By Ritwika Roy
As a fan of both Jane Austen and Sayantani DasGupta’s fiction, reading Debating Darcy was inevitable, no matter the length of wait for Scholastic India to bring out an Indian edition. A YA contemporary re-imagining of arguably Austen’s most popular work, Pride & Prejudice, the characters are a diverse group of young adult multicultural Americans who belong to their local high school speech-and-debate circuit. Hence, Elizabeth Bennet is the Bengali-American Leela Bose, and Fitzwilliam Darcy is British-Pakistani Feroze Darcy, embodying the identities which have for long been marginalised in canonical and popular literature.
The author, Dr. Sayantani DasGupta.
Image used with permission.
Anyone who has ever seen DasGupta is bound to be struck by the resemblance she shares with her protagonist. And Leela, of course, is Bengali-American, just like DasGupta herself. DasGupta herself says that she did not realise that Leela was her till her own children pointed it out, and that the book was in some ways a manifestation of her childhood desire to insert herself in Pride & Prejudice, which she first read during her long summer vacations to Kolkata, India, while her cousins were still at school . But Leela is more than just personal wish-fulfillment. DasGupta dedicates this book to all brown girls who dreamt of being protagonists of their own stories, Elizabeth Bennet becoming Leela Bose. It could, of course, be argued if this reimagination truly makes them protagonists of their own stories or if they are inserting themselves in another’s. DasGupta herself raises this issue during early interactions between Leela and Firoze. Is the act of reimagining stories with originally white characters as one centered around people of colour the empowerment it proposes to be?
A large part of the dialogue in the novel follows Austen’s patterns; some of Austen’s more powerful lines are unaltered (I won’t say which, but we can hazard a guess!). But that does not mean that Debating Darcy is a slavish rewrite of Pride & Prejudice. The characters are all involved in performing arts, speech, debate, theatre – they have a wealth of reading to draw upon to frame their language, and they do. Dramatic? Perhaps. Occasionally archaic? Certainly. But, as a reader in India, it speaks to our own experience of learning English as a second language through canonical literature. And perhaps it does to DasGupta’s, and by extension Leela and Firoze’s too. As immigrant youth they’ve had to work twice as hard to establish themselves as speakers. Similar to Austen’s vocabulary, but not alike. Leela, Lidia, Tomi, Jay, Firoze, and Mary have at their disposal a vocabulary of activism and feminism that Austen’s never did. Or one she had to mask.
The novel often runs into the danger of being accused of “pushing the woke agenda” by the anti-woke brigade, but then so does anything that remotely challenges hegemonies. If they had the faculty to understand the subtlety of Austen’s anti-classism and feminism, they would accuse Austen of the same. In that, Debating Darcy is P&P’s spiritual successor, and in proudly using contemporary terminologies about toxic masculinity and sexism, it offers its inspiration a chance to free itself of its own social constraints. Lydia Bennet, an adolescent of 16, did not have the agency to fight for herself in the early 19th century and was condemned to an unhappy marriage, as seen in the epilogue to P&P, simply out of social strictures of female worth and circumstance. Lidia Rivera, a ninth-grader and presumably also 16, does and can fight back. She can expose sexism and abuse. She can be heard and demand justice. She can finally vindicate Lydia Bennet and free her from her eternal victimhood. So it is also for Georgiana Darcy, here Jaleela Darcy.
Beyond the lack of a vocabulary for anti-classist and feminist activism, Austen’s world lacked a vocabulary for adolescence too, specifically girlhood. In reading P&P, we tend to forget that Lizzie was just 20, and Lydia only 16. Georgiana was even younger when Wickham preyed on her. She was only 15. We tend to forget just how young, vulnerable and helpless these girls were, confronted by men in their late 20s. In today’s terms, Wickham absolutely groomed Georgiana and then Lydia, taking advantage of their innocence. But now, armed as they are with social media and the recognition that they are minors and not held to the standards of their 19th century counter-parts, they can fight back without having to depend on honorable gentlemen or parents, but also knowing at the same time that the adults in the picture have their backs.
