Category Archives: short story

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

unaccustomedearthAn alternative title to Unaccustomed Earth could very well be-“The distraught lives of Bengali Americans”. It is no secret that Lahiri writes about Bengali Americans, their travails and search for identity. It was the prevalent theme in the much vaunted “Interpreter of Maladies.” It was the same theme expanded into a novel in “The Namesake.” In “Unaccustomed Earth”, she continues down the beaten track.

 

Somerset Maugham’s characters were mostly English. In the preface to “The Razor’s Edge”, he was somewhat hesitant, having chosen to write about Americans:

 “I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. … I do not pretend that [the characters] are American as Americans see themselves; they are American seen through an English eye.”

 

Rohinton Mistry’s characters are middle class Parsis in Bombay. Thus it is only natural that Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis. But it doesn’t end there. Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis in New England. More specifically, Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis who grew up in the Boston area, often tied to academics, references to MIT, Harvard, Boston not infrequent. Also, there are two kinds of characters in Lahiri’s works – isolated, second generation children of immigrants torn between the past and the present, and disenchanted, first generation parents out of place in a society they had chosen but are unable to reconcile with. Wait, there’s a third kind – quiet, judicious Americans observant of their lives. And in “Unaccustomed Earth”, she digs deeper into this pattern, at the risk of being repetitive to the extent of regurgitation.

 

This is not to ridicule her writing. Her prose is meticulous, uniform, chiseled to perfection. She is particularly gifted in turning out melancholy stories that are poignant without being sentimental. To me however, most of the stories in this collection lost their resonance, simply for the fact of having read all her earlier works. The quality of her writing is not nearly enough to lift the book beyond the monotony of repetitive themes. Yet two stories stand out, signaling what Lahiri, as a serious, thoughtful artist, is capable of.

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth is a two part book, the first, larger portion devoted to five different stories in the same flavor, of which the opening story is truly extraordinary. Part two, Hema and Kaushik, is a novella, which, if surmised as a sign of things to come in the future, bears the promise of newness.

 

The title story is based in Seattle. Being a Pacific Northwest resident myself, scant references to its landmarks were gratifying. That of course in not the source of the story’s ingenuity. What Lahiri captures beautifully is the landscape of three very different generations – father, daughter, and grandson. We find an estranged, septuagenarian father pulled by the novelty of a relationship with another woman after the passing away of his wife, and drawn to sharing the joys of his only grandson at the same time. The pain of seeing children drifting away is powerfully expressed in a father’s rumination.

“He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamored of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things.”

 

The story does not ponder upon life and death but merely touches them in passing. Yet Ruma’s awe in her son, and the deep loss she feels in the absence of her mother, manage to evoke something profound.

 

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times-simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now-that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.”

 

It is portals such as these that elevate the story above its predictable, cloistered theme. Lahiri’s unencumbered prose touches a reader in the recognition of the universal, in way that is simple and powerful.

 

 

 

“Hema and Kaushik”, as the title suggests, is a love story, but one quite unconventional. It begins in the manner of many of her narratives-Hema’s first person reminiscence of her childhood, when Kaushik and his parents put up in their home upon their return from India. There’s a notable difference, in the inclusion of the second person, addressed to Kaushik. A trend breaker-I cannot recall her having used it earlier. But there’s more.

Chapter two of the three section novella shows a totally different point of view-with the adolescent Kaushik now in the first person, as we discover the upheavals in his life in progression. The concluding segment then switches to third person universal, where the principals in their adulthood, having grown up to be very different individuals yet similar in never having found the love of their lives, temporarily converge before the final, heartbreaking end. The final epilogue, barely a page, returns to Hema again, her realization of a permanent loss. The shadow of Kaushik in her life is obliterated by fate, as she herself steps into the mundane, by choice.

 

Here is a writer breaking out of the mould, with the freshness of an experimentation that is both controlled and assured. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of change-at least in narrative style if not themes, for it may lead to other things. It is about time.

