Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman

Welcome to Hamara Nagar. A town steeped in history and a magical place where people still go out of their way to help their neighbors. A hill-station where a sense of community is still alive and kicking amongst the locals who welcome visitors with open arms.

Do places like this exist? They probably did, once upon a time, before the blatant commercialization that has led to overcrowding of our much-beloved hill stations.

Nevertheless, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes takes us back to a different time and what seems like a different place, one that we can now only dream about.

Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes is a walk down memory lane. For the main character, Janet (Jana) Laird, it is about relishing her childhood by taking over her grandfather’s colonial home, The Jolly Grant House, in the fictional hilly town of Hamara Nagar.

For the reader, the book is a distant reminder of simpler times, after Independence, in the 1960s, when the notion of ‘love thy neighbor’ still prevailed and people had a certain innocence about them.

Hamara Nagar is a picture postcard hill-station filled with small shops selling everyday essentials, boarding schools, and a quirky collection of local characters that add a distinct flavor to the story.

Tilku, a runner boy hired by Jana, is an enthusiastic young fellow ready for any task given to him. Lal Bahadur Pun, the local Gurkha bagpiper player, plays an instrumental role in getting the Jolly Grant House vacated from its previous mischievous inhabitants, the monkeys. Ramachandran, the owner of Treasure Emporium, seems to be unaware of the treasures he houses. Firoze and his nephews, who run Royal Tailors, the Why Not? Tea Shop, Abinath’s Apothecary, all have a charming quality about them. To add a sense of drama, we have Bandhu, the corrupt inspector, with his unique ways of fining people.

The real tension in the story, though, emerges shortly after Jana joins this community. The threat of a dam being built nearby brings all the locals together in a desperate attempt to put their town on the world map. As part of this master plan, Jana takes over the role of the local fortune-teller. In doing so, she becomes the central figure of the entire project, along with her two trusted companions. There is the talking parakeet Mr. Ganguly, who eventually becomes an avatar of the Indian God Shiva with his uncanny ability to help people and tell their fortunes. And Mary, Jana’s maid, bringing a South Indian touch to the happenings in the town.

Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortune is a wonderful read not only because it takes us back to the time when hill stations were less commercial and people more caring, but also because Betsy Woodman gives each and every character a unique storyline.

Moreover, she manages to include a variety of human emotions through these personalities. While the different emotions affect different residents of Hamara Nagar, the running theme of the book focuses on the idea of ‘Home is where the heart is.”

For the locals, Hamara Nagar is a place where they have grown or made a life and have settled in the warmth of this colder region. For Jana, it is a constant dilemma; to decide whether to be with her only son in Scotland or stay in India, where she was born and have lived most of her life, and where she really does feel at home.

Jana Bibi’s Excellent fortunes is a relaxed and calming read. The story kept me entertained throughout. However, the ending does feel a tad rushed and clichéd with almost a desperate need to bring about a closure to all the loose ends. The book is the first in a series, and I do look forward to reading more about this merry band of characters soon.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

Book Name: Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes
Author: Betsy Woodman
Publisher: Penguin
Book Type: Paperback
Pages: 302

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