The unusually named Pom is a little village girl whose family perishes in a flood in 1930. She, seeing the tidal wave coming, climbs up a tree and showing immense presence of mind, latches herself to a branch with her saree. This presence of mind also helps her escape from a man who is collecting young girls on the pretext of rescuing them and taking them to a temple. Somehow she ends up at a British boarding school and begins life as a maidservant, Sarah.
She makes her first friend there across caste barriers and realises she has a flair for languages. A slew of misunderstandings and jealousy result in her leaving the school and running away to the City of Palaces, Calcutta. Lost, lonely and broke, she is befriended by a prostitute and before she knows, she is Pamela, a lady of the night at Rose Villa. But that’s not the end—she manages to escape the brothel and start life anew but her past catches up with her and she finally needs to untie the tangled web she’s been weaving all this while.
Pom’s evolution from village girl to educated maidservant to high-class prostitute, to Brahmin librarian is skillful. Each new avatar shows a rise in station. There are times one disagrees with the choices Pom makes until you recall that she is an uneducated village girl, with no family, education or background and a life built on deception. And that this story is set almost a hundred years ago. A lone woman in this situation should likely have come to a bad end, but Massey builds her protagonist up, taking her from strength to strength, helping her shape her life and destiny so that she comes up tops.
Massey does a wonderful job of setting her story against India in the early 1900s, weaving it through with historical events, from the Bengal famine to the Independence movement, showing how each of them affected people in general and Pom in particular.
Told simply as the tale of a young girl who learns to make her way through the world by her wits, the almost 500-page tome might have been a tad tedious. But The City of Palaces is much more – it is the story of the oppressed Pom’s reinvention of herself into the educated upper class, upper caste Kamala Mukerjee, as a parallel to India shaking off the shackles of slavery and gaining independence. It is about the rigidity of the caste system, of floods and famines, of the fate of a lone woman, of hierarchy even among the converts. Political intrigues, espionage, the rise of Subhash Chandra Bose, women freedom fighters, Hindu-Muslim riots and the Anglo-Indian relationships make up the rest of the book.
From the famine struck villagers to the almost electric buzz of young Indians working together to rid the country of the British, Massey gets the atmosphere bang on the money. A special mention of the beautiful Prabuddha Dasgupta cover of Lakshmi Menon’s naked back and jewelled plait. Originally shot for a magazine, the cover image is the exotic cherry on top of a delightfully satisfactory piece of historical fiction confection.