The growing number of South Asian women who challenge traditional racial or gender roles—and write about them—now includes one more North America-based author. Bombay-bom California resident Ginu Kamani has just published her first book, which is a pensive and lyrical short story collection. Ms Kamani shares a desire with some others of her kind to uncover truths about South Asian cultural identity and sexuality, matters that have rarely been touched in fiction.
The author seems willing to take on almost any taboo subject of South Asian society: incest, homosexuality and the sexual degradation/oppression of women. In the 11 short stories that comprise Junglee Girl, Ms Kamani seeks to explore the differences between ´normal´ and ´wild´ women. ´Junglee´ itself refers to wild, or uncontrollable, women, and the author means to reclaim and redefine the subject.
In most of the stories, the narrator is a young Indian woman who must come to terms with her sexuality or desires, from the 17-year-old confused by her feelings for her maid in “Maria”, to the poor worker hired to strip hair from rich women´s bodies in “Waxing the Thing”.
Some of the stories may seem excessively coy in their efforts to talk about sex without being obvious—a trait Ms Kamani may have inherited from working in film production for three years in the Bollywood movie industry. That coyness tends to obscure the horrors of incest as depicted in “Younger Wife”, and the abuses that are hinted in many of the other stories.
At their best, the stories in this collection explore honestly the confusion of women who feel torn between multiple identities, whether Indian or American, demure or desirous. In “Ciphers”, an Indian-American woman aboard a train is alternately startled and pleased to be recognised as Gujarati by a fellow traveller. “After all my years in America, being Gujarati had lost its potency,” she confesses. “In the West, I was Indian. Nothing further. In India we had never been Indian.”
The protagonist´s discovery of feeling Gujarati is further complicated by her realisation, looking at her fellow passenger, about “how sensuality abruptly descends on the sternest of Indian women when they loosen their thick dark hair.” That knowledge is part and parcel of Ms Kamam´s outlook: that sexuality and cultural identity are tightly intertwined.
The author´s playfulness makes up for some repetitiveness that is there, and allows the stories as a whole to enchant and provoke. As the novelist Alice Walker has said, Ms Kamani´s is “a new subversive voice: engaging and fresh”.
~ F. Haq is a New York-based writer.