Iris is a first generation American who has grown up listening to her father’s stories of India, and who is visiting India from America for the first time with her fiance Danesh. Thinking it would be a good idea to take the train, Iris convinces Danesh that it would be fun to go on a 24-hour train journey.
Unfortunately, she wakes up thirsty when the train stops at Shambala Junction and decides to step off to buy water. A few minutes of distraction coupled with a series of unfortunate events lead her to miss the train when it leaves the station.
Stranded in Shambala Junction with little money, barely any grasp of the language, and with Danesh still on the train (he is asleep when she leaves), Iris is lost and terrified. But with a little help from stall holder Maitri and doll-seller Aman, she begins to find a way back to her fiance, and along the way discovers friendship and some cruel realities about life that she had never realised before. She also learns what is important, and to love India with all its charm and cracks.
Indian-American author Dipika Mukherjee won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (given by Britain’s Aurora Metro Books to women from around the world who are writing in English) for Shambala Junction, which is not surprising because this is a remarkable and unique coming-of-age story. This is my first foray into Mukherjee’s writing, and what a pleasant introduction it has been.
What is really interesting about this book, aside from Iris’ coming of age and the love story, is how Mukherjee explores the richness and diversity of the Indian cultural landscape and the distinctive characters she has created.
Iris starts off as not very likeable, stereotyping the people she comes across; Aman makes a decision based on his circumstances that he quickly regrets and tries to remedy; Maitri and Lilavati (Aman’s mother-in-law) are both firecrackers and unapologetically honest to the point of abrasiveness.
I’ve never been a fan of multiple viewpoints because if it’s not done well it becomes too messy, but Mukherjee has converted me. She effortlessly switches between perspectives without losing the focus of the story and it’s actually a pleasure to read and see things from different perspectives.
With a natural story-telling flair, Mukherjee has also added another plotline, one which is both a controversial issue and very current: baby trafficking, which has been on the rise in India.
In the novel, in her attempt to get back to Danesh, Iris collides with Aman, destroying his dolls.
While initially furious with her, he comes around and takes her to his house (with Maitri) to wait till the next morning when the train comes in.
We find out that Aman hasn’t been having a good day. In fact, he’s been having a terrible day. His wife Roop had just given birth to another baby girl, adding to the two they already have, and in a fit of rage at once again not getting a son, he drops the newborn off at an orphanage.
Almost immediately, however, he changes his mind, but the orphanage denies that he dropped the baby off. Guilty, terrified, and at a loss at what to do, Aman is numbly selling his wares when Iris collides into him and his stall.
Iris finds out about this in her attempts to reach her own family and eventually decides to help. This is where Iris becomes more real and likable as a character, and becomes the protagonist she was meant to be – someone integral to the story, and this in turn, makes the book that much more inviting and gripping.
Mukherjee is obviously in her element here, as her passion for story-telling shines through in every page of the story. She doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life in India, but she tempers that with the little joys one can find along the way.
A truly engaging and lovely read, Shambala Junction is a book that tugs at the reader’s morality while at the same time telling a truly inspiring coming-of-age story.
Author: Dipika Mukherjee
Publisher: Corgi Books, fiction