Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Feeling at Home

Reflecting on the last four years of living at Loyola College and my home in New Jersey, when I think of moments when I “feel at home,” I typically think of a mix of physical places and interactions with friends and family. However, although it may seem a bit unconventional, I also think of instances of self-actualization in which I feel most grounded, alive, and fully myself. In this respect, as an English major and writing minor, when I think of when I feel most at home with myself, I think of when I read and write.

One of my favorite poets is New Jersey native, William Carlos Williams. As I was reading Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, I found a correlation between his description of Dolly and Williams’s poem, “The Yachts” (Which can be read at the bottom of this post). Chandra’s narrator says that Dolly “grew more and more to resemble a kind of stately ship in sail, constant and beautiful, unmoved by choppy waters, and her supporters grew delirious with admiration” (52). Williams’s poem focuses on a similar metaphor of social class and economics, but focuses on America during the early 20th century. His poem begins with a speaker watching beautifully crafted yachts (the upper class) lining up in a harbor for a race. Once the race begins, the yachts “cut aside” “bodies thrown recklessly in the way” (Line 26). The yachts are unaffected by the “sea of faces about them in agony, in despair” (Line 27), the waves, or lower class citizens. The speaker realizes the horror and the implication of the race in lines 28-29, as “the whole sea become an entanglement of bodies / lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold.” The waves become a “broken, // beaten, desolate” (Line 30-31) mass of people “the skillful yachts pass over” (Line 33). The speaker’s initially idealistic perception of the pleasant appearance of the yachts develops into an interpretation that reads and understands the implications of the seemingly satisfying scene of ships in the water.

I thought this connected directly in “Shakti.” In Williams’s poem, other crafts follow the yachts, aspiring to attain their image of prestige and beauty, like the countless characters who wish to attain similar wealth and status of Dolly. We learn that Dolly, like William’s yachts, “pass[es] over” Ganga, her servants, and anyone of a lower class. Ganga says, “To such high people the rest of the world is invisible. People like me she cannot see” (69). Sheila succumbs to competitive temptations for a while, but ultimately, she, like William’s speaker, experiences sorrow in realizing what is going on around her and what she is participating in—most apparent in the change of demeanor of Sheila and T.T. after Asha’s wedding. Sheila realizes what is more important to her than such petty affairs of competition: her friends and her family. She is successful in healing the wounds afflicted by the long-lasting rivalry.

Overall, by reading and writing literature, I find that I feel most at home with myself. Aside from the joy experienced in finding random literary allusions or connections, I find my own connections with other characters, writers, and their ideas, which allows me to evaluate my own traits, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings—ultimately attaining self-awareness, or for me, feeling most at home.

The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too-heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls

ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is feckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas.

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind;
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken,

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.

William Carlos Williams


Sasha had always been close with her mother. When she came to live with my family as a high school foreign-exchange student from Kiev, Ukraine, she prioritized frequent phone conversations with her mother. Sasha also talked with her sister, father, and grandparents on occasion, but her maternal connection seemed the most constant and stabilizing through her ten life-changing months in our household. As she sought to find a place for herself within a new home, Sasha formed special bonds with each member of my family. My older brothers were a perpetual delight and novelty to her; she reveled in the overflow of my dad’s outgoing personality, which was so different from the temperament of her own father; but Sasha always approached my mother with a sort of confident expectation. Other relationships that she found in my family were something new and exciting, but the intimate relationship with a mother seemed fundamental to her concept of finding a home in a foreign land. She would make tea and chat with my mom over the kitchen table late at night. She confided all of the details of her interactions in classes, her perceptions of new friends, and her confusion in the world of an American public high school. My mother assumed that role gladly, but Sasha’s dependence on my mom always struck both of us as odd. I have always been close with my mother, whom I respect more than any other woman in the world, but by the age of sixteen we had developed a healthy distance between ourselves. Sure, she knew most of my friends and I certainly could talk to her about my troubles, but our relationship lacked the fierce and constant dependence that Sasha had on both my mother and her own.