The Leopard by Ruskin Bond

I am presently perusing a collection of short stories titled “Best Indian Short Stories – Volume I, selected (not edited?) by Khushwant Singh. Many of the stories are translations. So it is not necessarily a collection of best Indian stories written in English, but claiming to encompass the entire literary gamut of the subcontinent. This is a difficult task, and the superlative title is one certainly destined to remain incomplete or essentially unfulfilled in scope. For there are gems hidden in every language, for instance Bangla, of West Bengal, which has produced brilliant poets and writers and continue to do so, is not represented at all in any of the stories in Volume I, though there are several stories based in Calcutta (oops, Kolkata now). But such debates are perhaps unavoidable for any such collection aiming to represent the best of breed of anything. What is best is also transitory and quintessentially subjective, thus the futility of any such claims.

Putting behind such argumentative propensities, some of the stories thus far have been quite engrossing, a motley mix of social landscapes, communal tensions, humor, introspection and adventure, perhaps more.

I have always liked reading Ruskin Bond, his quiet, personal narrative of reflective characters far away from any sort of limelight, and there are two of his stories here. One of them, “The Leopard”, is a shorter version of what I had read earlier, in a collection titled “The Night Train at Deoli and Other Stories”, published by Penguin in 1988. This one is much shorter, and appears to end suddenly, though I must admit that the thematic essence, that of human intervention of nature, is not really lost. I wonder if it was Mr. Bond who revised his story, or Mr. Singh (and hopefully with the writers’ consent). I would be grateful to anyone who could could shed some light on the matter, the motive behind the revision and the choice of the latter in this collection. And wouldn’t it be wonderful, if Mr. Bond or Mr. Singh would chance upon my humble piece here and express their ideas? If such a wish were to come true, and Mr. Bond or Mr. Singh or both happen to read this at some point in the future since its writing, I would still be bold enough to make the statement that revisions, and some would argue strongly against it, do not always end up producing a better story. Was the newer intended to replace the former, or simply to coexist? That is my question.

My case to the point: The grandiose Biblical quote that concludes the butchered version somehow doesn’t resonate as well as the simple D.H. Lawrence quote in the former: “There was room in the world for the mountain lion and me.”

A Beneficiary by Nadine Gordimer

Charlotte, an attractive twenty something woman, is confronted by a secret upon her mother’s death.  In unraveling what is and what is not, the mystery surrounding her own origin, her doubts are resolved in the clarity of a father’s love.

            Gordimer’s style is succinct and incisive, frequently interrogative in this piece, probing inwards for answers. She underplays Charlotte’s emotional turmoil, but the angst is not undermined.

 
It is an irony that I should begin reading Nadine Gordimer’s works with the last published story. Nonetheless, it is a satisfying one, successful in having me want to read more of her earlier works. Titled “A Beneficiary”, this one came out in a May 2007 New Yorker issue. It is also available online:

http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2007/05/21/070521fi_fiction_gordimer

East West by Salman Rushdie

eastwest East West is a short story collection. The nine tales are grouped in three, by the flavour of their origins, the third being the mixed one of book’s title. That also happened to be the one I liked the most, with “The Courter” beating the rest by far.

This was a second read of “The Courter”, after Storywallah and undoubtedly more enjoyable. There’s humour, love and sadness mixed in the story, but none (not at least in a high dose) of the Rushdiesque satire. Its also easily the most personal of the stories, with Rushdie drawing seemingly from his own experience as an immigrant, growing up in London.

Humour opens the story, with Certainly-Mary and her queer English and is sprinkled throughout. The narrator’s regard for Certainly-Mary, the family ayah who accompanies them to England, is poignant, as is the chess playing, Flintstone watching, tea drinking romance between Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up Mecir, the tenement porter mangled befittingly to “courter” by the ayah’s eccentric accent.

The narrator reminisces growing up in the sixties with his sisters, in popular songs, school and teenage infatuation with the opposite sex. His veneration for Certainly-Mary is not merely because “she did as much as their mother to raise the kids”, but also since Mary’s presence brought sanity to a dysfunctional family. When Mary is unwell after Mecir is stabbed in a heroic attempt to rescue the ladies from local goons, the family comes together to cheer her up, or at least “play acts” to raise her spirits.

 

Mecir is a chess grandmaster, before a stroke paralysed his career. He teaches Mary the game, and it draws them closer.

“Chess had become their private language”

The game of chess is also used metaphorically, when the narrator recalls an account of a classic game between Mecir and an opponent in a 1950 championship. Mecir the master strategist of the past is driven to helplessness in the real life threats he has to face in fending off vindictive troublemakers.

