Indian Literature Journal, Issue 319, September-October 2020
A book review by U. Atreya Sarma, a bilingual poet, reviewer, translator and Chief Editor of Muse India.
“A Fictionalised Memoir with an Exotic and Diplomatic Touch “
What Not Words, the fourth book by Jayshree Misra Tripathi – a holder of MA (English Literature) among others, and a career diplomat’s wife – may be called a fictionalised memoir with an Indian, diplomatic and diasporic touch.
The stories in the book do have settings, characters and conflicts offering their own mental pabulum and messages, explicit or subtle. Not, however, necessarily laced with the usual elements of suspense, climax, catharsis and denouement, they have an “experimental structure” of their own. Aren’t most of our lives like that, anyway?
Now let’s vignette the stories section-wise.
‘Tales From Long Ago’
This section has five stories on family and friendly relationships set in the second half of the 20th century.
Reluctant to vegetate in the shadow of the earning male-heads of the joint family and eat out of their hand, a young semi-educated widow with self-respect and two little children, yearns to be financially independent, swims against the tide, turns into a seamstress and educates her children well. This, in a milieu where middle-class women didn’t have much freedom. Finally, what happens to the family, you have to unfold the suspense for yourself, dear reader.
Youth (18 to 24 years) are normally in a transitional stage of mental maturity. While boys tend to be assertive and have their own way, girls tend to be the opposite and their submissiveness could make or mar things. Though brought up in a same environment, we find differences in merit and attitude among the siblings.
Love triangles are not rare with a Jezebel dominating the scene and the legitimate wife groaning in emotional turbulence. The spousal incompatibility adversely impacts the children who would form their own opinions about their parents.
We see families where the spouses don’t see eye to eye but have an eternal cold war raging between them, and their only companion and relief is their own separate cable TV set [and nowadays the mobile phone/ iPad/ tab]. Sometimes, finally, if good sense prevails, one of them takes the initiative to break the ice and it succeeds. Thank god, they weren’t hasty to divorce.
‘Tales From The Diaspora’
This section contains three stories happening in East Africa, Sri Lanka and Madagascar.
Here we come across a character DC. Jayshree tells us that DC stands for ‘Distinguished Citizen of India’ and the President of India mentions so of the Indian diplomats from Indian Foreign Service, in their credentials.
The book brushes up our knowledge of history. A good number of Indians had immigrated to East Africa more than two centuries ago. They braved it out in an alien clime, struggled across generations and made it good. “You know, my grandfather used to ride a bicycle and go very far to sell things… Very hard work. He was poor. But my father built a 25-room house on the coast. God is great,” recounts a lady philanthropist.
Coming to the East Africa of “pot and political rallies” of 1970s, like how every rose has a thorn, the prosperous Indian origin Africans now and then become a target of the ethnic rebels who kidnap them for ransom or even murder them. “But this could be anywhere in today’s world.”
In a situation where some people try to leverage their connection with diplomats for a scoop or favour, wives of diplomats display tact and political correctness. Well-educated and accomplished, they channelize their energies in a manner that is kosher.
The word ‘Serendipity’ in the title of a story with a Sri Lankan background tickles our linguistic bone. Deriving from the Persian ‘Sarandip’ which in turn comes from the Sanskrit ‘Simhala Dweepa,’ it means ‘The faculty or fact of making fortunate discoveries by accident.’
This “beautiful exotic land” where the traders from India came in the second century BC has occasionally come to be bloodied with robberies and assassinations, rues the writer. Of course, no country is free of such crimes. And she compliments the “socialites in Colombo” for their “witty and fun loving” nature and the unique way the Sri Lankan women wear their sarees “with an heirloom brooch, studded with rubies, pearls and sapphires.” No wonder, since Serendipity is “renowned for its precious and semiprecious stones.”
Alongside, we see youngsters from low-income groups slogging away right from their teens. In course of time, their own experience becomes their teacher and motivator; they want to have
their own small pleasures, love and marriage. But they are obliged to sacrifice them for the sake of the families they come from.
Madagascar is “the fourth largest island in the world” where “Indian traders arrived… in the 19th century, mainly from the western coast of Gujarat.” But for the “worrisome” and “unusual political unrest” at the given time, it “is a peaceful country.” Owing to the prevailing political turmoil, the lives of the narrator’s family hang on a Damocles’ sword. An interesting local custom is “the Famadihana, the turning of the bones, an ancient ritual that is a second burial. Held every ten years, the bones are taken out from the grave and wrapped in new hand-woven silk, called lamba.” This curious ritual involves a sacrifice (zebu) and a bunch of varying do’s and don’ts (fady). “There must be no silence during this ancestral worship” and they believe in “destiny, Vintana, like our Indian Karma.”
‘And So, Dear Reader, As We Near The End…’
This section comes with three stories.
We have an eerie tale of tangled espionage – involving a Somalia based Indian diplomat and an executive from the Research and Analysis Wing and their cohorts – with incredible twists and turns. This tale has a fleeting flashback into the ugly days of Emergency ‘Shocking betrayals’ with friends “missing for days, then back with bruises and swollen faces.”
We have a few hilarious moments with a wanton mix up of ‘Oriya’ and ‘Orissi’ and a play on the word ‘abroad’ during the course of ragging in Delhi University. We also witness friendships of various types with antics of one-upmanship, streaks of jealousies and attitudinal differences due to different socio-economic levels of the school/college students. And their idiosyncrasies, peccadilloes, jealousies and snobberies segue even into their later lives when these ‘divas’ have their glittering annual get-togethers.
We come to know of the “famous Bhaumakaras” of Kalinga – a dynasty of warrior widow-queens [736 AD to 945 AD]. “Jainism evolved during the early rule of the famous Bhaumakaras,” says the author, but history has it that Jainism had declined by the beginning of the Christian era, and what the early Bhaumakaras patronised was Buddhism and not the bygone Jainism.
Joint families breaking into nuclear families is no longer odd, for in the contemporary life, even the nuclear families are getting atomized with each member living separately with their disparate tastes and values. Finally, we have an Indian character, deft and dynamic. Rooted to the ground, she spurns a lucrative offer to work in the USA, and stays back in her homeland, India, to take care of her needy family. A sublime ending!
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