Dangling Gandhi and Other Short Stories | Fiction | Jayanthi Sankar |
Zero Degree Publishing, 2019 | ISBN: 978-93-88860-03-1 | Pp 151 | HB | 220
Migrant narratives are increasingly dominating the literary landscape due to globalization induced time-space compression facilitating travel and migration. This increased migration has given rise to some unique human challenges right from the proverbially postcolonial issue of identity to migrant vulnerabilities. Recipient of the Literary Titan Book Award, the short story collection Dangling Gandhi and Other Short Stories is a treat for its readers. Each story is distinctly engaging and keeps the reader’s attention till the end. Each story has a premise unique to migrant life. If it is financial distress in “Beyond Borders” and “The Peasant Girl,” it is the migrant’s longing for acceptance in “Mother.”
The first story “Did Churchill Know?” depicts the pain of two individuals through their reminiscences. The ‘Grand Uncle’ – an old man who has never ventured beyond his hometown and Jack, a young foreigner who travels to India to visit Munnar, where his girlfriend loses her life, are the two central characters of the story. The sudden death of the old man’s father during the 1924 floods traumatizes him and he carries the scars throughout his life. Both visit the place frequented by their loved ones in search of closure, as neither gets to see their bodies. The author beautifully captures the sight, smell and sound of the tourist town Munnar, besides highlighting its colonial history. Alternating between the colonial past and the post-colonial present, the author narrates a moving tale of two individuals set apart by age and cultural milieu, yet united in their shared feelings of loss and longing.
The next story titled “Punkah Wallah” is a moving tale of migration, broken dreams and hope that tugs at your heart strings. It shows how disability and poverty affect the lives of siblings Mani and Meena, more so the sister in a patriarchal Indian society. The author skilfully reconstructs colonial Singapore and the vital role played by migrants in its development.
Set in contemporary Singapore, the story “Peacock feather fan” explores the politics that permeates the modern workplace through the portrayal of a busy day in office. The author unmasks the hypocrisy and ruthlessness that characterize human behaviour at the workplace where winning at any cost is the singular agenda.
Oscillating between colonial India and colonial Singapore, “Mobile Dictionary” is a poignant story of Ramasamy whose impeccable command of the English language takes him beyond the sea, only to return and discover a shattering truth that has tragic consequences for him. The story presents the sad predicament of deprived young widows marginalized by the Indian society. The story also presents the difficult lives migrants lead in Singapore.
The story titled “The Peasant Girl” depicts the travails of an over-worked maid named Momo, a migrant Burmese helper in Singapore. Leaving her family and the love of her life, Zaw, back home, she puts up with tough working conditions to be able to send money back home.
Akin to “The Peasant Girl,” the story “Beyond Borders” reveals the dark side of migration. It portrays the struggle for survival in culturally diverse Singapore which has migrants from various corners of the world in search of opportunities. Not all of them realize their dreams. Many barely manage to make both ends meet and send some money back home. Seen through the eyes of an empathetic young child named Kani, the story is a commentary on the self-centeredness of adults who seem to be oblivious to the pain of fellow human beings. Children, with their innocence intact, often help adults inured to lack of warmth from others and make them sensitive again.
“Pavilion” tells the story of a polio afflicted teenager with a fragile ego. Set in post independent India, the story presents the challenges the newly formed nation-state faces within months of it gaining independence. It also depicts the dilemma of former colonizers who don’t want to leave for England having adopted India as their homeland through Arthur and his family.
The title story “Dangling Gandhi” captures the essence of Gandhism through the conversation between Ram, an Indian settled in Singapore and Derick Tan, a Singaporean cab driver. The driver’s knowledge about Gandhi and his philosophy reveals the extent of Mahatma Gandhi’s influence even in today’s world. Through the flash back mode, the story also captures the euphoria experienced by India upon gaining freedom.
Language is a reservoir of culture. “Read Singapore” stresses this aspect and points to the need for reading in one’s mother tongue in order to preserve cultural heritage and identity. Set in a library in Singapore, the story reveals the coexistence of multiple languages in culturally diverse Singapore through the availability of multilingual books. It also points to the unease of the diaspora with their mother tongue through Raghu, who has learnt Tamil for a decade but is no longer adept at writing or reading it, as his primary medium of communication is English. But the story ends on a note of hope.
Interspersed with letters and diary entries, the story “Mother” set in Shillong, records the changing topography of Shillong into a concrete jungle. It presents the sad plight of some Englishmen and their families, who, despite adopting India as their homeland, are considered outsiders. “We are all locals, but it’s a pity our skin speaks differently” (118).
The story “My Mother is a Feminist” narrates the tale of a young adult named Dewei who seeks a relationship with a prostitute after their first encounter but is rebuffed by her. It is a beautiful story of how a mother sensitizes her son to the importance of respecting a woman’s agency regardless of her background, her stature in the society or what she does for a living.
The final story “Am I a Jar?” also is one about the liberty that a woman is entitled to. It takes a stand against constraining the woman’s freedom through enforcing gender stereotypes and taboos and prejudices. Any person, irrespective of gender, must have the freedom to explore life on their own terms.
The stories mainly depict the lives of Indian migrants in Singapore, adjusting and adapting to the new land and culture. It points to their vital contributions in building Singapore and portrays their emotional distress at being away from their families back in their native countries. The author examines and probes myriad issues pertinent to migrants such as identity, the connection between gender, disability and poverty, tough working conditions and agency of women. The treatment of these issues is subtle and layered without being melodramatic. There is a beautiful marriage between the form and the content. The polyphonic voices employed by the author mirror the culturally diverse Singapore. Through the adoption of a non-linear mode of storytelling, with the narrative seamlessly moving between past and present, the author seems to be making the point that the past has a bearing on the present and the past can guide us to have a better future. The book is particularly relevant in these xenophobic times, as it seeks to build bridges by emphasizing the shared history between Singapore and India. Most importantly, the spirit of Gandhi and the author’s humane voice predominates this beautiful collection of stories.
Issue 92 (Jul-Aug 2020)