The book “Those Women of the Coromandel” by Ranga Rao depicts the lives of three women living in Coromandel in nineteenth-century India.
We meet Miss Beston who is known as the Boat Woman, a Briton who has gone native. Appachchi, known as Granny, is a lover of nature, mangoes, and the monsoon. Worker Aunt, Appachchi’s sister-in-law, who endures successive personal tragedies with the utmost dignity, is her close confidante and lifelong buttress.
Peopled with characters who are eccentric, interesting, and pragmatic, this is a story of people trying to find their place in the world as it turns and changes around them.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Miss Beston spotted them through her window. She rushed out with her rifle.
In the heart of the Coromandel jungle, a spectacle greeted her: two pubescent girls stood before her, decked in the most charming style of jewellery south of the Vindhyas, as though they were on a formal visit. And alone, all alone.
‘Thank God I shot that leopard this morning,’ she said to her shikari.
‘Absolutely,’ said her tufted gomastha from behind the shikari.
Little Worker Aunt widened her large kohl-lined eyes and stared at Granny Appachchi on her hip, as though she was a mango discovered days after the harvest, hiding under a leaf—a dagudukayi.
‘I am glad we have left the hounds behind on the boat,’ Miss Beston said to him.
‘Absolutely,’ said the gomastha.
Little Worker Aunt widened her eyes again and slowly turned to look at her vadina’s, sister-in-law’s, face. Perched on her hip like a water-pot or an outsized terracotta doll, lovingly enclosed by an arm, she had proved the trusted pilot even in the jungle. Worker Aunt only worried now about the thorn wedged in her sister-in-law’s foot.
‘Who are you looking for?’ asked the white woman.
The famous Boat Woman’s Telugu sounded just a bit odd, but it made sense, almost as much as that of a local speaker. She towered over them, a good six-feet tall. As though the very forest goddess had materialized before them, suddenly, in the hoof-path, and in a white man’s clothes.
Granny Appachchi slid down…but in a second Worker Aunt recovered and lifted Appachchi and placed her back on her hip.
‘For you,’ said Granny Appachchi, from her cosy vantage.
The white woman widened her deep-set, blue eyes.
She smiled sweetly. She turned to her shikari and said, ‘I am honoured.’
‘Absolutely,’ said the gomastha from behind the shikari. ‘These little girls are from Karanam Mangayya’s family, madam.’
‘I know. Brahmins. All the more shocking.’
The girls now turned their heads and stared at the two guns the shikari was carrying.
‘White hibiscus,’ said Granny Appachchi.
‘What did she say?’
Before her gomastha could open his mouth and say ‘Absolutely’ once again, Granny Appachchi repeated, ‘White hibiscus.’ The gomastha’s face fell.
The gomastha did open his mouth again but Worker Aunt anticipated him. ‘You look like a white hibiscus,’ she explained.
Miss Beston smiled. The gomastha was fidgeting with his pigtail; it looked like a malfunctioning lightning conductor laid low by an uncommon bolt.
When the gomastha began explaining the compliment, Miss Beston looked around, as though for a white hibiscus. Worker Aunt put her charge down on her feet and formed the lotus mudra, trying to conjure up the flower for the white woman.
Miss Beston got it, or some idea of it.
‘Of course!’ she said and laughed.
But she wasn’t certain she was being admired.
‘You are a red hibiscus!’ she returned the compliment. ‘You too! No less!’
She was charmed by Granny Appachchi’s complexion.
Later, Miss Beston gathered enough from her munshi and her own personal library on Indian flora and fauna, especially on the fascinating lotus, to deliver a discourse to her European visitors, who spread it all over the Raj, calling the information the Lotus Sutra.
The colourful party reached the boat on the canal. The dogs had started barking from far away.
The little girls did not worry about the hounds; they forgot all about their encounter with the wild as Miss Beston’s boat home appeared before them on the Blotton Canal. What a home to live in! A home which floated, rocking gently, in the canal. It was anchored firmly, tethered with a python rope to a huge jamun on the bank.
‘You are welcome,’ the Boat Woman said with a sweet smile, ‘to my cottage….’ Then, taking a quick look at a framed mirror in front of her, she said, ‘White hibiscus!’, smiling to herself.
The Boat Woman attended to Appachchi’s foot. She bent down, cleaned the little foot with alcohol—‘Spirit,’ she told the girls as their nostrils dilated—carefully extracted the thorn from it, and swabbed the spot with a white lotion. ‘Red hibiscus!’ she said, lifting Appachchi to the mirror, and then Worker Aunt, ‘Creamy hibiscus!’
‘Punditji,’ she told her munshi, who had appeared, ‘I need to work on my Telugu. Just to win the approval of these young ladies. And learn all about the lotus.’
‘You will, no doubt,’ he said, smiling. ‘Can anything in the world stop you?’ He turned to the little girls and acknowledged their greetings.
Excerpted with permission from Those Women of the Coromandel, Ranga Rao, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.