Review of What Not Words – Short Stories Set in India and the Diaspora, Jayshree Misra Tripathi. Delhi: Authors Press, 2018. Pp. 96, by Himansu S. Mohapatra.
Himansu S. Mohapatra is former professor and head of the department of English, Utkal University and a noted translator. He is known for his scholarly explorations into Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vikram Seth and Aravind Adiga.
Jayshree Misra Tripathi is a Delhi-based Odia writer who writes in English. Primarily a poet, she works in prose too. Given her cross-cultural journeys flavoured by her perspective as a sensitive and cultured woman, she was bound to reach for the medium of the short story for a more elaborate recounting of her trips, trials and tribulations. Mercifully this has happened recently. What Not Words, her debut book of short stories, proves yet again that stories really cut closer to the bone when there is the weight of personal experience behind them. Lived reality is the very stuff of literature. It is the key to good writing doubling up as good evidence.
We are talking about a different kind of evidence, though, one that involves the ‘sensorium’, sharpened enough ‘to catch every note and trick’, as a Henry James would say, and verbal flair rather than being the work of data and statistics. Jayshree’s stories seem to have both. They tell us about what it means to be a woman in a male dominated setting and also in that somewhat exciting and perilous borderland between home and abroad.
The criterion of ‘felt experience’ works as a touchstone, helping us to zero in on the authentic in Jayshree’s book of stories. Strange as it may sound, the stories in the middle section, set in the diaspora, and the ones in the third and last section, set in a citified milieu, seem more authentic. This is to not to say that the five Indian stories in the first section of the book are inauthentic. Having been written over twenty years ago, they may not have received the benefits of the maturation process that comes with time, practice and experience. The two which work, at least for this reviewer, are “Daughter” and “Soulmate.” In terms of character and setting these two have taken a decisive step outside of a relatively less known and cloistered pre-modern world. The mother in “Daughter” is a lecturer who has to juggle the demands of (mis)guiding her daughter and grading her scripts. The couple in “Soulmate” is an urban, late twentieth century couple with a modern gadget – Cable TV – mediating between them and providing a connection that is tenuous at best.
The benefit of the maturation process is, however, amply evident in the three diaspora stories, spanning a morning, an afternoon and an evening in foreign lands, and three stories of return and homecoming that follow. The writer seems to be in her elements when she trains her guns on an overseas setting — and one that is metropolitan, modern and literate, to boot. Her art seems to come alive, imbuing the stories with wit, charm, and nuance. Some of the stories in these two sections are simply A-list and I could not help but feel that they have been wasted in their current publication format. These stories, though rendered in modern idiomatic English, are Indian and Odishan in feel and ambience with a credible cross-over woman character, who is also the I-narrator.
One story from the last section especially stands out: “The Legacy of a Distinguished Citizen of India.” Perhaps an analysis of this one story will show the story writer’s complex and multifaceted art off to advantage. It is a classic story of love and betrayal in the format of a gripping thriller. An Indian ambassador, who goes by the sobriquet of ‘Distinguished Citizen of India’, is reported killed in an explosion in his overseas location while his wife is away in her husband’s home in Bhubaneswar. The will of her husband that surfaces in his home is a strange one, instructing his wife to spend 100 days – an echo of Garcia Marquez’s cult novel here – in his house, taking stock of his massive collection of books so that the wife – Durga – gets to be able to donate their home and sprawling garden to a charitable organisation of her choice.
Her long time friend – Maya – steps in here. She runs a charity. Maya has just been separated from her husband – Dilip – who happened to be a friend of the assassinated official, and, who had vied with his supposedly dead friend, Shiv, for the love of Durga in their student days at Delhi University several decades ago. Shiv had won that round, winning Durga and marrying her. He had also beaten Dilip socially by making it into the elite Foreign Service while Dilip had to settle for the less glamourous Research and Analysis Wing.
