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Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman is an excellent read, due to likeable characters, lots of happenings, and a delightfully light touch.
Review by Unmana Datta
I picked up this book with some trepidation – a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman with a pet parrot moving to a small hill town and setting herself up as a fortune-teller to help save the town from destruction? It seemed at the same time somewhat predictable, wildly improbable, and ripe for stereotyping. I’m happy to say none of my expectations were met!
Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes was instead a rollicking read inspite of all the somewhat predictable and melodramatic elements – a white woman who loves India (and is, of course, the hero of the day), a villainous police commissioner who is quite a caricature, an orphan (foundling/waif: take your pick) rescued by the heroine, the plotted destruction of the town and the even more improbable plot hatched by a couple of local citizens to save it, and even hidden treasures.
But it works – mostly because the characters are portrayed with deft strokes that make them come alive. Jana quickly won me over with her love of adventure and her sense of humour – even her love of having her fortune read seemed more an eccentric foible than a lack of judgement. Mary, the devoted South Indian maid, is a stereotype no doubt, but is likeable nonetheless. Feroze, the local tailor, has a loving heart under his correct demeanour. But most enjoyable, perhaps, is the portrait of Commissioner Bandhu, paradoxically named, for he is a friend to no one and is universally disliked. He is also uniformly evil: a thorough bully who’s an abusive husband and parent and equally abusive of the powers of his office.
The small-town setting, the characters and their gossiping interest in each others’ lives, reminded me a little of Ruskin Bond, Alexander McCall Smith and Agatha Christie. But the author has something original all of her own.
Even the absurd ease with which all problems resolve themselves at the end somewhat works because of the author’s delightfully light touch. It is a book full of good humour, both in terms of being funny and in the attitude of the characters. Janet Laird – the Jana Bibi of the title – is met with so much neighbourliness and courtesy in her newly adopted hometown of Hamara Nagar that it made me want to move, or at least spend a summer, there. Too bad it’s fictional.
Publishers: Random House India.
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