By the time I landed in Kiev Borispol Airport, relinquished my bags to the petite blonde woman who awaited me, and allowed her to hug me and fuss over me the entire ride to their apartment, I understood Sasha’s mother. The woman barely spoke English, but her constant, downright vigilant care during my visit explained Sasha’s idea of home as a familial space primarily oriented around the mother. Mama, as I fell into the habit of calling her, clearly ran the show in their household. She structured her thirteen- and eighteen-year old daughters’ schedules, academic plans, eating habits, and personal lives. She mediated conflicts, nursed me through a nasty cold, and listened patiently to complaints from the school day. Sasha’s home revolved around her mother in a way unfamiliar to me. My own mom has a naturally reserved personality, but she serves our family with a quiet dedication and affection that holds our home together in its own way. Though the maternal role in my family looks different than it does in Sasha’s, both stabilize and define home for us. Sasha’s relationship with her mother may involve more constant contact, but mine is no less integral to my understanding of the family that is my emotional “home.”

As I learned from my experience with Sasha’s family and my own, motherhood forms a central mooring in the home life of cultures internationally. Indian culture, as Vikram Chandra portrays it, also give mothers a unique role in the home. When Jago Anita and Sartaj, both men of martial discipline and respect in their society, encounter loneliness and the haunting images of the past, they remember their mothers in younger days. Even the phraseology of their language points to the centrality of maternal figures, as Chandra reminds the reader when Sartaj and Kshitij exchange the salutation, “Vande mataram,” or “Hail to the mother” (115). The presence of this phrase in their culture illustrates the unifying aspect of reverence for a maternal figure; all members of society who use that expression share the value of idealized motherhood. In that moment, the exchange of this phrase between two characters bonds them together with a fleeting mutual sympathy. That relationship changes rapidly however, and Sartaj also evokes the strong image of motherhood in his emotional torture of Kshitij: “A mother is pure, Kshitij. After all she is a mother. But your mother Kshitij…Did you see your mother with some stranger? Sucking on him?” (147). This line of questioning was particularly strong because of the powerful importance of motherhood; if Sartaj could cause Kshitij to question the character of his mother, his confidence in his home and background in general would crumble. Mothers in many different cultures and homelands define home and remind their children of all ages of their ideals and values.

A Loss of Innocence?

During class on Monday, I learned that “home” does not mean the same for different individuals. It is not necessarily a building, or place, but incorporates an entire culture. To some students, the idea of “home” is centered upon cooking and specific food. Others inadvertently link their home to friends and family. Personally, I have found that my home, although a stagnant ideal remains in my mind, is continuously adapting. As a senior in college, I made the decision that I was going to leave town and attend a college that was a considerable distance from my own concept of home and community. I wanted to experience another culture and immerse myself in a different community—a community far more diverse than my own. I departed from my small rural environment to live in a diverse city, a plan ride away, where I had no personal connections. While away from home, I developed as an individual in a way that would forever influence my life. When I returned home for the first time, I found that it wasn’t as I had remembered it. Sure, the same people still resided there and nothing had physically changed; yet, I couldn’t help feel that it felt distinctly different. Over time, I learned that it wasn’t my small quaint town that had changed—it was me. In the short story, “Shakti,” in Vikram Chandra’s novel, Love and Longing in Bombay—The protagonist’s son, Sanjeev, has a very similar experience.

Sheila’s son, Sanjeev, returns to his home in Bombay with disapointment, after attending his first year at Yale. Sanjeev, like most college students, can’t help but feel that his childhood home is unmistakably different than when he left it. Chandra writes,
So he wandered off the hill and down to the Pastry Palace, and as he crossed the flyover
bridge he was trying to recall the excitement that once had really made that place a palace,
that teenage feeling of seeing a cluster of friends and knowing that everything was possible.
But now it just looked ordinary. It was a disappointment that made him trudge on into that
palace, a bitter determination to see it all through (58).
In this passage, Sanjeev is wandering aimlessly through the familiar streets that once felt like home to him; however, the wonderful places he remembered as a child have lost their “excitement.” Sanjeev recalls how such places where “clusters of friends” loitered would make him feel that “everything was possible.” His disappointed and depressed state causes me to reflect on my own emotions upon returning home from college. Is this carefree and optimistic attitude of “infinite possibilities” lost through the experiences of adulthood? As college students, do we simply become more realistic in our views—less naive—or are we inexplicably loosing a sense of our childhood? Do we change so much that there are portions of our childhood selves, or sense of home, that are lost forever? Although he has physically separated himself from Bombay through his attendance to Yale, he appears to still carry elements of his home with him.

