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Review: Mistaken Identity by Nayantara Sahgal

May 9, 2011

Title: Mistaken Identity
Author: Sahgal, Nayantara
Length: 196 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Harper Collins and The India Today Group / 1988
Source: Airport bookshop in Delhi.
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: It sounded interesting and I wanted to pick up some books by Indian authors after my visit there.
Date Read: 08/04/11

On a train journey home to north India after long months of travel abroad, the playboy Bhushan Singh, son of the Raja of Vijaygarh, is arrested and thrown into jail. Charged with treason, Bhushan finds himself in a filthy prison cell surrounded by elderly trade unionists as innocent of any political crime as himself. But the year is 1929, the country is town by strikes, and a jittery government sees sedition under every stone.

Set mainly in the prison cell in India, Bhushan takes the reader and his cell-mates back to the home of his youth, abroad to America, and on searches for his lost love through the tales he tells to pass the time waiting for the trial. In the background the struggle is on and there are hunger strikes, Gandhi’s Salt Marches, mass arrests, and more. The reader gets a lot of general information about the country during that time and how ordinary citizens could be treated, and the class differences that existed.

At the start of the novel Bhushan is a well-off young man who seems quite sure of his rights, though not of his place in the world, and who wants simply to be left alone and is sure that he will be. As the story progresses he slowly learns how similar he is to his cell-mates, regardless of social class and background. It was interesting to read about him slowly becoming one of them and accepting their common humanity in the fight for justice rather than holding himself apart.

Also interesting through the book was the descriptions of the justice system and the way in which it worked. It was crazy to see the paranoia and think that it actually happened and still does happen like that in many places. People picked up on some suspicion or another and thrown in jail, with little recourse to true justice.

Because Bhushan is such a reticent and unambitious character, though, it was hard to ever truly connect with him. He was just drifting along and seemed to have no goals or ambitions. Plus his infatuation with a girl from so many years ago was rather disturbing. One wonders if his upbringing caused him to have such a lack of focus or if there was something else behind it.

I didn’t love the book and won’t be rushing out to find more from this author but it was a good way to spend a few hours. Interesting book but not great. Recommended to anyone who likes historical fiction from the early independence movements or who is looking for more Indian or South Asian fiction.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 9:01 am

    I really do enjoy Indian fiction, and this seems like something that is a little off the beaten path. Though it wasn’t a favorite for you, it does sound kind of interesting to me, and like something that I might like to check out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us!

    • May 11, 2011 11:58 am

      If you do check it out I hope that you both enjoy it and share your thoughts with us zibilee :)

  2. May 9, 2011 12:28 pm

    I don’t think I would go in for this book although I enjoy Indian books. Thanks.

  3. May 9, 2011 1:05 pm

    I am interested in the angle of the write. I have a poem that projects the thought of a person in prison. Being in such an enclosed space has a way of exerting its own pressures.

  4. May 9, 2011 4:22 pm

    Ah, the airport/ train station bookshop buy, I know it well :) I don’t think I’ll read this one soon, but the premise sounds interesting enough.

    • May 11, 2011 11:59 am

      Airport and train bookshops are just way too dangerous aren’t they Bina?!

  5. May 9, 2011 5:32 pm

    I think this is one that sounds good by the blurb but maybe isn;t so sparkling when read ,I m reading a slightly old indian book at mo from seventies ,all the best stu

    • May 11, 2011 12:00 pm

      Sounds interesting Stu I’ll be watching for your thoughts. And I think others may enjoy this more, it just wasn’t for me.

  6. May 13, 2011 12:05 pm

    She’s very accomplished, but I never really warmed to her style.
    Btw, you may know this already, but NS is Indira Gandhi’s cousin. Her mom, Vijaylaskmi Pandit, was the first woman president of the UN. Fascinating family history/skeletons.

    • May 18, 2011 5:16 pm

      Yes I’m not a fan of the style really either Niranjana. What fascinating family history too! Definitely an accomplished family.

  7. May 14, 2011 12:40 am

    I also read the author’s ‘Rich Like Us’, which looked promising but eventually left me quite disappointed.

    • May 18, 2011 5:17 pm

      Eh I think I will hold off on trying more by the author in that case Reema Sahay – thanks!

  8. Dr. C. Anna Latha Devi permalink
    August 6, 2013 12:03 pm

    Mistaken Identity exposes the victimization of women in the Indian social set up. Ranee, the mother of the narrator Bhushan is victimised as a child bride but she shatters that curtailed her freedom and individuality and chooses to live with her communist Muslim lover, Yusuf.
    In a male dominated society there are differnt yardsticks for men and women. Men’s moral lapses are overlooked but women are not spared. Nayantara Sahgal’s women creations have fire in them to break barriers and lead a life of their own.


  1. Review: Mistaken Identity by Nayantara Sahgal « Amy Reads | Follow The Swarm

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