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Updated: November 10, 2013 14:55 IST

Cultural alienation, and a curse

MIHIR BALANTRAPU
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Other Waters, Eleni N. Gage, Supernova Publishers, Rs.295.
Special Arrangement Other Waters, Eleni N. Gage, Supernova Publishers, Rs.295.

A promising drama fails to take off because of a sagging plot.

If you have already Googled Eleni N. Gage’s Other Waters, you will read many reviews that insist that this novel is about a bicultural woman struggling to forge an identity for herself across the seas. This is undoubtedly a very appealing, accessible theme for today’s readers, many of whom are, themselves, a product of our “expat-filled” world. But don’t be fooled into thinking that cultural alienation is the worst dilemma staring India-born New Yorker Maya Das — a savvy psychiatry resident with a loving family, an unnaturally understanding Caucasian boyfriend and a highly companionable best friend — in the face.

No, a curse follows 27-year-old Maya around as she goes about her independent urban life — a Brahmin’s curse that originates in dusty Jodhpur, where her beloved grandmother has just passed away. Her father suffers a minor heart attack out of nowhere, her mother bursts a blood vessel in her nose, her sister suffers a miscarriage, her long-suffering boyfriend turns deserter and a spurious medical malpractice lawsuit threatens to prematurely end her career. To Maya, each of these mishaps is one more sign that she and her loved ones are victims of an inexorable malediction.

Is the curse a real phenomenon? Or is it a coping mechanism Maya uses to explain the sudden mysterious spurt of misfortune in her life, much of which could well be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom? Is it merely an invented malady that Maya can proactively pursue a cure for? Or could it be a manifestation of the smothering ties of a family she is unable to shrug off (in fact, the strong support structure around Maya can easily lead one to scoff at her unwarranted despondency)? Or is she overly anxious that she’ll never find a suitable mate?

Psychoanalysis is a constant undercurrent as Maya deeply examines her psyche through her mentor, the phlegmatic Dr. Bernard (I have my suspicions that Dr. Bernard is less a real character and more a literary device, a metaphor for Maya’s critically introspective bent of mind).

Unfortunately for Other Waters, though, its somewhat rambling prose erodes the penetrability of its underlying message. I can easily imagine readers getting bored by its sagging plot, pendulously tied together by kitschy moments of familial affection, Maya’s youthful lifestyle and heavy doses of nostalgia. There are also recurring instances of poor dialogue caused by wrong paragraph breaks and improper speech attribution (nothing a little rereading won’t remedy, but disconcerting, nonetheless, if you want to maintain a smooth flow).

In her attempt to give the reader full access to Maya’s world, Gage may have erred on the side of the superfluous and self-indulgent. Incorporating cute idiosyncrasies into your characters is always an effective device to quickly endear them to the reader; but since the people in Maya’s life are so stereotypical, their little traits are cloyingly familiar and it is hard to be enamoured by them after a point. While some of Maya’s thoughts are quite engaging, much of the repartee between characters is purely light-hearted banter intended merely to amuse.

Maya’s uninhibited interactions with her social circle betray little of the crippling burden of her neurotic turmoil (though she does recede into a cocoon of atrophying depression at one point).

Perhaps Gage is trying to show that it’s important to pursue strength, maintain the stiffness in your upper lip and valiantly battle the chimera in your mind, no matter how accursed you may think you are.

Extract:

Had Maya been living in a delusion, making the curse true because she believed it was so[?] Maybe Maya’s family was just… flawed and responsible for their own... deterioration.

Other Waters, Eleni N. Gage, Supernova Publishers, Rs.295.

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