The narrator’s family also faces racial abuse, with the goons threatening mother and ayah, assuming them to be linked to another Indian they were looking for:

“Fucking wogs…You fucking come over here, you don’t fucking know how to fucking behave…”

 

There’s a chord of nostalgia binding the piece, ending in a similar note, with the dispersal of Mary and Mecir from the narrator’s life.

 

The book is worth buying just for this story alone. The others aren’t lacklustre either, and I was hoping to span some of those in this post. But it is night and tomorrow is Monday. So I can see a part II coming, if I’m up to it later.

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part III

Continued from Part II:

Two very compelling tales involve Jehangir, the “Bulsara Bookworm”. In “The Collectors”, he’s the boy whom Dr. Mody takes a fancy to. Shunned by other children of the Baag for his quiet, introvert nature, he finds solace in philatelic sessions with Dr. Mody before his ultimate disillusion on a false accusal and Dr. Mody’s untimely death. I had written about this piece in the review for “Storywallah”, which chose “The Collectors” because it is the most isolated story from “Swimming Lessons…”, not only because of minimal cross reference to other characters, but also since it introduces Jehangir and the infamous son of Dr. Mody, Pesi Padmaroo, of whom we hear time and again. Earlier, I had neglected to comment on an important aspect: a reference to the emergency during Indira Gandhi’s tenure at the helm. There’s a small yet significant incident, when Patla and Jhaaria Babu, the street vendors outside Jehangir’s school, are rounded up and thrown out of the city, as a consequence of the drastic measures of garibi hatao drive to sweep out the pavement dwellers of the city. Both Mistry and Rushdie expose the horrors of the emergency through the plight of the defenseless – Rushdie is virulent in “Midnight’s Children”, but Mistry’s elaborate theme under the emergency raj, in “A Fine Balance”, extracts its tragedy more poignantly.

Jehangir grows up, a not too confident college goer, and falls in love. He also marvels at the “Exercisers”, whose rippling muscles he desires to touch, as if to compensate for the feebleness of his own existence. He is overpowered by his daunting mother casting a jealous shadow, preening him away from his love. Yet he is not short of compassion for his mother, when he explains to the girl who loves him, his reasons for returning home at the cost of spoiling an evening – “…I’m doing it because I want to, because her life has been troubled enough, because I don’t want to add more misery to it.”

There is tenderness in the way Jehangir chooses to become the sacrificial lamb.

 

 

Mistry is a wonderful storyteller, and “Swimming Lessons…” keeps one engrossed. He slowly unfolds the joys and miseries of the ordinary residents of Firozsha Baag in an extraordinary way. We laugh at the obnoxious Rustomji, commiserate with Jehangir and share Kersi’s nostalgia, building up the jigsaw with pieces of their lives. If there’s one drawback, it’s the thematic similarity conveyed by a sense of loss in almost all the episodes (Almost, because “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag” and “Squatters” are in a lighter vein). Yet, this is not really a drawback, since it does not take away the variety in the stories themselves.

 

Concluded

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part II

Continued from Part I

Through two other stories, Kersi tells us more of his life. In “Of White Hairs and Cricket”, we see a silent, growing rift between him and his father. Every Sunday, Kersi’s father asks him to remove white hairs from his head using a pair of tweezers, a task that Kersi detests. He recollects earlier days, when Sunday mornings meant his father taking the Baag children to play cricket in the Marine Drive maidaan. Kersi remembers how his father had “taught him to be tough”, how once he had cheered Kersi’s valiant fielding on stopping a ball from reaching the boundary with his bare shin, how he — rummaging among classifieds — dreamed of getting a new job, how Kersi had wanted to give him a hug when his father had suggested him to go to America, saying “Somehow we’ll get the money to send you. I’ll find a way.” Disillusioned, Kersi walks out on his father, shunning hair-plucking duties. Later, overcome by guilt on seeing his friend’s (Viraf) discomposed father, a remorseful Kersi notices for the first time his father’s vulnerability, how he looked “tired, shoulders drooping and with a gait lacking confidence”. The illness of Viraf’s father opens his eyes. Yet he is unable to express his love and gratefulness to his father. This is the first of the three stories narrated by Kersi.