Time’s whirligig did, however, turn. A secret affair develops between Shiv and Maya in later years, leading to the weaving of an elaborate plot on their part to stage Shiv’s death so Durga can be emotionally blackmailed into willing away his home, her husband’s legacy, to her best friend Maya. The ending of the story is like a punch in the solar plexus: “Maya smiled. She had come home. There was Shiv with two steaming cups of coffee. Their plan had worked. The official brief was that the pirates had captured him but welcomed his ideas on maritime policy. They released him without a ransom or a scratch on his body” (65).
The story, even in its bare bones, is fascinating. Add to that Jayshree’s subtle work of interpolating long ‘reminisces’ about Delhi University student life in the 1970s – with a girl from Odisha an oddity there – and the unobtrusive use of stream of consciousness narration, and the richly layered texture of the story can easily be inferred. Another hallmark of Jayshree’s art is to find suitable epigraphic illustrations for her stories. This story, for instance, has a quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party about how ‘at every meeting we are meeting a stranger’, which is bull’s eye on the theme of flux and betrayal.
What Not Words is a gripping read. Writing her fine stories about India and overseas while skilfully weaving fragments of her autobiography into them, she has succeeded in being much more than an ‘arranger of words.’ Jayshree Misra Tripathi is a new name to be counted among the front runners of Odia English writing.
Review of Uncertain Times by Satya Mohanty , former Secretary to the Government of India.
Jayshree Misra Tripathi’s slim volume of poems Uncertain Times (released in the Kindle version now) published by Pepperscript Publishers, is the answer of calmness to disquiet. Some attempt to write poetry of disquiet which lead to despair, some say it with poems which build on the disconcerting experience but do not end in an unsettling way. After the turbulence, there may not be redemption but stillness leads a calm, the calm of putting things together and getting ready for life beyond the upheaval. This book is one of the latter.
Organised under the rubric of six major themes – Towards Midnight, Disquiet in Isolation, #Lockdown, Environmental Follies and Nostalgia – the book covers the uncertainties of a cyclone to COVID, premature departures of loved ones to trepidation of a daughter coming late to a son working in fragile countries; all those sufferings which touch the reader.
Tripathi has been a freelance journalist, poet and chronicler in the midst of a lifetime as a peripatetic diplomatic spouse. She has taught and examined English language and literature for the diploma of the International Baccalaureate Organisation. Since 2013, she has written for websites including Huffington Post, News18 blogs and the Sahitya Akademi. A stoic response to uncertainty is not unusual for a person of such provenance.
Human beings eventually can handle lot more than they think they can. We never stand on solid ground ever, never really or perhaps we never can. Uncertain times like the COVID-19 lockdown, pestilence and anxiety is a test for everyone. How we live in this dark enlightens us. When time has “lost its beat”, the “connotation has metamorphosed” in the calm, in the poet’s mind.
Uncertain Times is written in the ‘clouds of the poet’s mind even though in sunny and starry nights’. It may not be luminous, but leads one to a calm eventually. By living the journey of life fully and gratefully, she lends a calmness to the disquiet. The haunting quality of disquiet is brought out too clearly in:
“The past cannot be undone,
The present so wasted
The future, yet to be born”.
But the coping mechanism is honest, dignified and re-enchanting. Finally, all of us will have to get on with our lives. Despair or resignation is not an option. Human beings will have to stand up with courage to face squarely the enveloping uncertainty:
“When memories drowned,
You do not wish to dredge
Being alone like dust rising with the breeze,
You can’t avoid.” (Please note: these 4 lines – copy error – see verse below)
you do not wish to dredge?
Being alone ……….
like dust rising with the breeze,
you cannot yet evade?”
A lockdown regime may ‘cast everything asunder’ but as a parent, she poignantly asks.
How may we/
Overcome and release/
The cancer of our pain
As we age and depart?
The poems, with their deep turbulence, are refreshingly life affirming. Acceptance can be found even in the dark, even though we do not known how to turn on the light or do not have the ability to face the blast of light. Meanwhile, we can live on embracing uncertainty in the calm.
The delicious ambiguity of calm emerges from the irony of life which is so unmistakably human. “Let the child beguile me/my heart forever” (The Outsiders’ Cherub). Once again, songs of the 1970’s provide the background:
“Your lips seemed like winter
As my heart pounded so
I bade you safe journey.”