I found Sanjeev’s infatuation with Dolly’s daughter, Roxanne, to be extremely fitting. Their family forbidden romance resembled a Baliwood version of Romeo and Juliet with a Hollywood happy ending. Through their marriage, not only do they end their family’s feud, but they also connect Sanjeev back to his home and culture. Throughout the story, there is evidence with economic struggle between characters, due to an increasingly western influence. It becomes clear to families, like Sheila’s, that trade with Americans is necessary for a business’ success. Sanjeev, although changed from his experiences in America, is able to connect back to his homeland through his marriage to Roxanne. Their union seems to further symbolize the successful intermeshing of both cultures, seen through the emergence of the Bijalini-Botwalla Bombay International Trading Group (74). The narrator notes that Sheila “wanted to tell him [Sanjeev] that the past was responsible for him, for his beauty, but of course there was nothing to say, no possible way to explain” (59). I wonder, how much does our past really influence our future? Do Sanjeev’s ideal memories of Bombay have any influence over his later love for Roxanne? Although we may physically separate ourselves from our homeland, do we ever truly escape our past? Sanjeev’s past seems without a doubt to interact with his future.

Home is where the heart is

I can’t relate to country clubs. After all, when I think about home –a little two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx – country/social clubs are usually the last things that cross my mind. But, there is an actual neighborhood called Country Club in the Bronx: its waterfront properties, private docks, and beach and golf clubs line a corridor of the (North) East Bronx, and the area even has its own stretch of road (aptly named “Country Club Road”). I even came across an article which covers anything I omitted, (if you’re interested: Country Club ) in which one woman describes the neighborhood as “upscale, prestigious, and immaculately maintained.” And it is.

My family doesn’t come from “upscale, prestigious, and immaculately maintained”; there are only three of us, and have been for more than a decade now. Sure, we’ve moved around before settling at our current home, but we’ve only “moved” in the technical sense: in my childhood, we lived in the apartment on the ground floor, and a few years after that we lived on the fourth floor, before moving into where we are today. I’m not even sure how to “define” that literal sense of home– is it three homes, a three-in-one, or just plain old one home? And, As far as upscale, I would say that leftovers and my mom’s ’93 accord are far from it – but my mother did and does the her best to keep our family going– my brother and I worked hard to get scholarships to afford our continuing education, and my mother even switched to take the day shift as a nurse just so she could see her children when they came home from school.

“Shakti”, the second story from Chandra’s “Love and Longing in Bombay” definitely hit home (pun not intended). While I cannot related to the exclusive Malabar Gym, Sheila’s Shanghai Club, or even Ganga’s dealings with her property in Dharavi, I can relate to the extent that these mothers are involved in their children’s lives. I was immediately moved by Chandra’s words (through Shelia’s emotions), as he writes: “She felt the gears grinding inside her. She told herself to remember whom she was doing it for, after all; she looked at her son’s face and remembered the way he had learned to walk by clinging precariously to her sari and his jerky little steps, but still every morning she lay awake in bed…for the great effort to get up and war with the day” (63). As a reader, I was lead through Bombay and introduced to Sheila, Dolly, and Ganga –three women, and mothers, with amazingly interconnected lives. In a nutshell, Dolly and Sheila are at a kind of ‘social’ war – they each have their own “exclusive” club, akin to our modern day country and golf clubs. When we find out that Sanjeev, Sheila’s son, is in love with, and plans to marry Roxanne (who, gasp, is Dolly’s daughter), we find that Sheila ultimately compromise that she and Dolly must come together to make her son happy: “We thought then that Sheila was invincible, but we had forgotten that even the strongest will win the world is easily defeated by its own progeny” (57) (I also believe that it is not coincidence that Sanjeev finds love in Bombay despite having “broke[n] many hearts (while at Yale) with a dark curl of hair…”). For Sanjeev, home is literally where his heart is.

