Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.
Winner of the Virginia Prize for fiction, Shambala Junction is a coming-of-age novel from author Dipika Mukherjee, whose work I have admired since reviewing her engrossing short story collection Rules of Desire.
As much a cultural exploration as it is a love story, the book is a remarkable webbing of different viewpoints. Mukherjee is able to translate captivating realities to a wide audience through pulsing characters, with a natural story-telling ability that is inviting and enlightening.
The action begins as Iris, a first-generation Indian American, decides to outdo a ‘friend’ by taking a train from Kolkata to Delhi. Assuming she will be able to melt into her surroundings, she soon learns otherwise. Stepping off the train at Shambala Junction for a breath of air, she lingers a moment too long, and, in a desperate charge to re-board the train, collides with Aman altering the course of her trip and maybe her life.
Aman, who sells dolls at the Shambala station, has just abandoned his third daughter, barely hours old, on the steps of an orphanage. He makes a feeble attempt to help Iris, and, directed by his wise neighbor Mairti, takes Iris home. While trying to reach her own family, Iris becomes aware of the lost daughter and slowly becomes inclined to help.
It is inspirational to watch as Iris, the ‘Ugly American’ ditches her hand sanitizer and becomes an integral part of this heart-wrenching family drama. While her arranged fiancé finds joy in another woman, Iris taps into a fathomless maternal instinct. Her arrogance remains even as her sense of right and wrong, and what she is capable of, grows exponentially during her stay near the Shambala Junction. Like Iris, the reader may learn a lot from the blistering exchange between Iris and the renowned lawyer, Lakshmy Mittal. But, do not expect to get lectured in this book. Instead, it is an invitation for understanding a complicated issue.
Dipika Mukherjee expresses her true patriotism for India not by avoiding the uncomfortable realities but instead by bringing light to the possibility of change through storytelling. She is also masterful enough not to turn Shambala Junction into a dry litany. Providing a little glimmer of hope in a situation that might otherwise have been a lost cause, Shambala Junction allows us to explore what it is to be lost in society—whether as a foreigner who missed her train or as a broken-hearted father who abandoned his daughter.
An enlightening and enjoyable read, Shambala Junction is a great way to journey outside of our standard Chicago day and cross the world, returning wiser and more compassionate.