Not a Weak Link in the Chain

The founders of the Malaysian based literary journal Anak Sastra borrowed a leaf from their own book when it came time for the commemoration of issue number 25 toward the end of 2016. Though it was decided to mark the occasion differently, ie, not with a themed issue as such but rather an anthology of work, the resulting book On the Back of a Motorbike (Literary Concept, 2016) offers the same amalgam of stories, creative non-fiction and poetry that has been one of the journal’s hallmarks since its inception. Another trademark has been the Southeast Asian regional focus.

Aspiring contributors to the anthology were asked to ‘riff’ upon the phrase / concept ‘on the back of a motorbike’, confining their geographical focus as usual to Southeast Asian settings, a part of the world notable for nothing if not the ubiquitousness of the motorbike in everyday life. The authors represented hail from diverse backgrounds, this variety being reflected in the eclectic nature of the series of offerings.

The first story, the cheekily subversive This is My Husband, is followed by a tale of generational conflict, The Truth About Mo. Just Run and Run deals with the stumbling of a friendship, the seams of which fray to breaking point in part literally upon the back of a motorbike. The motorbike is a symbol of status and a right of passage for the ‘A-list’ rebels of Point of Departure, while a little used Harley Davidson serves as a means to begin realising a lifelong dream in Casta Diva.

Arguably, the bike is more akin to an incidental feature, or less omnipresent, in In Between, an astute study of division on both a geographical and personal level, the romantic Didith’s Boyfriend, The Inner Spark, with its touch of the supernatural, the moving and nostalgic Old Soldier, and The Path of the Ghosts, a powerful story of a youthful coming of age of a different kind. They feel perfectly placed as individual takes on the governing construct.

These ten stories share billing with three works of creative non-fiction, the funny and relatable (to any who have sought to batter down the doors of a foreign culture) Down the Rabbit Hole: Snippets of a Saigon Sojourn, the travelogue Me and Kap Chai, and You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda, an in-depth look at the history of the Honda Super Cub 50 bike.

In an anthology of this nature, the poetry, though there are fourteen in all, will inevitably weigh less on the page. But aside from functioning well as a change of pace they are accomplished works in and of themselves. The evocative imagery of the first two poems (which open the book as a whole) is matched here and there throughout.

In summation, a highly readable and enjoyable collection that brings with it the added bonus of affording great insight into the Southeast Asian region.

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The Passenger

My short story The Passenger is featured in Gold Dust Literary Magazine Issue 31. To download a PDF of the issue in its entirety gratis go to: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/golddustmagazine

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The Sound of Water

Eight-year-old Chuyia, the youngest and most petite of the heroines of Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), the closing film in the director’s Elements trilogy, has a hard road ahead of her on the death of her much older spouse. This child bride newly widowed still preserves her luxuriant long black hair in the opening scenes but it is destined not to last, like much else she has counted on in her desperately short life. With her regretful father by her side, she is conducted to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi. The Hindu scripture-prescribed fate laid down for widows is bleak and austere in India in 1938 and Chuyia’s first glimpses of that world bring out her rebellious streak.

The other widows resident at the ashram, much older women for the most part, have long had any glow they might have once possessed completely obliterated, but Madhumati, the forbidding femme in charge, knows right away that she may have a battle on her hands to tame the feisty little girl. Chuyia gains an ally, of sorts, in the hardy Shakuntala and another friend of equal importance to her in the figure of the gentle Kalyani.

Kalyani occupies a position of both privilege and ostracism at the house. She has a room of her own at the top of a flight of stairs, keeps a pet dog and, unlike the other widows, has been allowed to retain long, flowing hair. The reason she has not been ‘de-feminised’ in this fashion is because the ganja smoking Madhumati, with the aid of a friend, prostitutes her out to wealthy Brahmin clients across the river in order to gain enough funds both to meet the household’s rent and bankroll her preferred indulgences.

In due course Kalyani commits the unforgivable ‘sin’ of falling for handsome Narayan, a Gandhi idealist attracted to the great reformer’s liberalism, ideas shocking to both Madhumati and Gulabi, the pimp who rows Kalyani back and forth across the river on the nights when her services are called for. Unbeknownst to Narayan, one of Kalyani’s client is his own father.

When this shattering truth dawns on her, the untenability of her situation leads Kalyani to drastic action. The step she takes serves to remind one of the dual nature of the sacred river Ganges. It is both the washer away of sins and uncleanliness and also the place where the Hindu faithful cremate their dead. Unrepentant, the practical Madhumati, who has been the pivotal decider of Kalyani’s fate since she, like Chuyia, came to the ashram as a widowed child bride, later enacts a plan to begin prostituting Chuyia similarly.

