Matthew da Silva reviews Jungle Without Water by Sreedhevi Iyer
Jungle Without Water and Other Stories
by Sreedhevi Iyer
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
The good things in this collection of short stories, Jungle Without Water, are very good indeed. But before talking about some of them in detail I want to briefly touch on the major theme of this book, which is the migrant experience in many of its different phases. In each of the stories mentioned in this review the main subject of the work is the way that people fit into society when they, or their antecedents, come from somewhere else. In some of the stories the main characters are people from India living in Malaysia but the title story, for example, takes as its subject an Indian student living in Brisbane, in Australia.
While it’s easy to thus find a unifying theme for the book, the narratives Iyer creates are not totally dominated by it. The clash of identity and custom that in one of her stories troubles an Indian-Malay living in Kuala Lumpur might be equally relevant for an Anglo businessman living in a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. In fact, where Iyer stumbles it is where the standard postcolonial narrative gains unnecessary prominence and politics overshadows art. The best stories here focus on the seeming-random details of lived experience.
The second story in the collection, which is titled ‘The Lovely Village’, is written as a fairytale and it takes as its subject the treatment of migrants who want to come into a village where there is equality for all. This story stood out for me in that it seemed not to be as deeply rooted in lived experience as the other stories in the book, and I found it to be rather weak in conception and lacking in the kind of impact that characterises many of the other stories.
After finishing several of the stories I felt a physical thrill on the skin of my neck, which is always a sign to me that the work I have just completed was particularly successful. I more often get this kind of sensation when reading a good short story or a good poem, as such methods of storytelling tend to conclude on a strong tonic note that reverberates once the final word has been consumed. Novels do not usually finish in this way and their impact tends to be spread out over longer stretches of text, with less sudden impact.
The first story in the collection, which I have already mentioned, is its title story. It deals with a young man named Jogi who is living in the Queensland capital with the aim of studying at university. His links with his family back in India remain strong, and one day after he has arrived in Australia his mother, who has stayed behind in his homeland, asks him to say a prayer for her husband who has to undertake a transfer for work. She is worried about how the transfer will affect Jogi’s father and family tradition maintains that prayers Jogi says are particularly effective.
Jogi relies on his friend Sandeep, who has lived in Brisbane for three weeks longer than Jogi, to help him carry out his assigned task. They visit a holy man in a place of worship in multicultural Brisbane but when Jogi sits down to pray nothing comes out of his mouth. They visit another holy place, this time one run by Westerners who follow Krishna, and they tell him that the particular prayer he wants to say is not permitted. Once again Jogi leaves a place where he should have been able to perform his familial duty, without being able to do so. He eventually fulfils his obligation but it happens, almost by accident, with the aid of a teenage girl who does nothing more than talk to Jogi one day on the street.
I won’t say anything more, as I feel as though I have already given away more than I should, but I felt that this story served to say important things about multiculturalism and about the migrant experience, things that other types of document would struggle to say. The words of the title, “a jungle without water”, pop up at two places in the story and they function to bring together disparate parts of the narrative, making the interstices between things so narrow that what happens seems like fate. This is an elegant story that functions to convey truths about immigration in a way that everybody can understand.
The context of that story is local for an Australian and so the way into the narrative was easier for me than it was in some of the other stories in the collection, for example ‘The Man With Two Wives’. This story is focalised entirely through the consciousness of a Indian-Malay who runs shops in Malaysia retailing food and it is written using the kind of language that the man, who is not badly educated but who uses Malay, Indian, and English words in his daily conversations, would normally employ. It is a small tour-de-force that says much about the culture that underpins the story. You feel as though you know this man well and when you hear his story of starting a course of study in accountancy, and there meeting a young woman named Lata, you get to experience his feelings in a way that vividly brings his world to life.
The protagonist is never named and neither is his wife. His daughter is Malathi and she ends up gaining prominence at the end of the story. His relationship with Lata, which causes so many tongues in his town to wag, is one of great importance to the protagonist and it is clear that while he married for the sole purpose of satisfying his mother’s wishes, with Lata things are different. His wife is only interested in buying gold jewellery and sarees, but Lata listens to what he has to say and her attention serves to justify an interior existence that the man’s daily business and family life does little to fulfil.
One day, the protagonist attends a job interview that Lata has encouraged him to go to. He enters a tall building by the sea and sits down in a room in front of a group of men, one of whom is a Westerner. The way his wife and the way Lata behave once the interview is over, however, tell him things about his world that he didn’t understand before. This is an effective, thoughtful, and powerful work of fiction that efficiently performs the tasks the author has set for it.
I will take a quick look at one other story in the collection, and it is also one that appears in the first half of the book. This is ‘Green Grass’, and it deals with a man named Mohan and his wife, who is a Westerner named Rachel, who come back to India to visit family. The event is an important one for the whole village where Mohan grew up. The way people living in the village treat Rachel, because of where she comes from and because of her relationship with her husband, contains the dramatic material the story relies on to communicate its messages about globalisation. It is focalised entirely through the consciousness of one of the villagers.
Each of these stories is different from the others in so many ways: in the way the narrative evolves, in the kinds of characters portrayed, and in the plot devices that each relies on to fulfil its purpose. There is a wry and knowing candour in many of Iyer’s stories. It not only helps to give the reader confidence in the author’s sincerity and intelligence but it also, paradoxically, allows Iyer to set herself apart from the drama and to view the events that unfold with a dispassionate eye. Even as you sense she cares very much about her creations, she also situates herself at a certain distance from them as they go about their business in her narratives. And despite their differences, each story mentioned here is excellent because it communicates a large amount of information in a small space.
I found other stories in Jungle Without Water to be less powerful than these and there are others too that I have not mentioned that I also thought good. There is plenty in this collection, which was first published two years ago, for any reader, and especially for an Australian one. After all, we are living in an Asian nation.
I want to finish with a note about the cover illustration used for the book. The watercolour employed is by Julian Meagher and his gallerist is Edwina Corlette, who has her shop, appropriately for the collection, in Brisbane.
With my mother I lived up north for five-and-a-half years. On one occasion I drove her when she was elderly down to the capital to see Corlette’s shop. Corlette’s parents had lived in the same suburb in Sydney where I grew up and she remembered mum because of our family’s gift shop. In fact everybody living there knew about Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories – the name used for the shop was my paternal grandmother’s – and we did a roaring trade at Christmastime, when people give presents to family members and to friends. Among the items mum and granny sold in large numbers were Indian cotton print dresses; this was the 60s and these kinds of garments were all the rage.
The use of Meagher’s painting for this collection seemed to me to be something, therefore, like fate, like what happens in its title story. A small sign of a kind you sometimes come across telling you that there are things in the world that cannot be understood entirely through reason.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.