Reviewed by Jeanne
When Janet Laird’s missionary husband died, she wanted to stay in India, the land she loved. She made a living by teaching the children of an Indian royal, but that job was coming to an end as the children grew older. Then there was a stroke of luck: Jana inherited a house from her grandfather, a rather decrepit dwelling in a small hill town called Hamara Nagar, a place populated by a variety of folk who live in relative harmony despite their different backgrounds and religions. She and Mary, her devoted housekeeper, move in and are soon joined by other “helpers,” including Tilku, a street child who runs errands for the household, an elderly Gurkha who acts as a gate keeper and plays bagpipes, and a sweeper. Jana also has a number of friends among the villagers, from a newspaper reporter and his wife, a shopkeeper, and a philosophical tailor.
The third book in the Jana Bibi series finds the household in a tizzy, awaiting the arrival of Janet’s son and his fiancée. This means the old Jolly House has to be spruced up, and given its state of disrepair, that’s a lot of sprucing. Jana is determined there will be hot water and reliable electricity, not to mention all the other furnishings. Devoted housekeeper Mary is thrilled at the idea that Jack baba is returning, and resolves to fix all his favorite dishes. Lal is busy composing tunes on his bagpipes in honor of the occasion. The expenses are mounting, and Jana is going to have to make some difficult decisions about the future. She also can’t help but worry that her future daughter in law might not be charmed by life in Hamara Nagar—or worse yet, be appalled by a mother-in-law who tells fortunes with the help of a parrot.
I became fascinated by books set in foreign lands when I was still in grade school. In high school, I worked my way through all the Pearl S. Buck books the library had. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this is roughly the same time period that Betsy Woodman was growing up in India and seeing the real county with youthful, energetic eyes. The result is a warm portrait of a place populated by folks I would love to know. While the books are sweet, they aren’t saccharine; there are problems, but people are willing to try to deal with them. I think that’s one of the things I love about the books: the sense of hope that, no matter the differences, people can find a reasonable way to work things out. Humor, nostalgia, endearingly eccentric characters, and an exotic location make these books a treat!
While you don’t have to read the series strictly in order, you would know more about the characters and situations if you started with the first book, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes.