Monday, August 24, 2009

Real to the touch

The Sherpa and other fictions is a collection of nine short stories by first-time writer Nila Gupta. Gupta is a a second-generation Canadian. She was born in Montreal, spent a part of her childhood in Jammu, and then went back to Canada.

Each of the stories is the collection is about people who are part-Canadian and part-Indian. But the stories are not strictly about the immigrant experience. While the characters wrestle with the pull of "home", there are larger undercurrents driving their returns to India. Gupta captures these undercurrents with humanity and insight.

In the title story, the daughter of a Canadian immigrant returns to Jammu to meet her Indian relatives. The father has had no truck with India since he left, for his own reasons. The daughter though welcomes India and India welcomes her with open arms. "It seems to me that I am related to everyone by blood or marriage and my head is spinning to keep up with the complex relations and unfamiliar terms," she tells the reader at one point.

But there is a certain reason for her visit—to meet Madam Jaune, an unmarried woman who had once wished to adopt her. Is she able to accomplish her motive or does the weight of the past, her father's, make her decide against it?

Lonely ladies battling circumstances is a major theme in this collection. In "The Mouser", Mala Lalla is believed to be losing her mind, as she watches over an army of mice in her kitchen. Her son Ahmed is a gay man who stays in faraway Toronto (there is another tale about homosexuals in the collection, where gayness is a central theme). Sadia, a cousin of Ahmed's, is sent to look after her. We learn that Mala Lalla has been scarred by Partition and Sadia, meeting two young people in the neighbourhood, awakens to her own sexual blossoming. Their lives intersect (over mice), and slowly revealing the burdensome past of one and the jumpy future of the other, Gupta scripts the best story of the collection.

Miss Kamla Vati cares for children of refugees and people on the run in conflict-scarred Kashmir in "In the House of Broken Things". One of the children she educated has grown up and visits her with his wife at a time when her house has been attacked by those who believe that Miss Vati is a "sympathiser". (The Kashmir conflict provides a nostalgic and political setting to the collection.) Torn between Miss Vati's troubles and his wife's demands to move on, the man will decide if he must let go of the past for the future or vice-versa.

Nila Gupta's debut collection flits between India and Canada and crosses boundaries at every instance: boundaries of religion, gender, sexuality and nation. Which is why her characters and stories are so real to the touch.

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