During the mid-1970s, Nabaneeta Dev Sen wrote a trilogy of Bengali novellas for the Annual Puja Festival numbers of different magazines. Passing through the turbulence and the aftermath of the Naxalite movement that had swept over Bengal during that decade, all the three novellas, though able to be read individually as stand-alone texts, are now clubbed together as the Naxal trilogy in her literary oeuvre. They are Ami, Anupam (I, Anupam), first published in Sharadiya Anandabazar (1976), Probashe Doiber Boshey (In a Foreign Land, by Chance), first published in Sharadiya Krittibash (1977), and Phoenix, the volume under review, translated into English by Tutun Mukherjee, happens to be the third novella of that series. Though some of the characters in this novel are already known, it is not directly about the Naxalite movement, but about the socio-cultural change that was felt in Bengal, especially in matters related to women and their ideas of emancipation when they followed their western sisters as their role models. Thus, this novel is the story of the relationship between two very strong women of that time, a mother-daughter duo, Bipasha and Rohini, who go through several rebirths in the course of their lifetime.
From the very beginning of the story, Bipasha is depicted as not being a typical, emotional Indian mother. As a Professor of English and Creative Writing, the subject of her particular interest is postcolonial literature. Other than this, she is a poet. She tries her hand at writing a novel, experiments with it in different ways for some time, and calls it The Parrot Green Saree, but hadn’t completed it. She was not interested in housekeeping and regarded it as a waste of time. She has gone through three marriages and it is her fault that they failed. She just needs young lovers. Later she develops a relationship with a foreigner called George, who happens to be the father of her unwanted child. Since motherhood means bondage to her, the daughter Rohini grows up in England with her father. She is now a filmmaker and for her, Ma does not mean comfort, it means bitter arguments and conflict. Bipasha had never wanted to be a mother, to her all children were boring and selfish. She had hoped that as Rohini grew older, mother and daughter would gradually get to know each other better and accept each other in the usual manner of the modern adult world. But though there may have been efforts from both sides, the bridge is not built.