It is fitting that the “memorable” moment at the end of the book occurs as Roxanne’s cousin chases Sheila’s niece, and “the moment was broken and everyone was talking” (94). Despite where you come from or what country club you belong to, or how you think some things in this world are just about “politics”, I’m not sure you could argue against Subramaniam’s saying that “the beginning and end of everything is a marriage”. Marriages spawn families, mothers spawn (well), spawn, and children fall in love and get married. All the while, the Bijlani-Boatwalla Bombay Intl. Trading Group prospers, governments rise and fall, and so it goes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


In the section, “Kama”, of Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, Sartaj is experiencing “loneliness” that permeates every aspect of his life, stemming from his divorce with Megha. We are first introduced to Megha in relation to Sartaj’s “vanity”. Chandra writes,
He had wanted to be loved by all, and Megha had teased him, you’re everyone’s hero. Then yours too, he had said. No, no, no, she said, and she shook her head, and kissed him. You have a terrible Panju accent, she said laughing, and your English is lousy, but you are just beautiful, and then she kissed him again. They had married out of vanity, their own and each other’s. He had been the Casanova of the college, with a dada’s reputation that her friends had warned her about. But she has been so very sure of herself, of her very good looks like a hawk that had shine she had of money, and they were so handsome together that people stopped in the streets to look at them. After they married they liked to make love sitting facing each other, his hair open about his shoulders so they were like mirror images, hardly moving, eyes locked together in an undulating competition towards and away from pleasurable collapse. The memory rose into his throat and Sartaj shook it away… (88)
Why did they separate? His pain is so obvious, but what is missing is what happened to their relationship, to their love. He claims that he is not with any other women, so I started to assume she had left him, which was reinforced by the fact that she would be remarried until her visit to his house. In this scene I started to question why familiarity suddenly meant comfort which suddenly meant love. What makes the moment so passionate are the memories the two share. The smell of the milk and tea sends Sartaj into hysterics as he remembers “the first time they had woken together, the profound heat of her skin against him, and her confession that she did not know how to make tea.” (117) His emotional reaction surprised me as his description of their love focuses not on any particular of her character, merely her “vanity” and their “handsome” coupling that allowed for passionate “love making”. What is it about memories of life lost that cause such deep pain? Why must beauty be possessed? Is greed natural to the human condition?
The scene between Sartaj and Megha progresses as a series of comparisons to their past. Furthermore, Sartaj focuses on the physical, the superficial, the fact that Megha is something that he can never possess again. He mentions that Megha’s kiss “he always experienced as a question,” as he describes the “desperate” way he hisses her afraid of losing that feeling, that particular experience eternally. (119) He says, “Once they would have delighted in the lingering discarding of clothes, the slow fall of silk, the shifting of cotton and slow revelations, but now there wasn’t time.” (119) There lies a greed for each other in their haste, their “desperation”, their immediate reaction. Is this an expression of love or the need to experience once more something that will be lost? Megha’s “look of intent purpose” (119) that Sartaj has missed rid him of his “fear” as she expresses her want to possess him one last time. Sartaj aches for her touch, “saying take pity on it, my thing my muscle my cock, take put on its loneliness,” (120) emphasizing his physical loneliness, sexual loneliness as the most important loss of their relationship. He misses her confidence and gives into her physical temptation, only making his loneliness more intense in the aftermath of their decision; Sartaj says that “shadows of hopelessness chased the pleasure up his spine” (121) illustrating the tainted, bitter experience the two share.

Home for me is characterized by relationships. Therefore, I am always drawn to relationships that remind me of my core relationships with my family. The problem with this is that the relationships I have with the majority of my family members are profoundly unhealthy for my psychological well being. I am the third of four children, third children are peace makers; I fall five years after my older sister, giving me the drive of the achieving first child; and I am the middle of two girls, highlighting my insecurities. My brother, Mike, the first child, was taught by my father, the product of the Army in all respects, that size mattered. Mike did what Dad said because if he didn’t my Dad would make him. As he got older, and bigger, he applied the same rule to my mother and his three younger sisters. If we caused a fight, we would receive punishment from both my brother and my father, who reacted purely to keep a peaceful household. The child that screamed the loudest was heard, so I just stopped screaming. I did everything and anything that I was supposed to do and did it well. This resulted in the fact that at home, I am not allowed to experience anger, I am not allowed to decline the normalcy of the household and I am definitely not allowed to stand up for myself if it means challenging another’s actions.
I always wondered why I was drawn to people who were overly controlling of me, why I was always drawn to people who relied so heavily on me, why I was always drawn to people who were so negative until this Thanksgiving. Everyone would be home except Annie, the eldest girl. My younger sister and I are both vegetarians, but my brother decided that he would help cook and that everything except for the sweet potatoes would consist of meat. This wouldn’t really have mattered if it wasn’t an example of my entire life so far. He was going to do what he wanted even if it hurt others because he knew no one would dare argue for fear of what he would do to them. We each proved his point. No one did anything.
Home is familiar. It’s comfortable, but that doesn’t always mean it’s good or even healthy. When I read the intimate scene between Megha and Sartaj, I empathized with each of them. It seemed obvious to me that their relationship was unstable and unhealthy and furthermore that Sartaj’s loneliness would be more profound after the scene. But I understood that it was home for him. Their sex, the expression of the attraction to each other and the affirmation they received from each other, provided exactly what the other needed. Their relationship became dependence, an addiction and their greed for each other illustrates the neediness they feel for their familiar comfort.

