Not to forget cushion covers. A nephew in law (who is one no longer), is doted upon by his ex-wife’s aunts. This situation puts his ex Sreya ~ Anjana Basu’s protagonist in this delightful novel, Conspiracy of Aunts ~ in a quandary.

The setting is Calcutta that is very different from the Kolkata one knows today.

There is neither bling nor traffic but aunts who are exquisitely clad in billowing chiffons and smooth silks, the caviar is Beluga and the tea sets are transparent.

Into this genteel world comes the dashing gentleman smuggler Javed and Bubbles Mashi (Aunt) is entranced! Sreya is torn by conflicting emotions and at the mercy of machinating aunts.

There are grandmas also, matrons with finesse and a yen for meddling. And a big, fat, traditional Bengali wedding designed to make one nostalgic. For those expecting realism, beware. Conspiracy of Aunts is an exciting combination of romance, Victorian elegance and vignettes from the lives of the bhadraloks (gentry) of Calcutta. You need to judge the book by its (well designed) cover and dive right in to enjoy the fast-paced events thereafter.

There is international intrigue, when Bubbles Mashi causes a Russian crisis. There are uncles who are vaguely affectionate despite being forced to welcome troublesome lady guests in London. There is a storm in a teacup about gaudy cushion covers with “florid magenta roses”. I was reminded of a similar incident involving two of my aunts ~ napkin rings being the contentious gifts in question.

The main character is the feisty Bubbles Mashi, not the expected heroine Sreya, with her unique turns of phrase ~ “smuggler as houseguest’, she greets Javed in London. She rubbishes a popular film but gushes about the usher who upgraded her to box seats because she looked, as she put it “like a person of great taste and refinement”.

These utterances also reveal another aspect of Bubbles Mashi ~ she believes that the world belongs to her. Whether chivvying the hapless Bunny in London or wondering whether teaching a Russian immigration officer to rumba would help her case, she does ‘manage’ situations of all kinds. There is a wealth of visual detail in the language. The author uses words to paint visuals that linger in the reader’s mind ~ the marble staircase with broken treads, angels holding lamps at the balustrades, a chandelier, endless corridors at the end of which sits Sugarplum Fairy on a throne. Of course, it’s not all fantasy; you’ll have to read the book to find out who she is and where we come across her.

One of my favourite depictions (being Calcutta born) is one of Sreya getting drenched on her way to work. There are not many women who would brave flooded streets to adhere to their morning walk routine! Anjana has drawn upon the world of advertising she knows so well. The description, for instance, of ‘Fax’s’ retribution ~ the ‘smert’ (read smart with an accent), who flashed “pictures of cleavage and five star comforts around the agency…” She describes the daily struggle of ad persons to find creative tag-lines while dealing with personal lives. The novel is a smorgasbord of experiences that leave one slightly dizzy but definitely wanting to read on.

The reader may think that these characters are familiar for two reasons ~ remnants of the Raj, living in splendour in large ~ often decaying bungalows are common in Bengal; an eclectic mix of conventional and modern lifestyles and ideas. So o ne might say “that’s my aunt who…” And then do a double-take observing, “no…Too outré”. The other reason is Anjana’s first book Curses in Ivory where one is introduced to some of the dramatis personae. Conspiracy of Aunts takes the characters and spins its own frothy tale.

At the end of it does the ex stay ex? You’ll have to read this delightful book to find out.

The reviewer is Programme Consultant Indian Child Protection Medical Providers Network International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children.