Transactions of Belonging by Jaya Padmanabhan reviewed by Jessica Faleiro
by Jaya Padmanabhan
Reviewed by JESSICA FALEIRO
The word ‘belonging’ evokes a strong feeling of connection to place, person, thing or feeling. In her debut collection of short stories, Jaya Padmanabhan explores these facets of belonging to whom, to what and to where, by making us wonder about their cost.
Each story is a meditation on different types of belonging, as promised in the title, and connects with one’s own personal sense of that word. Padmanabhan’s stories bear witness to what lengths and compromises people will go to in order to belong to a person, a state of being or a place. Manu, in ‘The Fly Swatter’, is attached to his powerful status as a politician, a husband and a father, which leaves no place in his life for his attraction to men or for human compassion. In ‘His Curls’, a mother moves from trusting in the fact that her son belongs to her, to watching him outgrow the only physical characteristic that links the two of them together – the curls in his hair, at which point she believes that he has become far removed from the person she dreamed he would be and has turned into a terrorist.
In ‘The Blue Arc’, Shona, who comes from a cultured family background, ends up as a prostitute in a brothel due to tragic circumstances. She holds on to her past in the form of a family photograph and a diary, and is only able to accept her fate after her madam burns these things. She then looks to gain a sense of belonging through her friendship with a brothel tenant named Shiva. In ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’, we see how three generations of an Indian family cope with different forms of dislocation as the grandparents visit their daughter and her family in America, all the while missing their neighbourhood back in Bangalore. Meanwhile, their daughter and son-in-law are immigrants struggling to make a world for themselves in the United States and their grand-daughter is stuck in between a way of life she is expected to adopt and one that no one in her family has ever experienced before. She rejects her Indian culture as a coping mechanism, as she tries to carve out a new, unknown path for herself in America.
Each of the twelve short stories in this collection is an emotionally charged vignette that captures the universality of human nature, even as it relates to the Indian context. Padmanabhan’s simple style is revealing; the force of each sculpted word hitting the reader with more punch than its diluted flowery counterpart would.
Padmanabhan is experimental with form, presenting ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’ as an epistolary story and ‘Indian Summer’ as a one-act play. These departures appear to be just that, explorations by the author in flexing her writing muscle, as the form changes re-enforce the individuality of the stories and do not add anything to bring the collection more closely together.
While some will connect with the word; more likely others will discover new meanings of their own understanding of belonging. There are some exquisite lines delivered with a practiced hand such as, ‘He is at home most of the time. He wakes up mid-afternoon and eats through mountains of food. Then he puts on his outside clothes and walks out of the house. He comes back late in the evening and demands food again. I spend my time waiting for his disappearance and reappearance and dreading both’ (‘His Curls’, 87). With just three words, ‘…and dreading both’, we are pulled into the dynamics of a mother-son relationship straining at the seams. In another example: ‘Then he leaned forward and poured that first pink plastic mug of water over his body. It was bitterly cold. Despite bracing for the water, the cold knife like chill of the water made him shiver involuntarily. The second mugful was always the hardest. There was absolute certainty in the second pour’ (‘Strapped for Time’, 61). The attention to detail reveals a subtle beauty in mundane acts and the author takes care to reveal such acts in all the stories, colouring them with an eerie presence that alerts one to something dark and violent just around the corner.
Even more interesting is how each story is tinged with violence, portrayed as a fact of life and presented in myriad forms, some more subtle than others. ‘In a dirty minute, he’s reached for his own box of matches and lit one of them. While the live bird sits within his grip, he applies the match to the splint. The bird goes up in flames. “There, I’ve solved your problem!”’ (‘Curtains Drawn’, 79). Here we see the capacity for cruelty in a father towards his son by killing an injured bird that the son cares for. We are witnesses to every form of violence from an MP’s cynical dismissal of a poor child’s death by paying off the family with a colour TV in ‘The Fly Swatter’, the burning of a prostitute’s treasured personal possessions by her madam in ‘The Blue Arc’ and the spousal abuse behind closed doors in ‘Curtains Drawn’, to the more subtle violence caused by hurtful words, gestures and behaviours between family members in ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces.’
While we’re on the subject, ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’ was a refreshing story that depicted the author’s playfulness at large. Her deft weaving of food and feces into this short story is something that not only takes vivid imagination and a steady hand to deliver but creates a story that will not easily be forgotten. In one instance, the granddaughter refers to her grandmother’s dish of ‘pongal’ as something that smells and looks like shit. The mention of feces in the letter exchange between neighbours at ‘Fresh Meadows’ represents the corruption of Indian politicians who promise cleaner, greener, safer neighbourhoods in order to gain votes and then don’t change anything for the better once they are in government. Food and feces become a writing device of contrasting symbols that are part of the same unifying life process, bringing together the generations and class distinctions portrayed in this story. It is food that unifies a grandmother’s pongal receipe with the salad that her granddaughter prefers to consume, and shit that unifies the residential colony of ‘Fresh Meadows’ across continents, even as the middle class residents complain of their ‘slum neighbours’ depositing their shit on the edges of the apartment colony.
The author is not afraid to lead us steadily into those dark places that haunt many and her stories pique our interest enough that we go willingly, to uncover what’s ahead. Everything is given meaning – the curling wisps on a baby’s forehead grow into the estrangement between a mother and her son, the drawn curtains of a house taken on an ominous meaning especially when one discovers the abuse occurring behind them. Even the memory of a dead mother becomes a dangerous thing. The stories take you down a path where you know there’s something unexpected coming up ahead, but you’re still surprised by the force of what arrives. In bringing together beauty in the mundane things of life and drawing out the violence simmering underneath, the stories reveal how both are part and parcel of life.
I admit that I was left confused at the vague endings of some of the stories, though this may have been the author’s intention. By leaving the stories open-ended, readers are left to imagine what happens next and about the emotional landscape of the characters. The author gives us a detailed look at their inner lives and leaves us curious, which is evidence of the poignant, evocative and emotionally absorbing stories Padmanabhan has created in this collection.
JESSICA FALEIRO is the author of Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK. She has also published fiction and non-fiction in Muse India and tambdimati.com, written travel pieces for the Times of India and op-ed articles for other newspapers. For more, see: http://jessicafaleiro.wordpress.com/about/