Book review: A House of Butterflies: Story about a Women’s Hostel

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By Ranjit Kumar

A House of Butterflies: Story about a Women's Hostel is a novel written by journalist Nandini Singh, which has been recently published.

The story revolves around a group of young, single working women living in a hostel in Delhi. These ladies have reached the metropolis in pursuit of their dreams and face multi-pronged struggle: against their families, in their mostly male-dominated offices, the effort to keep themselves safe in the capital city as well as they face the huge task of survival inside the hostel, which has women from different religions, regions and rogues too.

The hostel is like a home away from home for these young females, who struggle in the metropolis in pursuit of happiness, independence and to find true love. Some want to fulfil their ambitions at any cost, while others who are conservative have religious goals like a conversion on their minds.

The book has a cast of girls whose lives become entwined during the four years of this narrative. Their stories are interlocked with the protagonist Barkha's and have the hostel's voice as the spine, which is the only male voice among women. The enchanting voice can be mischievous and meddling at times.

On her first night at the hostel, Barkha hears a magical voice and soon after, she is dragged out of her bed to a ragging room, where new residents are stripped naked by seniors for a particular purpose.

Among Barkha's friends is Pia, who resembles a Bollywood actress and who falls in love with three men of different age groups but manages her affairs so well that each one of these three men believes he is the only one in her life. Yet she is not sure who to choose when it comes to settling down. Aru, a budding astrologer is obsessed with her virginity and makes several compromises for the same. Rekhdeep, a Sikh resident hates anybody with long hair because of childhood trauma and pursues an NRI without a bun. Her hair phobia turns her life upside down until one with a bun rescues her. Tara Conti, a fan of Bollywood movies, arrives from Italy to find an Indian husband with features resembling three Bollywood heroes. Her mother of Indian descent dictates her life and she could never muster guts to defy her mother in Italy until she discovers freedom one day here in Delhi. While Zinny, a conservative Muslim lawyer is on a mission to introduce her male Muslim friends to hostel women in order to find someone gullible to convert. Also in her personal quest to find a high caste Muslim man for herself, she meets a Mango Man and inspires a number of new mango varieties. Rosy, a young Christian struggles to make ends meet and to preserve her identity, but she is compelled to sacrifice all, even the statue of her Mother Mary to save her father. Once a young Sadhvi (nun), who was donated to a religious sect as a child, reaches this colourful hostel for a short duration, clad in a white sari and with a bald head. Very soon in the company of beautiful women, she learns to explore her emotions, the sensations inside her body temple and discovers there is another union too between a man and a woman, which is not the same as the union of Atman and Paramatman.

As the novel weaves plots and subplots, a reader discovers a strong Persian connection too, which goes back to Gujarat, where roots of Persian culture exist since centuries. This book celebrates the Parsi community in the country even as the hostel is like a mini female India.

The religious, regional and societal differences that we witness in real Indian world are very much visible in the story. The different viewpoints emanating from Kashmir are reflected in the story and goes to the extent of one section of Kashmiri women calling for 'Independence'.

A House of Butterflies: Story about a Women's Hostel is an eye-opener. It reveals the world of young Indian women like never before exploring their personalities, identities, emotions, insecurities and deep fears. Set in Delhi, it reveals how the metropolis can be a dangerous place for single women and how their place of residence, their safe haven, the hostel is viewed by many men as a brothel.

The author, Nandini Singh's background as a journalist comes to the fore when we see satirical portions on India's corrupt politicians and political system as a whole. The book also comes out to be a satire on the society we are living in and the belief systems that we are blindly following.

Nandini Singh has herself lived in Delhi as a young journalist in two working women hostels and the novel is inspired from her personal experience. She has completed more than 20 years in journalism and most of these years she has lived in Germany and Britain working for prominent national and international media houses. She holds a Masterclass Diploma in Creative Writing awarded by the Britain's University of East Anglia and the Guardian.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)