Indian English writing: They are part of the diaspora but the homeland is never too far away in their writing. Anu Kumar examines the works of two early Indian English writers, Uma Parameswaran and Victor Rangel-Ribeiro.
On June 23, 2000, the 15th anniversary of the Kanishka disaster when Air India’s flight 182 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, Uma Parameswaran’s poem, On the Shores of the Irish Sea, was read out at a gathering by the Irish coast, close to where the plane had come down. The poem commemorated the 300 and more lives lost when a bomb exploded on board. Most were Indo-Canadians, a hyphenated identity that most who are of the Diaspora would recognise.
The lives lost were too quickly forgotten, not just in the country of their birth but in the country they had made a home in. The forgetting of innocent lives lost in an unnecessary evil way compounds a tragedy and makes closure difficult. Writers and artistes like Uma Parameswaran have the task to keep alive their memory, using words and images as consolation that no life is ever lived in vain.
I ‘met’ Uma Parameswaran, as I did Victor Rangel-Ribeiro on SASIALIT (South Asian Literature), a listserv engaged in debating and discussing literature from and of south Asia. Set up in the 1990s, SASIALIT has nearly 1000 members, and it was interventions on the part of Uma and Victor — both among its earliest members — that first offered a glimpse into their writing and interests.
It is difficult to write of two writers in the same breath or on the same page. A writer’s perspective is always unique but both Parameswaran and Rangel-Ribeiro epitomise a certain way of seeing and engaging with the world. When they moved westwards some decades ago, the immigrant experience was quite different. Parameswaran born into a Tamilian household moved to Winnipeg after her marriage. She describes coming to Canada as a “pleasant experience” since the racial and economic tensions that now characterise more recent migrant issues were relatively absent.
Rangel-Ribeiro was born in Portuguese-ruled Goa and work took him to Bombay and Calcutta before he moved to New York. He taught, worked in newspapers and advertisement agencies and his columns as a music critic have also appeared in the New York Times. Such moves encapsulate not just their own experience but those of others; moves that may, in certain instances, even be metaphorical.
Parameswaran’s A Cycle of the Moon — nominated for the Canadian Book of the Year award (2010) — tells of the married Mayura who returns to her natal home in Tamil Nadu in a huff and learns more of her new married world once she is back in safe confines. Parameswaran prefers to call herself a writer-activist responsible for bringing a community’s shared experiences to the forefront. A collection called Trishanku appeared in 1988 and she also penned drama scripts for the small Indian community in Winnipeg as it celebrated India’s national and traditional holidays. One of these plays, Sita’s Promise, used mythology in a fantastical way to affirm the multiculturalism that is part of first-generation diasporic consciousness, and so Rama, Sita and Lakshmana visit Canada during their exile and Sita promises to visit again. Literature has that power to create new enduring mythologies.
A tragedy can bind a community too and the story of the Kanishka disaster lives on chiefly in the endeavours of Parameswaran and others like her. Initially, the bombing of flight 182 was considered an ‘Indian’ tragedy; then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s offered his condolences to then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Yet the families of the victims led by spokesperson Lata Pada have strived to ensure that justice is, in some measure, possible. Parameswaran’s Kanishka poems refer to both Mulroney and Lata. Creative expression, though limited in its way, has been vital. Two of her books appeared last year: Pinto Sees the Light and Early English Fictionists of South India.
Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s work encompasses the many hues of human experience, revealing humour present in sad occasions, the liveliness of every awkward situation, and the strange human connections possible. Indefinable, unquantifiable loss suffuses Loving Ayesha, the lead story in the collection published in 2003. In his 80s now, Rangel-Ribeiro moves between Goa and New York and is deeply involved with the world of writing in Goa. The other stories move across locales and continents and a variety of narrative voices appear. An Anna’s Worth of Kindness and the equally long titled, How I Missed My Chance to be a Real Porno Star, are told in a lively youthful voice though set in two different cities of the world. Then there is the story of an elderly Indian woman befriending her equally old Chinese neighbour though neither knows the other’s language.
Moon Dance describes a changing way of life conveyed starkly by the images of a passing motorcar choking the carriage with dust and the child’s attempts to keep his parents’ in good humour. Pieces like An Anna’s Worth of Kindness and Night Encounter show us a vignette of life in Bombay — a tramcar ride, a chance encounter with a prostitute, while Lazarus as the good-hearted thief in The Miscreant also featured in the novel, Tivolem, shortlisted for the Crossword Award in 1998. Loving Ayesha is a long short story about an idealistic young man hoping to find and hold onto love and his place in the world. Despite the inevitability of loss, there is still nobility in moving on, as the story shows.
There are different facets to being a writer in a world today made of border crossers of various kinds; one is part of the Diaspora but the homeland is never too far away in one’s writing. In the work of both these writers, there is movement of various kinds, but also a certain timelessness and Father Burgoyne’s words of advice to the narrator of Loving Ayesha as the latter faces a particularly difficult moment in life exemplifies this best. The priest advises the younger man that every single day he has a sacred trust to improve the talents he is born with, just as it is important every day to touch the lives of those he knows and those of strangers too. It would bring an oasis into his desert life, Father Burgoyne assures the young narrator, and in the way every sorrow leads to joy of a kind, it does.