perhaps broken. On the train back home, they're nearly discovered. But Neela uses some makeup tips from Bimala (who's in a drama  club at her college) to make it appear as though her father has smallpox. Terrified of catching the disease, the soldiers who are looking for the escaped prisoners stop the train and force Neela, her father, and Samar off--conveniently about a mile from Neela's home. Samar leaves to return to the freedom fighters, and Neela and her father make their way home, reuniting with her mother.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

A Hindu girl in Neela's time might only receive a little formal education, and would expect to marry between the ages of eleven and fourteen, to a man picked by her family. She would move in with his family following the wedding, which might be the first time she would meet them all--including her husband. She would also start seeing some very interesting changes in her world as the people of India began to rise up against the English who had controlled the land for two centuries. Gandhi was the most recognizable leader of the freedom movement, encouraging non-violent protests. The world grew sympathetic to India's plight, it won its independence in 1947 without war. India is now the world's largest democracy. Though girls in rural areas still don't receive much education and there are still large pockets of poverty, girls in cities excel in universities, including STEM fields. In 1966, India elected its first female prime minister.

Misc

Dedicated to "my favorite young people: Abhay, Anand, Rahul, and Neela." Thanks to "my spiritual teachers, Baba Muktananda, Gurumayi, and Swami Chinamayananda, for their love. My agent, Sandra Dikkstra, for encouraging me to grow in this new and joyous direction. My editor, Tamara England, for her perceptive guidance. My mother, Tatini Banarjee, for making the time I write about here come alive for me. My friend, Indira Chakravorty, for generously sharing with me her extensive library of Bengali literature. My husband, Murthy, for his continued support. My niece, Neela, for loaning me her name. And my son, Anand, for being my first, best, and most enthusiastic reader."

The author grew up Calcutta. She chose the name Neela because it means "blue" in Bengali, a color that symbolizes infinite possibilities.

A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a woman from India about arranged marriage. She told me that her parents were looking for matches for her, and that while they went through a lot of effort to be sure that a given man was from a good family and so on, it was always up to her whether she actually liked the man. Apparently they'd made a few matches already that hadn't panned out. In the book, the bride and groom aren't allowed to meet until the wedding itself. I think the modern take is better.

Neela's father doesn't use corporal punishment like most of his peers, but instead prefers discipline that's informative and productive. For example, when Neela gives away an expensive piece of jewelry to help fund the freedom fighters (she didn't realize it was so pricey, nor that it was supposed to be part of her dowry), he has her take over for a retiring servant. Her parents will set aside the money they save in not hiring a new servant until she repays them.

The first of these books was set in the 1500s. By the time this one was set, my paternal grandmother was twenty, my paternal grandfather was fourteen, my maternal grandfather was ten, and my maternal grandmother was six.

The King County Library System doesn't have a copy of this book. I got it from Hood River County in Oregon through an inter-library loan.

Unlike the other Girls of Many Lands books, this is written in third person.

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