Return to Childhood

My family and I move around a lot. I haven’t really felt a binding attachment to any of the houses I’ve lived in over the past several years. It’s not that I disliked these places or felt distanced from them in any way, I have positive memories from each of them, but I was never truly upset to leave any one house that I’ve shared with my family. But about a year ago I was visiting some relatives in Maryland with my sister and I decided to visit my childhood home in Harford County where I lived until I was about twelve. I was leaving my grandparent’s house and I came across a road that sounded familiar so I decided to take it. I eventually recognized where I was and was able to find the house that I grew up, a house that I hadn’t seen in seven years, just from my memories of the town. It was exhilarating and disconcerting to return to a place that was once so familiar and see how much it had changed. Every street sign and building called up latent childhood memories of people, pets, songs, games, events (both pleasant and upsetting) that had become foreign to us since we had left that house. Parts of us that we had left behind suddenly returned, but what struck me most about the experience was the memory of the sadness we had felt at having to leave that house seven years earlier. Reminiscing, revitalized the strong ties I had felt with the place as a child. I felt a combination of mythical respect and intimacy with the place where so much of my character and personality had developed. It was so comforting and liberating to be there and I realized that it felt like home to me even after so much time had passed.
My sister and I were very reluctant to drive away; it literally felt like leaving home without any expectations of returning. After telling my parents and some of my relatives about the experience they told me that they felt the same kind of bond to their childhood homes even as adults, many of them up until the time that they started their own families.
Childhood homes and nostalgia play an important role in Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. The experience that Sanjeev had upon returning home from school in the short story “Shakti” is very different from my personal experience with my home in Maryland. Sanjeev was disappointed in his expectation that “seeing the playing fields of his childhood, the streets and the corners, would fill the gap in his heart” (58). But he discovered that he had become a stranger in his home town and he was overwhelmed by loneliness. Chandra suggests that these feelings of isolations from the home of his childhood are a driving force behind Sanjeev’s decision to marry Dolly’s son –a decision that creates a tension in Sheila’s life and her idea of home. Conversely it is Sheila’s childhood memories of her father on the bank of the “sacred river” that give the resolve to take definitive action in her family’s acquisition of the Boatwalla business, which leads to the creation of the Bijlani –Boatswalla Bombay International Trading Group. After reminiscing about her father she becomes affectionate with her husband again and her “fingers moved so quickly over the keys of the telephone that the beepings came out as a kind of music” (73). In this story, a positive reunion with childhood provides a resolution to the conflict that arises from Sanjeev’s unsuccessful return home.
In the story “Dharma,” emotional and even physical injuries arise from Jago Antia’s distancing himself from his childhood home. When he first returns to his parent’s home in Bombay (I believe) Jago is still repressing his childhood memories and the sad history of his home. He views it as a piece of property that is completely dispensable now that his parents have died. “Now it was over, and he wanted not to think about the house anymore” (11). It is in this state of isolation with his past that the ghost haunts Jago. After the exorcist tells him that he must confront the ghost alone and naked to “help him,” Jago is forced confront the horrible memories of his brother’s death and funeral. His final confrontation with his past brings him to realize that it is literally himself that has been haunting him and in response to the apparition’s constant question -“Where shall I go?” –Jago says, “Jehangir, Jehangir, you’re already home” (31). After calming the restless spirit Jago finds feelings of peace for the first time in the story. “He knew he was still and forever Jago Antia, that for him it was too late for anything but a kind of solitude…And yet he felt free” (31). Recalling his painful past reunites him with his childhood home and frees him from the tension that surrounds his character throughout the story.