DasGupta, when previously talking about her middle-grade fantasy series The Kingdom Beyond, has spoken about “radical imagination”. In her own words, the questions she frames around this idea are:
“Who is allowed to envision themselves into the future? Who is allowed not just to survive, but to thrive? What does a future world welcoming of diverse experiences and identities look like? For it is through our stories that the future is born in the imaginations of our young readers.” 
DasGupta draws greatly on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” and Debating Darcy is certainly all of these. To return to my original question about the nature and end result of this reimagining, where white characters are reimagined as POC, in light of the questions DasGupta herself asks in her theorising of “radical imagination”, it’s not a reimagining. It’s a recognition that racial, sexual, class prejudice exists everywhere, irrespective of time and place, and interpersonal dynamics, while unique to couples are not so unique as to be the only one of their kind in all of history. DasGupta’s cleverness lies in how adroitly she has modernised and reframed the original familial relationships and translated the specific events. Hence the Bennet family become the Longbourn forensics team instead, and the visit to Pemberley in the original becomes a college viewing instead. But the tension that exists between Leela and Firoze? That is not the monopoly of Lizzie and Darcy. The attraction that is nearly destroyed between Bingley and Jane because Jane might have felt too little for him, by Darcy’s judgement? There are greater anxieties here than of stoicism and class. What if Bingley’s family is homophobic and unaccepting of Jay?
DasGupta takes Austen’s white, heteronormative world and diversifies it, enriching it and giving it the scope to be its feminist best. But more than that, she takes a beloved story with fierce fans (just take a look at the Jane Austen Fan Club, they’re incredible!), and tells her readers who dreamt from the outside of being at a Regency ball that they are already in one; in their very own, for these situations and feelings are not the monopoly of a certain group of people. It’s not a reimagining of a tale, it’s a recognition that people from other groups also have the same tales and they deserve to be heard, to be in the spotlight.
Leela is you and me, giddy about Durga Puja and watching Uttam-Suchitra comedy movies from the 50s with parents. Mary is you and me, nervous and anxious about proving themselves to their parents and peers. Firoze is you and me, dealing with grief and trying to stoically shoulder family responsibilities. Jay is you and me, wondering if the world will be as accepting of him as his friends are. Lidia is you and me, juggling teenage attraction and righteous anger at the misogynistic and sexist world she lives in. They are our stories with its shared struggle of breaking out of marginality. DasGupta’s book is set within the South Asian diaspora, but they are no less South Asian than those of us in South Asia. The ongoing struggle to decolonise our own imaginations heavily governed by Western canonical fiction such as Austen, that South Asian/Indian children read growing up, which I read as an an act of cultural and psychological colonialism within the larger imperialist project is a shared experience, in particular while negotiating with the nostalgia that exists around literature of our childhoods. In her fantasy fiction, DasGupta reimagines the struggles of her ancestors who fought against the British for freedom; in her YA Fiction, she follows that traditions of postcolonial children’s and YA literature in India which drew inspiration from the stories and genre conventions of British and American children’s fiction to reimagine them in India with Indian characters. DasGupta’s immediate setting in Debating Darcy is different, but the heart is the same. At once the Empire writing back, and the hitherto marginalised asserting their identities and their voices.
At the end, Debating Darcy is undoubtedly an Austen adaptation, as the iconic teen movie Clueless is. But in breaking the bubble Austen drew her England within, it is radical in its declaration that there are thriving lives beyond it.
DasGupta, Sayantani. “My Characters Don’t Wear Shoes in the House”. The Horn Book Magazine. Updated March 5, 2019. https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=my-characters-dont-wear-shoes-in-the-house
——. “Radical Imagination Children’s Literature Changes the World”. TEDxRutgersPrep, June 5 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC1qpIssxpE
——. “YA Writing Workshop – Pre-recorded Session with Sayantani DasGupta”. In Conversation with Ritwika Roy. The Association for Children’s Literature in South Asia, 4 December 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qznUqa1WFD8
 DasGupta, “YA Writing Workshop”, 29:40 – 36:02.
 DasGupta, “My Characters”, n.p.
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About the Author:
Ritwika Roy is one of the founders of ACLiSA.
She is currently a Senior Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, India. She has an MPhil in Children’s Literature from Jadavpur University and her PhD is on Contemporary Indian English Children’s Fiction. She has presented internationally and published on children’s literature in South Asia.