Girls in the shadow

Girls in the shadow

Love Marriage
by V V Ganeshananthan
Random House, 2008

Love Marriage is not in this vein. It is a precious little book, written first as an undergraduate thesis under the direction of the brilliant American writer, Jamaica Kincaid. The story is about a young woman who is detained from her undergraduate studies to help her parents tend to a mysterious uncle and his daughter. It is in such waiting rooms in one's life that one finds out not only about one's past (from the uncle), but also what one is ultimately made of. Indeed, how we deal with such pauses are often better tests of character than how we deal with the inexorable rush of our daily lives.

Evening is the Whole Day, on the other hand, has its pretensions, from a preoccupation with brand names to an almost claustrophobic set of character sketches in search of a plot (which comes very late in the book). There is also an uncle here, although he comes to move things along rather than to act as an anchor for the novel. The story is about a family in stasis, waiting for the elder daughter, Uma, to leave for college, and waiting for the servant, Chellam, to be sent off home for allegedly hastening the death of the grandmother.

These are both novels about Tamils. Love Marriage is about a Tamil-American family, whose successes are put on hold when the mother's brother, a Tamil Tiger leader, arrives in Canada to die. The daughter of the Americans, Yalini, has only fragments of Sri Lanka in her past, but the slow death of her uncle allows her to piece many of them together. This subsequently becomes the vehicle for V V Ganeshananthan to recreate the moral ambiguity of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism, the riots of 1983, the emergence of the armed struggle, the descent of this war into chaos, and the departure of a large part of the Tamil middle class to places such as India, Australia, Europe and North America. The hold the Tigers have on this departed section remains very strong, and it is this that makes the uncle a hero in a small suburb of Toronto. Yalini is likewise led to her history through the allure of her uncle.

Evening is the Whole Day is about a Tamil-Malaysian family, whose patriarch marries a neighbour from a less-refined family; he seeks adulation rather than companionship, and in the end gets neither. They have three children and, along with his mother and a few servants, they all live together in what is always referred to as the Big House. The ailing mother requires a servant, who is specially hired for her, and whose wages go towards the inebriation of her father, who arrives monthly.

Evening is the Whole Day
by Preeta Samarasan
Houghton Mifflin, 2008

What felt rather claustrophobic about Preeta Samarasan's style could well be mimicry of the social ecology of the home. Everyone tries to break free, whether to New York, to a tea party, or to the world of ghosts. From this pressure cooker of a home, Samarasan allows us to observe the "middleman minority" position of the Indians in a Malaysia that is trying to come to terms with its nationalism. But unlike Ganeshananthan, Samarasan is not interested in the details, or in teaching us history through fiction. She is invested in something quite different. As such, an ethnic scandal comes to us in a thoroughly lethargic way. Riots happen, but are a mere discomfort. Denouements, the reader comes to realise, are not important in Evening. Emotions are evoked, and then they linger. No resolutions occur.

No say
Both novels rely on sketches of young women whose desires are muted by other things. In Love Marriage, the uncle is accompanied by his daughter, Janani, who is pledged to marry the son of an LTTE supporter in Toronto. Yalini cannot imagine that Janani would marry without love. But she also cannot generally fathom Janani, the radical Tamil nationalist whose entire world was formed within the struggle. "I know," Yalini thinks, "that the reason Janani's face is blank and cold is because she has not yet accustomed herself to the idea of a future." Meanwhile, in Evening, the grandmother, Patti, must always have a servant to care for her. That servant is Chellam, who plays a shadowy central role in the novel. Chellam is Chellamservant, and the novel does little to move her from that reduction. Her desire is for spectacles, and if not those, then for a few ginger and sour sweets. She is also blank to the children of the Big House.

Neither Janani nor Chellam have a real role in these narratives, which are structured to give a say to others. Everyone else gets their turn, but we are barely able to see the world through the eyes of these two. A young woman who was raised within the LTTE must flee to Canada; a young woman who was raised in a village without electricity in the Malaysian interior must work in the homes of the ghastly Indian bourgeoisie, in order to feed her own father's toddy requirements. These two women are defined by circumstances, pushed by ethnic chauvinism (of the Singhalese and of the Malay) as well as the class superiority of their fellows (of the North American Tamils and of the Big House Tamils). Bourgeois dreams of hope and middle-class ambitions fuel these novels, and it is these bourgeois desires that eventually become the template for universal emotions. Janani and Chellam want, but their wishes are parochial – "blank". A truly ambitious novel would embrace their worlds.

~ Vijay Prashad is contributing editor for Himal Southasian, based at Trinity College in the US.

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