Culture does not stand alone; it is not a set of rules, guidelines or restrictions but a set of themes traditions and regularities. One of the things Achebe pointed out in Things Fall Apart was the contrast between members of a single community that are said to comprise a society whose relationships and lives flow, mesh, and grow in their culture. Reading Ashcrofts piece on the designation of both he terms and ideas associated with post-colonialism I was concerned that too often while trying to understand the anthropological trends and ideals associated with a certain culture nation or group of people it becomes too easy to disassociate the value of the culture from the individual.

Ashcroft's piece undoubtedly serves to collect and present multiple thoughts, viewpoints, and understanding of how person's today are to understand the post-colonial era but it does not present the times themselves. What was jarring about Achebe's account of Igbo culture was not the society, or the colonization in alone. Those ideas are easily understood through a mode such as Ashcroft or others have written to present a historical, generalized idea of these 'chinks' of culture. Okonkwo's dead body swinging from the tree branch is about him, it is about his life. Yes we understand the ideals of the man, yes we compare their culture to ours today, and yes we believe that somehow in a history book that we can gain some understanding from two or three chapters meant to encapsulate generations of Igbo society. Peoples lives reflect their culture, and literature, in the sense that Achebe has presented us with a personalized account of a man's life in Igbo society and so thorough his eyes and his hands we can experience.

The home is so essential to culture because peoples identify with their homes; under the general umbrellas of culture and society the home shapes who one is and how they will function within society and in reaction or accordance to culture. In American 'culture' we have the unique mixture of backgrounds and histories as well as geographical anomalies and traditions that add to the variety of types and the amount of actual 'norms' that exist.

I am a New Yorker and I think I love and hate Baltimore more and more every day but as much as a strong sense of confusion I have about it I'm not sure it draws enough of a comparison culturally to make my point so I'll leave that alone for now. i spent the summer, or part of it rather, in a tiny town in The Apennine Mountains in Italy, and I think I had the reverse sort of experience. When one goes abroad they are dumped into the culture and society of another place. You are expected to follow their norms, their traditions, their regularities but your home has taught you otherwise. I feel as though world travelers have to be professional chameleons, yet I do not feel as though it is impossible for culture's to bend, or shift while still remaining within their norms. Culture's change every day as people's lives change in front of them. In Italy I saw things that I thought were odd beautiful and interesting, and the people there saw some of those same things in me. People adapt, traditions will adapt and change yet at the same time some things stop us dead in our tracks. Think of how the world shuts down for Christmas, or how america is frozen for the Super Bowl.

My response to Love and Longing in Bombay

Vikram Chandra creates the setting of home in this novel through character, people. The stories he tells are descriptive and vibrant. They are grounded in Indian culture in a way that is more fundamental, more subtle, less pervasive but not less present than Achebe's Igbo culture in Things Fall Apart. But, the true setting for each story he tells is found in the characters.
In the first, we learn about Jago and his life and his hardships before he ever returns home. Or at least we think we do. Then we are disoriented by his return home, in much the same way that it seems Jago himself is. Then, as we delve into his childhood and his life in that house long ago, Chandra facilitates the story with the exuberant character of the uncle Burjor Mama. He does this in such a way that the reader, aware that something awful happens, does not see the event coming until they read the actual lines.
In the story about the Boatwallas and the Bijlanis, the character of Sheila is so vivid in the beginning. Yet, as the story progresses she fades and become no more important than the other characters. The reader eventually gets just as clear a description of her husband, and of her rival Dolley, and of Dolley's husband Freddie. Yet these characters are not just archetypes. They are not just trophy wives and rich white people; without each particular character trait and flaw that Chandra assigns to them, the story could not become what it is.
In Kama's story, Chandra makes the importance of this character development explicitly known by the detective's obseravtion and analysis of the characters of an investigation. To him, each tick and smile and pause is important but can mean something slightly different with each individual, depending on their unique personality.

The one glaring place where characters are annoying undeveloped is in the beginning of each chapter. The group of men who are meeting for drinks and talking are in some antithetical way the main characters. The narrator is an elusive 'I' that seems to constantly complain (in the little inner dialogue we get) but who we can establish no sympathy or rapport with. The sudden thrust of the reader into each story told by Subramaniam is repeated, albeit less dramatically, in each story as it has moments that jolt you from one place/time/event to the next. For example, in Jago's final, complete trip up the staircase, Chandra flashes from past to present to past without any more of a break than the period between sentences. Because of the intensity of the experience, it is disorienting. In acutality, the entire book seems this way. We are pulled into intense short stories that all seem unrelated to each other and to the group of men; yet because of the basic rules of novels we know there must be some connection. Being patient long enough to continue into the second half of the book seems to be the only thing the reader can do.

