When you read these stories, you know they were written by a poet. I was immediately captivated by the settings, described in minute detail: shape, colour, sound and smell. Next I was drawn in by the characters. The intricate details of their lives and their families, friends and fellow workers. Finally, though, it is this author’s compassionate portrayal of the mental experiences of her characters that fascinates the reader. External plot is secondary; the real event in each tale is the development of a new personal theme in the life of the main character.
Perhaps the most meaningful story to the Western reader would be “In Search of a Miracle,” which chronicles in great detail the experiences and reactions of a young American student on a multi-day train ordeal to Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India. Nothing really happens. She takes the train there, she walks around, she returns to Delhi. But what is remarkable is how the mood of the story echoes her mood as she progresses through the experience. As her reaction to her environment changes, there is a palpable change in the writing to create a different atmosphere to match, allowing us to feel that we are taking part.
“The Postcard Swami” — from the story of the same name — calls himself the face of India. This book is the picture of India, from the noise, brilliance, and odours into the minds and souls of the people.
I have reviewed this writer before, and it is a tribute to her skill that this book, with so different an objective from that other work, uses a whole different set of techniques to achieve its goal.
Highly recommended for fans of poetic writing of all sorts.
Having previously turned her keen eye to the ravages of Sri Lankan civil war (Fallen Leaves, 2020) and raised her voice to shout the too-often silent pleas of oppressed women everywhere (Chant of a Million Women, 2017), multiple award-winning poet and writer Shirani Rajapakse focuses here on a few ineluctable features of modern India. Among them: the deep spirituality that casts its shadow and dictates so many daily practices; the entrenched and pervasive bureaucracy that depends on a network of cronies at the expense of merit; and perhaps most markedly, the bewildering face India presents to foreign tourists trying for a unique experience there.
Taken together, these stories show an assured balance and depth of emotion, an eye for the telling detail, and a worldly sense of the human similarities lurking below cultural differences. It’s a striking collection, a highly sophisticated achievement and shows the steady evolution of this already-accomplished writer.
“Prophet of the Thar,” the first story grouped in this collection, combines a couple of Rajapakse’s topoi: India’s spirituality and its sometimes all-too-human origins. A teenage goatherd who chafes under his father’s authority longs for something different. He gets it when he somehow becomes a celebrated holy man leading disciples through the Thar desert. This story’s delight resides in the observation of how easily the human faith response is triggered and how arbitrarily are its talismans chosen.
“In Search of a Miracle” is another tale illuminating the quotidian humanness behind much of religious faith. Here, however, no new gods or prophets rule the day; it’s rampant commercialism and a touch of xenophobia that partially drives the action. The main thrust, however, comes from the eternal naiveté of foreign tourists who come to India’s spiritual capital in Varanasi to find what they think of as “experience,” but which barely allows them to leave with body and soul intact. This is the grittiest piece in the collection, and worth the price of admission by itself.
“Gods, Nukes, and a Whole Lot of Nonsense,” a kind of a fugue piece, excoriates the blind faith in technology and the rampant jingoism which hurtle modern countries toward developing atomic weapons. It ends, appropriately enough, with a plaintive and despairing plea defending the natural resources of the country, the most important of which is human.
It intrigues me that two of the stories, “Ram Satrap Sharma, IAS,” and “The Consultant” deal so directly with aspects of public service and the kind of racket engaged in by those in India who call bureaucracy home. They show clearly that it’s not what you know but whom you know—and how you can manipulate them into awarding you remunerative work even when it’s not necessary and especially when you’re not the least bit knowledgeable about the subject. Telling pieces, particularly since they come in a pair in Rajapakse’s collection.
The author occupies herself with travel to and tourism in India. I’ve already mentioned “In Search of a Miracle,” but “Postcard Swami: the Face of Indiaah” [sic], and “Meeting God” also highlight the interaction of outsiders with India’s traditions, attitudes, and modern commercialism.
If there’s any justice in the awards given to current titles from this region, “Gods, Nukes, and a Whole Lot of Nonsense” will surely gather laurels to itself and its author. These stories represent a rewarding and clear growth of Rajapakse’s heart, powers of observation, and skill in storytelling.