Parallel narratives of an Indian grandmother during Partition and her granddaughter in modern day Singapore make for a satisfying debut.
Reading Nimita’s Place feels a little like moving in to a new house – to an ethnically Chinese person reading this, the parallel narratives seen through the eyes of both protagonists present worlds that are rapidly changing, initially unfamiliar, yet places that Akshita eases us into to the point we want to call it home. Nimita’s Place, in short, follows the lives of Nimita Khosla and her granddaughter Nimita Sachdev, the former living in 1940s India on the brink of Partition, and the latter, a microbiologist having fled an arranged marriage to start life anew in modern day Singapore.
While at times the two feel better off as separate novellas, one sees Khosla’s narrative as almost an imagined source of strength for Sachdev in the present, who spiritually inherits her grandmother’s strength and verve. Both Nimitas go through their own individual challenges, with Khosla grudgingly accepting her arranged marriage while giving up an education, and Sachdev’s life in Singapore fraught with visiting family and being allowed to stay on. While there isn’t a clear overarching plot, Akshita’s prose is easy to read and creates renewed sense of wonder for both Singapore and the India of the past, one that rapidly changes as Partition fast approaches and affects the lives of everyone within India.
Choosing to write Nimita Khosla from the third person point of view offers up a vastly different reading experience compared to Nimita Sachdev, who is written from the first person point of view instead, offering up a far more intimate means of experiencing Singapore through a foreigner’s eyes and making the familiar unfamiliar. From her perspective in particular, Akshita peppers her prose with mouthwatering descriptions of various snacks and cuisines to be found around Singapore. Like a love letter to Singapore’s insatiable desire for food, Nimita Sachdev’s attention to detail and almost obsessive way she appreciates every dish (to the point she spends an exorbitant amount on the right cup for tea) is one of her most endearing character traits.
Sachdev’s friends and housemates are also vastly entertaining side characters to follow through; each person we meet along Nimita’s journey is someone we’ve likely encountered in our daily life, from the terrible boss the novel opens with, to a semifamous food blogger who asks both Sachdev and her other housemate to help out with his food photography at the annual Geylang Serai Bazaar. Occasionally, there are wicked moments of laugh out loud humour, such as how Sachdev initially does not realise the gravity of the ‘boring programme’ her housemate is watching on TV – it turns out to be a broadcast of founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.
What Nimita’s Place ultimately offers is a reflection and portrait of home, a means of understanding that home isn’t simply a means of being where the heart is, but to allow one’s self to undergo a transformation as the landscape around them changes irrevocably. Identity, in Nimita’s Place, while fiercely tied to one’s upbringing, becomes a matter of construction after a certain point, as both Khosla and Sachdev find the strength within them to handle their circumstances (with or without the help of a motley crew of peers), resulting in a satisfying debut novel that reminds readers that home is not simply where one is born or has chosen to settle – it is a place to call one’s own and to find comfort in everyday living, to find the strength, will and motivation to wake up each day.