East-west divide…

Associations, Books, News, People and Places, Reports — By on August 26, 2015 at 6:14 PM
Photo gallery of Desi Girls authors.

Photo gallery of Desi Girls authors.

East-west divide: short stories in ‘ Desi Girls’ anthology offer insights into the lives of Indian women abroad,  Review by James Brewer

Collections of short stories of love and loss in familiar settings are never in short supply, but the theme of the just-published Desi Girls: Stories by Indian Women Writers Abroad is an exception to the norm.

Desi Girls is an album of fictional snapshots of the lives of Indian women – and some men – coping and sometimes struggling far from their place of birth.  It is authored by 22 women who themselves have made their way in foreign lands. Collectively they have much to say – and each takes only a few pages to say it. The message is variously of the cruelty of male prerogative, of the matter-of-factness of western values, of family rejection, of love failing to hold fast in an alien atmosphere, but sometimes of triumph against the odds.

Divya Mathur.

Divya Mathur.

The anthology begins in powerful formr with a story by Vayu Naidu entitled Jagruti, Beware which confronts us with the seething frustration of a woman named Jagruti. In her prime in Chennai, Jagruti bravely resisted family pressure to enter into an arranged marriage. From the first paragraph, Jagruti, now living in Britain, strikes a defiant pose in her kitchen, a meat cleaver in her hand, staring intently ahead, “poised like a Hindu goddess, armed with domestic weapons and practising martial arts.” Jagruti then fierily relates how she refused to become a victim of the betrothal ‘cattle market’ as her well-meaning parents tried to get her “settled.”

London-based Dr Naidu was a perfect choice for inclusion in this compilation: she is steeped in the art of written and of oral storytelling. She left her home city of Chennai to pursue further study in the UK, gaining a doctorate from Leeds University in Indic oral traditions and contemporary western theatre, and founded a company to promote storytelling as theatre. Her debut novel,  Sita’s Ascent, was published by Penguin in 2013.

Vayu Naidu. Photo by Pratyusha Gupta.

Vayu Naidu. Photo by Pratyusha Gupta.

[Vayu Naidu will be on stage at the British Library Conference Centre auditorium at 7pm on Friday October 9 2015 to present Prisms of Love: Sufi Tales Through Storytelling, which will feature classical kathak dance and live music against the background of Sufi manuscripts from the Library archive. This will be a retelling of the 16th-century love story Padmavat, which is drawn from Indian Islamic folk tales. “What treasure can a king seek to swim an ocean?” is one of the famed lines. The event (details at http://www.bl.uk/events/prisms-of-love-sufi-tales-through-storytelling) is in partnership with the London-based Bagri Foundation, a charity whose aims include advancing literacy, education and the arts, with an emphasis on those of India; the appreciation and understanding of Asian countries, their cultures and religions; advancing medical research, poverty relief and saving lives.]

​The name Jagruti means “awareness, ” and acquisition of that attribute is a keystone of the Desi Girlscollection. It can be a hard road to gain understanding of what being transplanted into another culture means, especially for a woman. There is trauma in abundance in the book’s material. The east-west divide is always in the foreground or background.  Incomers integrate, but only in the succeeding generations do many of the ingrained Indian habits dissolve. This is a journey into the hearts of migrants, both the well-to-do and the poor. They think they have established a new sense of place and identity, but it is easily fractured, as when a woman observes a funeral gathering in Cleveland, Ohio, and is horrified to see how cold the mourners are compared with what would be the case back in India (Unmourned, by Sudershen Priyadershini) . In another tale, a family in New Jersey pines for the vibrant way in which Diwali is celebrated on the other continent (A Diwali Night, by Anil Prabha Kumar).

Desi Girls cover

Desi Girls cover

One of the longer stories is My Better Half, written by Divya Mathur, who edited the anthology. Divya, who is currently bringing together further short stories, is one of the most active people in Indian-related literary projects in London, as founder president of the association Vatayan: Poetry on the South Bank.

My Better Half is named after one of those irritating, cringe-inducing expressions in English referring to one’s wife, and it has been picked up and over-used by the anti-hero of the story, a ‘golden boy’ native of Gujarat named Goldie who is employed as an auditor in the Lloyd’s insurance market. His English wife Liz is afraid of losing him, for he is a dreadful flirt. His behaviour puts her through torment after torment, until…

An extract from this story was brilliantly read at the book launch at the Nehru Centre, Mayfair, in July, by Shalini Peiris, a stage and screen actress who has worked with established UK theatre companies, . A report of the launch event is at http://www.allaboutshipping.co.uk/2015/07/17/huge-support-for-london-launch-of-desi-girls/

According to Ms Mathur, the term Desi Girls refers to women expected to follow meekly and obediently those retrograde Indian traditions that keep them ‘in their place.’

Shalini Peiris  delivering a reading from the book.

Shalini Peiris delivering a reading from the book.

In many of the stories, the heroines have their innocence and trust shattered by the new social arena in which family and lovers operate. The apparent safety of relationships is put at risk in the new environment, tellingly for example in One Cold Winter’s Night by London-based Toshi Amrita, where a promising young woman graduate studying in Edinburgh struggles to come to accept her love for a man even though he  is from a similar New Delhi background.

A salient message is that for the alien, while European nations and the US are not necessarily physical fortresses, they can be mental prisons.

This generous anthology excels in offering elements of social history, expressed through poignant portraits of the subject participants and subtle atmospheric effects. The confident authors bring grace and lyricism to cameos from a still-confused era. It is hardly surprising that in an interview in 2011, Dr Naidu was quoted as saying: “Indians are the best storytellers. We have a feel for language.”

The 22 writers of Desi Girls were born in India and live variously in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the UAE, UK and US. They are Achala Sharma, Anil Prabha Kumar, Anshu Johri, Archana Painuly, Arun Sabharwal, Chaand Chazelle, Divya Mathur, Kadambari Mehra, Ila Prasad, Neena Paul, Purnima Varman, Pushpa Saxena, Shail Agrawal, Sneh Thakore, Sudershen Priyadarshini, Sudha Om Dhingra, Susham Bedi, Toshi Amrita, Usha Raje Saxena, Usha Verma, Vayu Naidu and Zakia Zubairi.

Desi Girls: Stories by Indian Women Writers is available from the independent publisher HopeRoad (www.hoperoadpublishing.com). The project is part-funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)

What is 8 + 14 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:


Leave a Trackback