Witness to all these goings on, not unlike a chorus in a Greek tragedy, is Shankuntala (brilliantly depicted by Seema Biswas). What happens when your conscience conflicts with your faith, is the question that gradually takes on more and more resonance in her mind. Devout, dedicated and selfless, on the one hand she desires to embrace the lot of a widow faithful to the traditional code though she knows in her heart of hearts that it is the cruellest of unjust fates for a woman. Furthermore, with respect to Chuyia, the basest abuse, in the name of religion, will be committed if she does not act.

Ms Mehta’s sympathy is with the widows in a society where Hinduism is misinterpreted for fundamentalist, personal ends, specifically in this instance the warped misogynist view that widows somehow cause the deaths of their spouses and must subsequently become renunciants, thereby expiating bad karma. Consigned to dilapidated ashrams, with one meal a day to sustain them, they will be less of a burden on their families and society. Understated, beautiful cinematography occasionally explodes into flashes of lush colour, notably on the rare occasions when the widows are permitted the freedom to celebrate. It is counterpointed by the soundtrack, which features songs and a hauntingly lilting background score. The film is based on the Bapsi Sidwha novel of the same name.

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Walls

My short story Walls can be read at:

Walls

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Cracks in the Earth

Despite the apparent relative ease with which Sweden and Switzerland, as well as a handful of other territories in Europe, walked the tightrope of neutrality during the Second World War this must have been an exceptionally difficult balancing act to manage. On the one hand both were hemmed in by nations committed either to the righteous cause or that of the aggressors. On the other, the neutral stance often reeks of tacit acceptance of the actions of those who would seek to subjugate or, worse, quasi collaboration. Seven decades on from the Second World War, the Swedish nation has not yet had the courage to fully acknowledge the aid she directly, or less directly, offered the Nazis during their pillage of Europe.

The wealthy Parsee family at the centre of Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), the second film in her Elements trilogy and adapted from the Bapsi Sidhwa novel Cracking India, is caught in a position not dissimilar to a land that refuses to show its hand when all around it turmoil is raging. Lying by the side of his spouse one night, the bespectacled father of the family Rustom goes so far as to extol the example of Switzerland. They, meaning him and his immediate circle, will be all right provided they embrace that spirit, he tells his uncertain wife Bunty. In their current predicament aloofness is an unwise hem to cling to, as Bunty rightly surmises, but with World War Two having recently wound down her husband could be forgiven for having the Swiss approach fresh in the mind.

It is 1947, the setting the city of Lahore. Rustom and Bunty’s polio afflicted eight-year-old daughter Lenny is narrating the story of the time through her adult self. The innocence and peacefulness of her youth is being threatened in a nation on the brink of self-rule. The tragedy in the making is that India is not in a position to undertake the transition peacefully, a fact the ruling British conveniently sweep aside in their eagerness to depart and have done with what has for far too long been a losing proposition.

Theirs is a typically arrogant colonial power betrayal, epitomised in an early scene when a British policeman expresses views that so rile a Sikh fellow guest at a dinner in the Parsee household that the latter flies at the Englishman with one of his eating utensils. Lenny has a Hindu nanny or Ayah, Shanta, a young Hindu beauty who counts among her friends the Moslems Hassan and Dil. They are in turn part of a larger group of friends that includes Sikh adherents and other Moslems and Hindus, some of whom work for the Parsee family. Their ease with each other, over meals, in public spaces, smacks of tolerance and acceptance long fostered.

But the mutual goodwill is fraying at the seams with independence and the challenges of self-rule literally days away. The once relaxed friends come close to brawling as they contemplate the immediate future and all that the partitioning of their homeland into Hindustan and Pakistan will mean. Barbarous acts occur in their midst. A night train enters the railway station bearing the corpses of countless slain Moslem men. From a rooftop vantage point, Hassan, Dil, Shanta and Lenny witness the drawing and quartering of a Moslem man by a rabid Hindu pack. Shanta shields Lenny’s eyes but the girl has seen more than enough. Later, with the aid of her cousin, she destroys one of her dolls in like fashion.

Lenny’s loyalties are not exclusive. She hero worships both the ‘Ice Candy Man’ Dil and the masseur Hassan, knowing very well both are in love with Shanta. The two endeavour to win her in their individual ways. But Dil is the one who sets greatest store by his efforts. In a last-ditch attempt to gain her hand in marriage he confides to Shanta his awareness that there is a beast in him – he decries it as the same beast lurking in all men, Hindu, Moslem and Sikh alike – an animal he will be unable to tame without her loving understanding and help. But Shanta will not be swayed. She feels more naturally drawn to the gentle Hassan and by this time she has agreed to be his wife.

