Three Narrative Strains
- Nalini Warriar (Author)
Blues from the Malabar Coast. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rabindranath Maharaj (Author)
The Book of Ifs and Buts. Vintage Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Uma Parameswaran (Author)
The Sweet Smell of Mother's Milk-Wet Bodice. Broken Jaw Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kuldip Gill
Rabindranath Maharaj is now widely known for his fiction and short stories. Uma Parameswaran, a short fiction writer and award winner, both teaches literature and reviews fiction. Nalini Warriar, whose first novel is under review here, has previously published but is not yet widely read.
Rabindranath Maharaj's collection begins with a novella, followed by several short stories, and ends with a long story that bears the title of the book. The novella, The Journey of Angels, is well constructed and smoothly written. Saren, the protaganist, is a slightly self-obsessed dupe who is transformed by his interactions with subsidiary characters, who show up in cameo-like roles. Saren handles beauty and ugliness in his life with a kind of equanimity. The author offers his characters dignity, stature and compassion.
Throughout the collection, Maharaj uses a variety of styles and devices including letters, male and female narrators, longer and shorter story lengths, an admirable vocabulary and a command of the Trinidadian Creole. However, the book has problems as well as bright spots —many of the short stories seem hastily written. “Escape to Etobicoke” might have been better as a thoughtful essay. In “Diary of a Down-courage Domestic,” Maharaj uses epistolary form to show the relationship between a woman from Trinidad who has migrated to Canada ahead of her husband, who must remain behind. Their letters are emotionally touching in their naivete, surprise and constant stocktaking as the characters react to the processes of migration and adaptation. Other stories, too, offer glimpses into the essence of change and transformation through migration, and contain astute nuggets on the thoughts and feelings that immigrants such as this family confront as they adapt. In “Aja,” a boy grows up, and with his grandfather's blessing moves to Canada to get a fine job picking apples. We learn of his awakening. “The Book of Ifs and Buts,” the book’s titular story, is suffused with magic realism. It takes a careful and studied reading to follow Maharaj's clever, playful and satiric romp through the story. He almost succeeds in this brilliant piece, but I could not find an "Aha!" moment. Maharaj arouses interest with dialogue and details, but falls short in the denouement. Reading this story I gained enjoyment of this author's considerable merits as a writer, but don't look for an epiphany, or any marked redemption in this story. It could have been tighter and crisper.
Maharaj's often superb story telling and writing skills, his use of Caribbean dialect which he writes deftly, and his honesty, make me recommend this remarkable book, despite some weakness in stories in the middle.
In the foreword to The Sweet Smell of Mother's Milk-Wet Bodice, Uma Parameswaran tells us that the method from which her novella emerged "is [as] an excerpt from a larger novel in which I wish to take Namita's story further and develop issues only glanced at in this work." These are the specific polemical goals she started to develop in this book. (In her next, Parameswaran wants to clarify how legal processes are underdeveloped and inequitable when it comes to protecting immigrant women who are in abusive relationships.)
Although Parameswaran claims to present stories of three women, the novella specifically depicts the difficulties of Namita, a South Asian woman newly arrived in Canada, whose in-laws are psychologically abusive to her because of her small dowry. Her husband sides with his parents. After a series of incidents Namita gets help from white service providers. She breaks away, and her plans undergo stereotypical glitches, after which she succeeds in setting up her own apartment.
Parmeswaran's plot isn't complex enough for the novella form and does not stretch the imagination; we aren't shown more than surface difficulties faced in her situation by the protagonist. She is transformed, but we learn little about her emotional state or her own thoughts. I kept wishing the book could shine with hope, not just depict what was acquired through a mild perseverance. (A novel can do that, even when life may not.) Adaptation to a new country doesn't just produce a hybrid life, but rather a double consciousness, and a very deeply felt change of identity. Parameswaran could have shown us more depth in the crisis felt by Namita, caught in an unjust world. Although the dialect is stilted and unconvincing, the author does succeed in showing us humour and,0 if not redemption, at least survival, because of human love. Her choice of topic is that of a committed social activist in Canada. I look forward to the coming novel that will give more scope within which to embed a polemical work as the author forsees it.
In her first book, Blues From the Malabar Coast, Nalini Warriar writes polished vignettes, like blue notes. The set of linked stories is exquisitely rendered to us in rich detail, such as the smells and tastes of South Indian foods: chilies, cumin, pappadums, betel paste, dosas, red rice, cardamoms, cashews nuts and fried green bananas. In one story, we read about a little boy and his feelings about his body and its functions; in other stories, we discover adults’ fascination with the body and its rituals. Warriar also tells us about clothing and shows how meaningful dress (and undress) and adornment can be in a culture.
Characters such as Krishnan reappear in the twelve linked stories about the matriarchal Variyar clan. In the beautiful and optimistic title story, “Blues from the Malabar Coast,” Krishnan delightfully recounts growing up as a spoilt little boy in his extended South India family. The author depicts the difficulties of being young, the confusing nature of change and growth, and the usual helplessness of dealing with it when you're too small to understand what's going on.
In the remaining eleven stories Warriar deftly introduces Krishan's brothers (Mohan, Raman and Shivan) as well as their sisters (Leela and Parvati), and all their children. Warriar shows us family life according to the institution of cross-cousin marriage. The characters aren't tied to India; they move around the globe in search of new vocations. Ven and Seema move to Quebec. An earlier story tells of Ven's travel back to India from Germany. The stories convey the character's lives and the seduction of memory. Evocatively detailed, the work appears at times to be a gathering of brief, almost autobiographical notes.
Read Nalini Warriar's debut collection for its remarkably assured and original voice and poetic writing. She creates a dynamic ebb and flow of voices and styles in stories that range from first person narratives to those told in an artful authorial voice. Since she has empathy with her characters, it is possible for the reader to like the naughty children, the newly married man who takes up with another woman when spurned nightly by his bride, and the women who plot outrageously funny incidents to get to the bottom of something. Throughout, we see people going through the business of getting through daily life, but with a zest for life in all its robustness, pathetically funny, and sometimes tragic.
- Atlantic Myths by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Work by Irene Guilford and Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland by Lesley Choyce
- Death on the BC Coast by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: Moonrakers by Beth Hill, Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues off the BC Coast by Keith Keller, and On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe by J. R. Struthers
- Strategic Orientalisms by Janice Brown
Books reviewed: Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances by Dominika Ferens and "A Half Caste" and Other Writings by Elizabeth Rooney, Linda Trinh Moser, and Onoto Wantanna
- North-South Passages by John Clement Ball
Books reviewed: Homer in Flight by Rabindranath Maharaj and Black Jesus and Other Stories by Cyril Dabydeen
- Let my joy endure by Cedric May
Books reviewed: The Exile and The Sacred Travellers by Marie-Claire Blais and Nigel Spencer and These Festive Nights by Marie-Claire Blais and Sheila Fischman
MLA: Gill, Kuldip. Three Narrative Strains. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 158 - 160)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.