The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay is funny, but not as funny as advertised. The titular aunt was a child bride at age seven, and widowed by twelve, so that’s hardly the foundation of a laugh riot. What redeems this book is that its characters, primarily Somlata, are charming and the overall plot is optimistic. While the women’s voices sound strange at times, I can’t tell whether that’s attributable to a male author, translation issues, or cultural differences.
When Somlata marries into the Mitra family, she’s not immediately comfortable in the family home that’s shared by several generations. Despite its former wealth, the family is cash poor:
Aristocratic families on the decline tend to show off disproportionately. They never let go of an opportunity to impress people. I realized from the minor squabbles and arguments in my husband’s home after the marriage that they had used up almost all of their reserves for the wedding. They had even borrowed money. (3)
This is further confirmed by her mother-in-law, who tells Somlata she’ll need to push her new husband into productivity:
“It’s your fate that Fuchu had to be your husband. He is not a bad sort. But all we have now is for appearance’s sake; there’s nothing substantial left. I got him married in the hope that his wife’s luck will rub off on him. You have to pester him constantly. Do not indulge him in any circumstances. The slightest leniency will mean he will spend all his time in bed. I know the men in this family only too well. Utterly lazy, all of them.” (4)
Pishima, Somlata’s great aunt-in-law, soon dies, but Somlata continues to see and hear her around the house. Pishima pesters her to hide a box of gold jewelry because she knows the family will sell it. This box of gold is the only thing that brought Pishima a measure of joy/security while alive (or dead) and she won’t allow it to be sold. Somlata hides the gold while trying to reverse the family’s fortune. Watching Somlata take charge of her new family, handling both their expectations and Pishima’s bitter ghost, has those feel-good vibes touted on the book jacket.
The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die is split into four chapters that alternate between two perspectives: Somlata’s and Boshon’s. The shift to Boshon’s perspective is strange at first because her connection to the family isn’t immediately obvious. She’s rebellious and independent, almost seeming like a character from a different book: “Woman and man are supposed to complement each other. I don’t agree. I feel I will get by without a man.” (40) But everything comes together in the end. The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die has one of those abrupt endings that will make you want to reread the whole book in light of info gained in the last chapter. Fortunately, it’s short enough that this is easily done.
Overall: 4.3 (out of 5.0) A multi-generational tale that gives an interesting take on the different perspectives of different generations. Some elements feel a little simplistic, but ultimately build into an entertaining story.