The Sleeping Dictionary is the engrossing story of a poor young orphan in India who, through her own intelligence and bravery, fights her way through tragedy and discrimination to earn a good living for herself and to help with India’s struggle for freedom from British rule. The title refers to Indian women who acted as translators for their British lovers.
Sujata Massey is a journalist and mystery writer who makes use of her research skills and her personal connection (through her father) to the Indian state of Bengal, to craft a detailed, believable, can’t-put-down saga.
The story begins in 1930, when a little girl nicknamed “Pom” survives a tsunami that washes away her village and her entire family. Through good luck, her own resourcefulness, and help from others, she finds work as a maid in a British-run boarding school, where she is renamed “Sarah.” While going about her duties, she easily picks up spoken English (including a perfect British accent), and learns to read and write in English and Bengali, her native language.
A series of unfortunate incidents causes her to flee to a larger town, where she is enticed into working at a high-class brothel. She is renamed “Pamela.” There, despite her distaste for the work, she learns the ways of European men, which will serve her well when she finally makes her way to Calcutta and renames herself “Kamala.” The novel ends with India’s independence in 1947.
While a few parts of the novel are overly long and explanation-heavy, for the most part the story moves along nicely. Kamala is an engaging, feisty heroine who, despite her fears and flaws, finds ways to survive and stay true to herself. The photo above is from the author’s web site.