The restraint, detachment and inevitability of living are combined together to give often an epic depth to an intensely private loss. The poet has not deciphered all tragedies but there is no resignation nor a craving for redemption. She has learnt to trust the journey with calm. She learns to live the questions, hoping to live among some distant day into the answers.
Finally, it is human nature to choose between certainty and curiosity, armour and vulnerability. But it is a poet’s unique destiny that choosing to be curious makes her choose to be vulnerable in the same breath. She recognises the “unity of the fate of landless labourers”. But finally “home just drifts away.” Even if vulnerability is palpable in life, events or diminishing hope, visceral reality will have to touch it:
“Keep those two fifty-year old mango trees,
From crashing into my home.”
There is no giving up. Finally, a poet can’t give up. How she expands her life and experience it with enchantment or lack of it is the litmus test;
Inhale, exhale –
Angst is another word.”
There is also a quiet hope in the end. In the poem ‘Lockdown Hopes’, there a pulsating positivity despite people being ‘lost in timeless space’.
“When our thoughts are kinder
Our actions noble
We will heal, we will heal.”
This is a book of poems for everyone who wants to find something life-sustaining in the dark and disquiet. There is a Louise Gluck like fluidity with restraint for learning to live in uncertain time and still stay calm and alive. Even if one is not exactly where one used to be, nor at a place where one wanted to be, it is a lesson of attempting to live fully and gratefully in that part of journey that is yet to be traversed. This bouquet of poems is a life boat of calm within the turbulence, a ladder to climb to the top of human spirit and heart. They are touching poems of depth, which create serenity rather than seriousness.
This book of poems will help others to walk forward with courage (much like the poet’s project #HelpHerWalkForward) apart from significantly adding to her body of work consisting of two volumes of poetry, a book of short stories and a book on the folk tales of Odisha.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Buy
Reviewed in India on 6 September 2020
I will not show as verified purchaser for this anthology because I didn’t buy this on amazon. But what I can guarantee is a verification for Jayshree Misra Tripathi’s sheer brilliance with words. I bought this book at its launch and flipped through it as the ceremony was on, each word tugging at my heart and longing to be read again.
Poetry does not sell well has been told to me by many publishers. But this book of poems must. Why? Because it’s hard to decide which poem in the book should find more love from the reader. Every poem demands that love. Tripathi shines in verse. Her poems make you think, lose yourself in memories of your own past or imagine a future you may desire.
Her words make you wish they came from your own pen. Her imagery forces your lips to curl in a smile sometimes and a cry on others.
You would want to finish reading the poems all at once but it’s difficult to do that. Tripathi’s poems can’t be swallowed. You chew on them slowly. Mostly you’ll find yourself, reading through and then putting the book down to travel someplace in your heart.
And that’s the beauty of this book of poems. They make you travel without physically moving an inch. And isn’t that what awesome poetry is all about?
If you’re looking for some classy stuff, buy this book and let it be the most common gift you ever give your friends and family.
Tripathi’s words will travel with you. They will also travel within you.
From Trips and Trials: A Selection of Poems and Songs, published in December 2018, by Pepperscript Publishers.
“Poetry cleans our souls and lights the lamp to search for the meaning of life. Jayshree’s poetry does exactly this. When you read her poetry,
“A finger taps your cheek,
As you ponder solemnly.
On life’s many burdens”.
Her poetry has a vision which comes from her own life experiences and it is that vision which is like “gentle, mysterious, seductive” as waves, as also the “Eternal flame, Symbol of hope”.
The advaita of water and fire is the essential quality of Jayshree’s poetry.”
P. Lalitha Kumari (Volga)
Writer & Poet
“To feel the salt of a truant breeze from the sea, the rough yet soft brush of sea-sand with it, is to be with oneself. To stand on a hill’s promontory and see the scatter of silent stars, over which clouds darker than the dark sky waft is also to be with oneself. These precious poems are about being with oneself, that rare condition which slips away before you have
sensed its presence. Hold them!”
