For this short story, you can play a little game. Thanks to the benevolence and foresight of the people at Strange Horizons, this story is preceded by a long list of Content Warnings. You can ignore those, of course, but who could resist the temptation of clicking on that button to see what awful sins it hides. It’s like a flashing red button saying DON’T TOUCH ME.
The game is this: Try to deduce the plot of this story just from those trigger warnings. So what sort of Gomorrah-style type of story do we have here for it to include all that stuff? A surprisingly meh one. Yes, a child dies, and that sets in motion this story of racial revenge, but I don’t even remember half of the things from the list.
Racial, you say? Why, yes, this is a very uhm… racially-charged story. As I read it, I was quite awed by the boldness of its sentences. I knew, when I read this, that I was in for a ride:
For as she well knows, just like jute, the white man has a long memory, and unlike the jute, he does not mind the blood.
Or my favorite:
As if on cue, a fly buzzes around her head, coming to settle on her nose. She blinks to drive it off, but it ignores her efforts. It’s there to stay, welcome or not. Must be British.
I really loled at that.
I can’t complain, really. In this blog, I have been championing the idea that narrators shouldn’t be mere cameras but should have a personality, and this narrator certainly has… strong beliefs. But I’m getting sidetracked here.
This story starts some time before the Bengal Famine of 1943 (notice that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page due to how common famines are there.) The protagonist, Apa, lives with her grandchild, Nilesh, and she makes some type of magical/animated dolls that clap or laugh called putul (although she doesn’t sell them.) A crude, comically-arrogant toady of the Governor of Bengal, John Arthur Herbert, goes to visit her (and, it’s implied, it’s not the first time) to ask her for a doll for the wife of the Governor. She refuses, not after impassionately proclaming how much everybody in Bengal resents the British and that she would never give a doll at the point of a bayonet (although there are no bayonets and the officer actually wants to buy the doll.)
I do not know what function the Governor had back then as Bengal already had a bicameral legislative body (maybe executive powers?), but my Internet search has come up with few results and Wikipedia is useless on that. The point is, he is The Governor. Important person and representative of Queen Victoria. Victoria, in 1943? You may think. Yes. In the real world she had been dead for 40 years, but here she is still alive apparently, and maybe even the East Indian Company as this odd metaphor implies:
Like an intangible East India Company, the thought creeps into her mind, and having inveigled its way in, it refuses to leave.
To say that the author plays fast and loose with history is an understatement. And there is no hint of this being an alternate history with Queen Victoria as the Lich Queen, so at first, I thought that perhaps the author just didn’t know much of history, but since he seems to be of Indian origin, I suspect he just knew that the intended audience would be liberal Ameridumbs whose train of thought when confronted with something in Colonial India would be like this: India -> Colony -> British -> East Indian Company -> Queen Victoria -> Bad Colonialism -> Feels bad, man.
And that’s pretty much the entire story. The Evil British burn her jute and rice paddies, something attributed to the Denial of Rice policy of 1942 (March,) and so her grandchild dies and she almost starves to death (although the Denial of Rice Policy was in 1942, months before the famine it seems, and the goal of the policy was to destroy the surplus of rice not to turn Bengal into Mordor, and it’s not even sure if it was the largest cause of the famine anyway, but whatever, it’s the first thing you’ll see on the Wikipedia article anyway.) However, the British revive her because the Governor still wants the stupid doll, and she finally accepts (obviously with revenge in mind.)
When the doll is finished, the British return and a very clumsily-written scene needed to justify why Apa needs to go with them to the Governor’s Mansion follows up. The British leader reasonably states that he doesn’t believe in magic so, please, hand over the stupid doll or the men will take it by force. Grandma answer by claiming that “They cannot do so before I destroy the putul,” a reference, I am sure, to the known lightning-fast, Jedi-like reflexes of all the grandmas in Midnapore. The British man, proving that anglo-whiteoids are indeed an inferior and retarded species, believes her. So she goes with them back to Calcutta.
I have to restate here that the timeline is a bit wonky, and it’s compressed for a very specific pedagogical/ideological goal. Apparently, the British just started to burn everything on site, something described with a languace and scenery very reminiscent of Holocaust images, and then everybody just droped immediately.
I’m no expert, but I suspect the writer is a bit liberal with his description of what they see:
Field after field lies black and arid, within them rows of immolated crops and ashen cadavers
Bodies lie piled twenty high by the roadside
There are a lot more corpses than water
That there are whispers among the men that the scale of the holocaust has moved even some British hearts, but not Sir Winston’s: that Dark Lord is instead mightily pleased. [That’s Sir Winston Churchill, by the way]
the British hung farmers who dared to hide rice from them
That was when the British burnt the jute fields, to ensure no one could make any rope [to hang themselves]. Or maybe they just enjoyed watching their victims die slowly.
There are now almost as many corpses on the tree as leaves below it.
Call me skeptic, but I suspect some of those things may not have happened exactly like that. But let’s not get lost in the details here. As mentioned, the intended audience of this story is historically illiterate yet ideologically aggressive.
So after this gallery of horrors, they reach the house of the comically-evil and oblivious Governor. To cut the story short, Apa activates the doll, and everybody dies laughing, including the Bengali butler whose only fault seems to have been to work for white people and being somewhat contemptuous of her when they first met. Take that, race traitor!
The story ends with her accepting her fate as she knows the British will go after her (I don’t see why, though, because everybody in there is dead and probably nobody outside the house knows about her anyway so she is free.)
And she is ready, she’s been ready ever since Nilesh left, taken from her by a man in London [Winston Churchill] none of them will ever meet.
“I’ll see you again soon,” she whispers into the wind.
And Apa begins to laugh.
When I first read this story, my reaction was one of certain indifference, but after rereading it for this review, I have to downgrade it from ‘meh’ to ‘bad’. At first, I had not noticed all the historical incongruencies, but after a more careful reading, they have becomed too glaring for a story that is clearly not intened as a fantasy short story but as historical (do I have to remind you that this is for a fantasy & sciencefiction award?). This is my theory:
The writer wanted a piece set during the colonial era (so 19th century or so,) to show how evil the British were. He started writing it but then realized that the previous famine that would have fit the timeline (at least according to the disambiguation page alredy mentioned—I believe there were many other famines, like almost once per decade on average) has this description on Wikipedia:
The Bihar famine of 1873–1874 (also the Bengal famine of 1873–1874) […] the relief effort—organized by Sir Richard Temple, the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—was one of the success stories of the famine relief in British India; there was little or no mortality during the famine.
That’s… not good.
So he moved the timeline to the next one, but Indian in 1943 is certainly not what most people think when talking about colonialism, so he left the references to Queen Victoria, the East Indian Company, and even the demeaning way the British men speak to the “natives” (that’s how they are called,) knowing that the idiots who read these things would probably not notice any of it.
Coincidentaly, the real Governor (I wonder what his descendants would think of this story) did die in his house in Calcutta in 1943, so the revenge story almost writes itself. Just fill in the gaps with descriptions of the British burning, hanging, and relishing in the suffering of the people and being comically, moustache-twirling villains who make German extermination-camp guards look compassionate, and that’s it. Or… perhaps the author just wanted to dunk on Churchill, Queen Victoria, the British Raj, and everything so he just mashed it up all together. Who knows.
Speaking of which, I’m disappointed that the protagonist did not travel to London to personally murder the Dark Lord Churchill and kill the evil, immortal Lich Queen Victoria to liberate all the oppressed people of the world.
But that’s not how you get a Hugo nomination, of course. Not only do you have to be woke; you have to be boring.