Sunday, October 7, 2012

Letters Home

This appeared in today's DNA.


One of the stories in Tania James’ impressive collection, Aerogrammes, is about a chimpanzee from Sierra Leone adopted by an American family who ultimately has to deal with the indignity of being housed in a zoo. This saga of Henry, “the ape who loved blondes over baboons,” as the newspapers put it, reminds one of Rajesh Parameswaran’s ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’ from I Am An Executioner, the story of a tiger who can’t escape his animal nature. Though James’ story is less savage in the telling, and doesn’t delve deep into the creature’s consciousness as Parameswaran does, the same theme of being a fish out of water, of having to adapt to a changed environment, animates both.

The problem of fitting in is an attribute of many of James’ short stories, as it was with her debut novel, An Atlas of Unknowns. In Aerogrammes, an 8-year-old from Trivandrum, now living with her mother in Baltimore, tries to forge a relationship with her wayward father who visits them after spending years in Dubai. A retired Indian-American businessman in an old-age home waits for news and visits from his errant son. A 10-year-old girl in Kentucky deals with her grandfather’s dementia as well as her classmates’ opinions. These, and others, are told with a wryness of tone and lightness of touch that makes them all the more evocative.

‘Lion and Panther in London’, the first story here, is an excellent example of James’ virtuosity. Set in 1910, it deals with Gama, the so-called “champion undefeated wrestler of India”, who travels to London with his brother to fight in challenge matches there. He finds it to be a city “where athletes are actors, where the ring is a stage”. With deft, delicate strokes, James details his predicament, leading to a characteristically bittersweet conclusion. The decision to tell the story through the younger brother’s eyes is especially apt as it’s a point of view that the reader can more readily empathise with.

The other stand-out story is ‘Light & Luminous’, in which an Indian bharata natyam teacher and convenience store cashier desperately tries to prevail over her dusky complexion and claim her moment in the spotlight at an All-India Talent Showcase, an occasion that’s “thick with Indians and thin on talent”.  Unlike the characters in other immigrant fiction that we’re so used to by now, Minal Aunty isn’t coming to terms with being in America, but with her own internal demons, and James delineates her situation with sympathy and grace.

Not all the stories in Aerogrammes work as well, however. ‘The Scriptological Review’ is cast in the mode of a letter from the editor of “a journal dedicated to the social analysis of handwriting”, and devolves into his memories of his father’s death and relationship with the rest of his family. The form here is at odds with the content, which makes for an unstable whole. Then again, the Louisville-based ‘Girl Marries Ghost’, about the relationship between a woman and a spectre, doesn’t quite come to grips with the material and sometimes reads like a draft of a story by Steven Millhauser.

For all that, Aerogrammes as a whole is a moving collection of missives. With acuity and poise, James records the strategies of those who find themselves emotionally or geographically displaced and their efforts to come to terms with what remains. 

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