Gopalkrishna Devdas Gandhi
Former Governor of West Bengal
“These are gentle verses that seem to drift down at twilight like vagrant petals tired of pretence. Not to be grasped or stained by fingers, they are to be felt simply in their evanescence, like the inky hour before dark. Unobtrusively, like passing seasons, Jayshree moves from image to evocative image.”
Indian Author-Columnist, Indian Ambassador to the
“…lovely, moving, deeply felt and sometimes seemingly autobiographical. Certainly, worthy of compilation!”
Politician, Writer, MP (Lok Sabha)
“Regret, restraint, rapture, remonstration; anxiety, anger, ardour, anticipation; desire, daydreams, despair, devotion….Jayshree M Tripathi evokes the conflicting tide of emotions that her multiplicity of identities— daughter, woman, mother, wife, lover and, yes, widow— have swept her life, with a powerful economy of words. Less is more, so much more when her tightly coiled feelings about life unwind in a supple, mesmerising flow. A must read, especially for those who shy away from poetic reflections”.
Editor, Lifestyle and Travel, The Economic Times at The Times of India Group.
From The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions, published in 2001,by the International Centre for Ethnic
Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions by Jayshree Misra
Love as Struggle, Love as Transformation:
A Foreword by Professor Neloufer de Mel, Department of English, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka
“Two powerful themes animate Jayshree Misra’s collection of
short stories and poems entitled The Sorrow of Unanswered
Questions. They are the themes of love and transformation.
The loves are those of struggle, regulation and pain, but also
celebration, with the power to heal deep wounds. The impact
of these loves are most keenly felt on the women characters
whose voices and perspectives are dominant in this collection.
As they attempt to understand the meanings of love, these
women, whether they be wives, daughters, mothers or sisters,
struggle also to be true to themselves and their aspirations.
Their voices are infused with the author’s intensely personal
evocation of her own life’s experiences which form the body
of the poems in the second half of the collection. She too has
known the entrapments of duty as daughter and eldest sister,
a bitter marriage, domestic violence, and healing through love,
although anxiety always attends it. This is where The Sorrow
of Unanswered Questions can be read as the personal which
is political, as it comments on women caught on the one hand
between yearnings for modernity encompassing the urban,
education, travel and profession, and on the other, tradition,
which expects ties to community, age old customs and sense
It is in their struggle to overcome the community as a
regulatory site of marriage, culture and sexuality that women
seek to transform themselves, displaying a powerful
determination and agency. Trapped in tradition, they are
cynical about love. ‘Sister’ is a story about a young woman
who goes to her arranged marriage as to a funeral. The day is
not suffused with joy and anticipation for her, but sadness
and foreboding. The story juxtaposes the sister’s thoughts as
she walks to her bridal mandap with those of her brother,
newly returned from America, outcaste because of his own
marriage to a foreigner. The two voices come to a climax when
the sister passes what seems like a note to her brother which
is, in effect, her death warrant. It is a melodramatic climax,
but all the more chilling because bridal suicides, stove burning,
dowry deaths are a part of reality in South Asia. Yet, this story
is about suicide as agency, the choice of a young woman who
prefers death to a loveless marriage. Her transformation is at
a costly price.
There are other women in the stories who show
determination and courage in confronting social expectations
and go against the grain of those expectations. Jn ‘Mother’,
Janaki is a widowed mother who leaves her dead husband’s
home where she has lost status, to support her children by
earning a living in the city through sewing. Her achievement
is bitter-sweet. While she single handedly educates her
children, her son leaves for America, never to see his mother
alive again. The tenacity of these women is celebrated by the
author. Their refusal to give in to the boundedness of tradition
and the regulations of the community elicit our admiration.
But the price they pay for challenging hierarchy is also always
before us. They lose their children to the diaspora, are cynical
about love, at times, fatalistic about the journey of their lives.
The plots of the stories are quick, and the writing lingers on
the emotions of the characters, avoiding sentimentality. As
the author links women’s roles with a vignette each of what it
means to be a mother, sister, friend, daughter and soulmate,
the composite picture of the women who inhabit The Sorrow
of Unanswered Questions is that of a wounded being who
nevertheless does not give up on hope. A sense of humour
also helps. In the poem ‘Epilogue’, a wry elan is the only
defence of a woman who goes through the different stages of
life and approaches middle age with calcium tablets to stave
off the osteoporosis and HRT to keep the body juices flowing.