Dil is a reasonable man but Shanta’s decision rocks him and he unapologetically goes on to fulfil his prophecy for himself. As shattering as this denouement is, Ms Mehta closes the middle film of her assured trilogy with images the equal of any that have preceded it. It quietly speaks volumes about the scars bound to linger forever in the lives of innocent ones for whom sectarian divisions, or any divisions whatsoever, mean nothing, those who would much rather play, as the uncomprehending interned Moslem boy (he has recently witnessed his mother’s rape and murder) asks Lenny and her cousin to play marbles with him at the close of an encounter between the three. This is a story of purity shattered at a time of social and political upheaval.

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F-i-r-e i-n I-n-d-i-a

In India’s highly patriarchal culture the eldest son enjoys a privileged position. Ashok, one of the central characters in Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire, fully enjoys the fruits of this exalted lot. He shares his household with his aged, widowed mother Biji, his wife Radha, his much younger brother Jatin and Mundu, the family servant.

Together with Radha and Mundu, Ashok runs a take-out Punjabi food business. His helpers are indispensable but Ashok is the undisputed king of the castle. He is the one who doles out the financial largesse derived from the business, which is in point of fact much less than might reasonably be expected. Ashok tithes a considerable amount to his guru, Swamiji, whose teachings he has held as sacrosanct for years.

Ashok, we learn, has opted for celibacy in married life ever since making the discovery that his wife is unable to conceive children. He has thus consigned Radha to a (physically) loveless union. At the same time he has insisted they lie by one another’s sides in the conjugal bed. In this way he can test his resolve to overcome temptation and expunge desire – ‘the root of all evil’ – from his makeup.

But this aesthete hellbent on accessing a higher truth is not in the most ideal of environments for such an endeavour. His much younger brother Jatin exhibits the hallmarks of a layabout. His video store has a clandestine stock of porn, freely dealt out to eager customers, young boys among them. Mundu, in his spare time, masturbates to some of the racier fare in full view of the scandalised but incapacitated (she cannot speak, walk or feed herself) Biji. Jatin’s lover is Julie, a hedonistic, starry-eyed Chinese-Indian who has rejected Jatin’s hand in marriage, not wishing to become a typical, tradition bound Indian wife, or, as Jatin bluntly puts it, ‘a baby making machine’.

Jatin is on her side but has no such qualms about putting the beautiful young Sita in exactly the same position when he is cajoled into marrying her. But Sita is as interested in that prospect as Julie, who Jatin continues to call on after the wedding. On first taking up residence in the house of her extended family Sita puts on music and dances around her room in a crop top and comically overlarge pants. If Radha is alarmed by her new sister-in-law’s rebelliousness, she downplays the fact.

The pair are kindred spirits and their souls and bodies eventually merge, resulting in an awakening of potential in Radha long repressed. Ashok and Jatin, caught up as they are in their own worlds, seem largely unaware of the transformation. Mundu, however, is more observant. When Radha one day catches him masturbating in front of Biji and orders him to leave, he makes it clear he is well aware of the ’hanky panky’ going on between her and Sita.

The sexual tension between the two women is already palpable by this stage of the film. Ms Mehta depicts it in tender, understated scenes. It gravitates to a new dimension with Mundu’s implied threat that he will inform on the two lovers to Ashok, though what precisely he stands to gain if he does reveal their ‘secret’ is never entirely clear. A brief scene in which he studies a picture of the family would suggest he has a yen for the long- suffering Radha, as subservient in her way as he is in his role.

Fire is a feast for the eye and the disparate cast are uniformly good. The director’s concern lies less with Ashok’s apparent failure to completely eradicate fleshly desire than it does Radha’s belated but decisive recognition that, as she tells her disbelieving spouse, ‘desire is beautiful’ and that in the years she lived without it she believed herself to be half-dead. Flashbacks to her girlhood imply that seeing clearly was something she struggled with then too.

Radha is an individual with astute self-knowledge. Having unsuccessfully prevailed on Ashok to sack Mundu, she later likens herself to the hapless servant. When he masturbated he was concerned with nothing but his own fragmentary pleasure. Was the woman she had now evolved into, as a result of her and Sita’s love, not just as selfish and beholden to her own pleasure? Ashok has work to do. He has misjudged his wife and used her for his own ends. This, not his high aspiration, is his gravest fault. Yet when the dust settles all in the fractured household may be better off and share as one Radha’s clearer vision.

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The Ministration of Loss

My story The Ministration of Loss has been published in Gold Dust Literary Magazine’s Winter 2016 issue. A free PDF of the entire issue is now downloadable at the following link:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/editors-adele-gerachty-david-gardiner/gold-dust-no30-winter-2016-free-download/ebook/product-22983500.html

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