Sunday, December 30, 2007

A skilled debut that works at various levels

The diaspora’s experience has been the subject of many recent Indian novels, most notably, the Pulitzer-winning The Interpreter of Maladies, and, to a lesser degree (because it dealt with other themes too), The Inheritance of Loss. Both these works have been beacons of light amid the otherwise unsavoury mass that stares the discerning reader at the bookstore. Now, Nalini Jones’s debut collection of short stories makes a skillful addition to this list.

The setting here is a close-knit Catholic family of Bombay: Essie and Frank Almeida and their three children, Marian, Simon and Jude. The stories flit from one member of the extended Almeida family to the next, and several characters appear in more than one story. Some seek lives in new lands, while others stay put. For everyone though, the angst of separation, both physical and metaphorical, is a bloodless gash that humbles the soul.

“In the Garden” focuses on Marian sneaking into the wardrobe to try the dress her mother has bought for her 10th birthday. Marian’s fear of ruining the family’s surprise is evoked masterfully. Indeed, something happens and the dress gets spoiled, and Marian’s guilt unravels with all the intensity that childhood bestows.

Almost all through the collection, incidents are revealed not in chronology, but at random, so that the reader comes across the fruits of the actions first. In “The Bold, The Beautiful”, a woman returns to India from the US to tend to her mother, Grace, who is to undergo a cataract surgery. Initially, we only learn that Colleen moved to the US many years ago and is now living with a roommate, Vanessa.

But all is not as it appears. Why does Colleen wince when she learns that Vanessa has sent Grace a “get well soon” greeting? Is she trying to hide something? Why has she never married? Is Vanessa more than a roommate — a lover? We don’t know for sure — yet. Then we are told that during a confession before she moved to the US, Colleen had confided in the pastor at the local church, “I am hurting my mother. I’m hurting her badly.” On being probed, she revealed, inscrutably, “I am leaving,” to which the pastor replied, simply, “That’s not a sin, my child.”

It is the unspeakable sins that hover above these stories. In the title story, an old man, Roddy, starts to see his father who has been dead for many years. Jones converts this haunting into a personal inquiry on mortality, as Roddy reflects upon the tenuous relationship he shares with his son Stephen, who is settled in the US.

“Half the story” takes us to Marian’s life in the US, where she marries a white man and settles down to happy, if dull, matrimony. During that lonely first year, she is befriended by the lively Vee, who is herself negotiating the aftermath of a divorce. Vee’s observations (“When it comes to men, never settle”) are typical Jones expressions: daring yet apt. The story works at several levels, including a not wholly connected strand of Nicole, Marian’s daughter. But like elsewhere, there is a curious intermingling of time and space to produce a wholesome effect.

Jones is especially adept at capturing the trials of childhood. In “We Think of You Every Day”, Simon sends home painful letters that depict his harrowing loneliness at a seminary in Mysore. Essie, heady with the promise of her son becoming a priest, does not let him return. She writes him long, ineffectual letters, asking him to look at his time at the seminary as “a sacrifice for your future happiness”. On one of his trips home, Simon performs an act of effortless cruelty — a pointer to his transformation at the seminary, where he went, ironically, to ultimately take Holy Orders.

While the stories stand well on their own, Jones would have done well to amalgamate them into a novel. Now, she ought to contemplate a book that blends the varied, sharp contours that her first work is laced with. If her debut work is any indication, her second work, in the hope that it is a novel, will find many admirers.

This review appeared in Business Standard.


Suzan Abrams said...

What a marvellous review, Vikram. Simply & cleverly told.

Vikram Johri said...

Thank you, Susan! I see from your blog that you have an interest in south Asian writers and themes. How is that?

Suzan Abrams said...

I am Malaysian Indian Vikram, but live in London and Ireland. I have placed a link to your site. I hope you don't mind.

Vikram Johri said...

No, not at all! It's an honour.