And most importantly, there is always hope in love. In keeping
with the twist in the author’s own life, love, in the right hands,
promises the possibilities of transformation.
At a time when South Asian literature is gaining
international acclaim and attention, this collection of stories
and poems raises questions about what is South Asian, or
Indian, literature? The language of The Sorrow of Unanswered
Questions is not overtly South Asian. A few words here and
there locate the contexts of the stories or poems within India
or Sri Lanka. But more importantly, the situations of the
women as they are caught between tradition and other,
alternative aspirations for themselves is very much a South
Asian concern. As its societies undergo radical transformations
through globalization, the ambitions of South Asian women
also shift. Their roles within the domestic sphere no longer
go unchallenged by them. Their perspectives in The Sorrow
of Unanswered Questions, essentially middle-class and urban,
in keeping with the author’s own experiences, tell of the varied
opportunities available to women.
But this is also where patriarchy re-asserts itself to
control and regulate women. The resulting tensions are those
commonly experienced by South Asian women as they
negotiate their various duties, ambitions and identities.
A sense of the cosmopolitan is also valued in the stories
and poems within The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions. The
author is the wife of an Indian diplomat. As she celebrates
her “Rainbow Children” in the poem entitled ‘Foreign Service
Children’ for instance, Jayshree Misra salutes the idea of a
global citizenship, confident and at ease in any part of the
world, eclectic in cultures, languages, habits and manners. Her
own voice and the inner language of her poems, however do
not reflect such an admixture because the language of The
Sorrow of Unanswered Questions is very much within a
standard received English with familiar poetic images.
However, it is this very familiarity that makes the urban
English educated, middle class South Asian reader identify
with the women and their situations in The Sorrow of
Unanswered Questions. The courage to write about intensely
Personal experiences involving pain and loss becomes salutary within this framework of identification, and ultimately, therefore celebratory.”
Afterword by Radhika Coomaraswamy ,Director,International Centre for Ethnic Studies.
U.N. Special Rapporteur On Violence Against Women
“Valentine Daniel, in his book Charred Lullabies, reflects a
great deal on violence, the effect of violence and the
representation of violence by scholars and activists. Violence,
he argues, in the lives of those he interviewed was a
transformative moment. Some people were destroyed or broken
by the experience. Others were transformed, their experience
giving them enormous strength and conviction. They take
control of their lives, give direction to those they love and
take measures to preserve their humanity. Women, he argues,
are often in the latter category.
Jayshree Misra is a survivor of what some feel is the
worst form of violence, the violence between intimates, when
trust is broken and when escape is often impossible. And yet,
like the great survivors of Valentine Daniel’s story, she has
emerged strong, reflective and full of a passionate love for
humanity. Her poems are about love, fear, tragedy and
violence. They are also about renewal and regeneration. They
explore the depths of feelings and relationships in a voice that
will strike resonance with many people living in South Asian
societies. The poems are all vivid in themselves but an
underlying thread of compassionate humanity, coming out of
lived experience, holds them together. As a result, her poems
are full of the rich texture of life and living.
In my work as United Nations Special Rapporteur on
Violence Against Women, I have often met similar women who
have experienced tragedy, bereavement and violence but who
regain their faith in humanity because their personalities are
full of love and caring. They turn their experience on its head
by making it into a creative moment allowing them to emerge
wiser, stronger and full of life’s energy. They reflect the
triumphant aspects of the indomitable human spirit. Jayshree’s
poems are in the same vein, making us realize that the
despondency we feel about tragedy in the real is counteracted
by the strength, surprises and playfulness of the human spirit.
Let us hope that Jayshree will continue to be an inspiration to the
Many women who have to face violence in everyday life.
Let us hope that this book of poetry will help them escape the
cycles of violence and cruelty by giving voice to their pain and
fears. Let us also hope that the book of poetry will help them cope with their
tragedy with strength and compassion, realising that tomorrow is theirs to create.”