In the second, the title “Lend Me Your Light” inspired by a Tagore poem, Kersi is a little older, having freshly immigrated to Canada. It’s a story of degeneration of childhood friendship between Jamshed and his own brother, Percy. Jamshed, from a wealthy family, is in a socially different class than the brothers. He immigrates to the States around the same time as Kersi goes to Canada. The friendship between Jamshed and Percy, built in childhood on the shallow foundation of records and toys, cracks under the differentiating weights of their social outlooks on growing up. Jamshed turns into a crass bourgeois, venomously critical of India in a showy, superficial way. Kersi wonders why this is so, why Jamshed refuses to enjoy his visits to Bombay although his situation in life had changed. Percy grows up to be a social worker, devoting himself to community work in a small village. He is no longer keen to meet Jamshed, whose presence irritates and embarrasses him. Kersi, to whom Jamshed was merely a childhood acquaintance, is himself thrown off by a scathing letter from Jamshed criticizing Bombay after his visit. Later, during his own visit to Bombay, Kersi is unhappy to discover the truth about Bombay, that it indeed was “dirtier than ever”, just as Jamshed had mentioned. He had become unused to it. He compares it to a soldier’s experience in the trenches after being away from the lines for a while. But he does not understand Jamshed’s disdainful attitude. Eventually, the brothers sever all ties with Jamshed, unable to bear his “soul sapping” presence in their lives.

Part III

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part I

“Swimming Lessons…” is a collection of eleven short stories by the accomplished Rohinton Mistry. Being a Parsi himself, it comes as no surprise that he should choose a Parsi residential society as the setting. Although they can be read individually, the stories are interconnected through recurring characters and incidents – like Pesi padmaroo and his antics and Nariman Hansotia with his trips to the Cawasji Framji Memorial Library. Unlike the old, crubmling blocks of Firozsha Baag, the lives of its residents – adults and children, men and women, owners and servants – are rich and interesting.

Rustomji of Block A, a bitter old lawyer blessed with a thoughtful, caring wife much younger than himself, is called Rustomji the Curmudgeon – a name given by his fellow resident Nariman Hansotia. The children of the Baag, always in the shadow of his squabbles, lap it up. We see a slice of his life on the “Auspicious Occasion” of Behram Roje. The rather comical nature of the story, starting out with Rustomji trying to free himself of constipation and constantly being delayed in his visit to the fire temple that he finally has to abandon due to a ghati (a derogatory term, used by Rustomji, for people of the Western Ghats migrated to Bombay) spitting tobacco juice from the bus on his dugli, is punctured in the end with the murder of a priest. As he laments on the state of the world, we realize that there’s a tender, pensive side to the “tough exterior” of Rustomji that his wife adores.

“One Sunday”, Francis the homeless errand boy for many Baag residents turns into a thief. Driven to desperation by his hunger and poverty, he sneaks into Najamai’s flat in her absence – Najamai the widow gossip monger of the colony whose daughters study abroad and who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in Block C, exchanging favours from her neighbours in letting them use it. But is Francis really a thief? We wonder through Kersi, the young Boyce boy who lives downstairs and volunteers to catch the perpetrator, but feels guilty of turning in the hapless Francis. We have a hunch that there’s more to Kersi than merely smashing rats with his cricket bat. This turns out to be true when Kersi reemerges as the narrator of three more episodes from his own life and times.

Kersi is the voice of Mistry himself. This is evident in the last story from which the book derives its title. Here, Kersi, having immigrated to Canada, tells us of his experiences through various anecdotes – the tale tattling Portuguese woman(reminding him of Najamai), Berthe, their big Yugoslavian building superintendent with her son and husband, the suntanning ladies, racist slurs(“Paki, Paki, smells of curry”) and straying pubic hair at the swimming lessons. These are interspersed with third person glimpses of his parents in India. Through his letters they come to know of his life in Toronto. They are delighted on his becoming a writer and take turns reading his book sent by post, despite his father’s regrets that there were other more worthwhile subjects on Parsis than the weird lives of the Firozsha Baag residents that he could have chosen to write about. This is a nostalgic piece, where Mistry reflects on his own life.

Part II