Sunday, March 1, 2015

Batik Rain and Other Stories by Ashwini Devare

‘Batik rain and Other Stories’, Ashwini Devare’s debut collection, is a book with a difference. Six stories set firmly in the mindscape of today’s Global Indian, bringing alive a slice of the great Diaspora and evoking the rhythms of a new community in the making, these stories are different because they are not replete with the received angst of second-generation immigrants – look no further than Jhumpa Lahiri or Chang Rae Lee. Neither are they characterized by the surprised indignation of a privileged person from back home facing negative discrimination for the first time. In real life people cannot allow their pain or frustration to bubble over like it does for Adichie’s Ifemulu, nor do they always have to subside into repressed creatures of suffering. They make their adjustments with grace, and with the support of society – a community of people in and probably off the same boat. Devare’s characters are these people and as a recorded history of a changing people, this book is important.

The stories span a wide arc. At one end is the story “Saroj”, a chronicle really, from past generations, of first time travels, loss, redemption and more travel. At the other end is “On Air”- a modern coming of age tale so universal, the Indian ethnicity of the heroine is irrelevant. My favourite, “Batik Rain”, centres around a family on an Asian holiday; the plot is not complicated but the writer keeps you on edge throughout, demonstrating a masterful control of tempo and narrative tension. I liked too ‘Siem Reap’ for how Devare weaves in a travellers’ perspective that I am partial to – thoughtful engagement with a different culture rather than being a mad box-ticker or a poolside sloucher. “Homecoming” and “Anthem of Guilt” are flipsides of the same coin, and describe to me perfectly, the conundrum of the NRI patriot.

Devare’s writing is informed by her professional training and her experience as a career journalist – this can be a good thing and a bad thing. She has a light touch and we do not have to put up with any authorial neuroses whatsoever. With a few deft strokes of her pen, she paints a very accurate picture of a marriage that helps a man rediscover his roots or another relationship that pulls him away from his mother and motherland. If there is stating rather than showing, it is understated and has the ring of truth to redeem it. However, Devare’s touch is much too light at times – “On air” for example predictably proceeds to a tame end - tortured introspections by the protagonists or fictive plot twists could have helped, but Devare is possibly wary of letting these devices take over her craft.

There is likewise a tendency to step back and give a panning shot of the background and the story up until that point, something that recalls late night chai and chat sessions with frequent backing-ups to understand a nuance, rather than the modern short story form where plot development does the talking, and flashbacks can never be straightforward. I find this refreshing though. Emotion and fantasy are kept tightly in check in ‘Batik Rain and other Stories’ and this might be a weakness, but the effect is surprisingly one of muted grace and integrity.

Devare succeeds in her portrayal of the urban pan Indian identity – a significant departure from the strong provincial flavours of all literary fiction coming out of the country. There is a welcome currency and immediacy to ‘Batik Rain and other Stories’ that should recommend itself to anyone interested in, or curious about the modern Indian dynamic.


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