Review of Shree Ghatage’s Awake When All The World Is Asleep
August 2, 1999
This article was originally published in Paragraph Magazine (Toronto) in March of 1998. The author retains all rights.
Presently, Canadian literature is peppered with powerful South Asian names like Ondaatje, Selvadurai, Rau Badami and Mistry. A suspicion is sometimes voiced that some manuscripts are receiving undeserved publisher attention by sole virtue of their authors’ Indian names. Having suffered a similar accusation, I fear the day when that backlash attitude becomes commonplace or indeed justified.
It was therefore with joy and relief that I read Shree Ghatage’s collection of short stories set in India. The anthology renewed my faith in the quality of the fountain of Indo-Canadian writing: despite fears, the torrent has not yet been diluted by an overzealous bid to satisfy a recently identified market thirst. Thankfully, The Indianness of Ghatage’s tales are not a marketing gimmick that neatly packages exoticism and misdirected Orientalism in the image of Somerset Maugham, but instead is the kernel of cultural evocations that gush from the author’s heart. That kernel leads us calmly into the Indian household and lovingly shows transpirations and indiscretions that wash over the eyes in simple but compelling terms.
Where other writers may be tempted to rely on the Western reader’s expectations of India’s tragic poverty, ancient mysticism or her dogmatic politics, Ghatage instead tells heart-wrenching but universal stories of romance, desire and loss. As with much modern Indian fiction, a haze of sadness settles upon this collection, but a sense of joy is what results.
Ghatage covers a broad scope, from the traditional Tagorean themes of dharma and karma to more modern portrayals of courtship, infidelity and madness. Love between women and men, held within a shifting cultural context, is the thread that links all of the stories. Fittingly, the anthology is sandwiched between two halves of a story about a Western-educated woman who returns to India to reconcile her failed love affair with a Canadian man. The tales sigh with honesty and newness for one refreshing reason: their portrayal of Indian men mostly as human beings with strengths and foibles, and not as the oppressive monsters that many female Indian artists would choose to paint us.
To write of foreign cultures and situations often compels a placation of the unfamiliar readers’ need for clarification. Ghatage refuses to compromise the music of her sentences, and instead includes a glossary of Indian words. Consequently unburdened by any descriptive obligations to her Western readership, Ghatage freely wields her considerable skill with allusion and imagery, crafting simple but delicious exegeses like this description of a subtle descent into obsessive madness:
The crescent moon dangles, a reflecting pendant around the neck of a reclining sky. It is the gold chandrakor you gave me so many years ago, twelve days after our son was born, when we both remarked how, on that auspicious night, the full moon dimmed attending stars with its molten radiance. Like your face, you said, running rough thumbs along my smooth edges, undoing the clasp of my new chain, you must shine only for me. Earlier, I had worn a moss green sari with vermilion border. Go and change, you commanded, when you saw me in the hall, two crimson roses in my hair, ready to greet our guests who were coming for the naming ceremony. I smiled tomyself. Wore off-white raw silk with turmeric border instead. Even then eyes followed me everywhere that night. But you didn't notice, didn't know that happiness is hard to conceal.
Awake When All The World Is Asleep is a pleasant read akin to listening to soft music. It is a set of calming tales that could only have originated in serene India, told with a reflective Indian voice. Never brash, daring or world-shaking, it is nonetheless an evocative collection that causes its reader to remark, upon completion, “I’m glad I read it.”
Raywat Deonandan is the author of Sweet Like Saltwater and Divine Elemental. His personal website may be found at www.deonandan.com