Ghosts in Khar and Ghosts in Storage Rooms

In a collection of stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra deftly weaves a combination of themes immediately relatable to any homeland and some that are best recognized by those who call India home. In particular, he chooses two genres of story that a reader from any culture should find familiar: forbidden love and a ghost story. In “Shakti” and “Darma” he immerses his audience in Indian society, while keeping them in the comfort of a storyline they will recognize.

The concepts of social climbing and forbidden love found in “Shakti” should be so familiar to any reader of Western literature that the themes can be a home in themselves. I was struck by how American the wealthy of India seem to have become. Bijlani’s rise to success seems plucked from a Horatio Algier story. The conflict between Dolly’s old money and Sheila’s new money may as well be Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg. Perhaps just as the British influenced the United States and our concept of wealth and class, India has received very similar values. Since Chandra currently call the United States home, it is probably no coincidence that he portrays wealth in this way.

The idea of forbidden love has played through Western Literature as early as Pyramus and Thisbe and has continued through Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. By the time that it occurs in “Shakti” it seems almost a corny, writer’s convenience. There seems no more convenient a way to cut the family feud short than to hitch the son and daughter. At first while I read the story, I saw it as a sort of deus ex machine, neatly tying things together. As I thought about it however, I considered how short the story was (meaning it could be lengthened to accommodate) and how Chandra’s skill as a writer suggested that he would not need this convenience. I come to the conclusion that he uses this theme as a way to connect with his Western readers. While I cannot relate to India’s partitions, experienced by Sheila’s father or words like mandap, I can directly sympathize with a poet whose love for a girl crosses years of family hatred. I feel that this is because Chandra made the choice to incorporate this theme, one that has been used so many times before.

Similarly, in “Dharma” Chandra chooses another well-known genre by portraying a ghost story. He dodges between two narratives, one foreign and one familiar. We see splices of Jango Antia’s paratrooper career mingled with accounts of his return to his childhood home and confrontation with a ghost. Again, I know little of Indian military or Pakistani insurgents (except what I hear on the news, which is far more than I’d like).

The image of an exorcist setting down his briefcase in order to confront a supernatural terror should be unfamiliar to no reader. As readers, we shift from the uncomfortable and gruesome nature of a war fought over causes unfamiliar to us, to the eerie accounts of a childish ghost. I hope that I will never learn the experience of sawing off my own leg, but a bit of each of us has probably turned a corner in and old house, hoping to catch a glimpse of a phantom.

I relate to this story particularly because of what I just mentioned. In a way I relate it to my home, or at least one experience. My father and I have moved from house to house, but always stayed close to my grandmother’s home. My grandmother’s house has always been a constant in my life. My Nona cooks dinner for us every night while my dad works. I stayed there on weekends when I was younger and she would watch me over the summer.

Mostly all of my friends were from her neighborhood. We would play the kind of games only boys without new age, politically-correct, safety-minded parents can invent: bicycle polo, bicycle jousting, and stick wars. Once or twice a week for a few summers in first and second grade, my friend Nick would stay at my grandmother’s house while his mother worked.

It was one summer when we were about seven that we discovered a ghost in her storage room. I can only assume it was a ghost and nothing more sinister. When Nick’s mother came to pick him up, we were not done playing yet and fled to the storage room, our last fortress, Nerf guns in hand. We dared not turn out the light, but hid there quietly. Suddenly a moving box, full of knick-knacks, slid several feet towards us. Without exchanging words or even glances we fled. Once downstairs we recounted our story to my grandmother and Ms. Fluck. They took it for childish imagination and thought nothing of it.

Looking back, I almost tend to do the same. After all, I have called Nona’s house home for eighteen years, and have seen nothing of the sort before or since. The only doubts that still persist come from our inability to simultaneously invent such a tale in our heads without telling one another. At seven, neither of us had heard many ghost stories and ghosts should have still manifest themselves as floating bed sheets, not invisible box pushers. Nick and I discussed it not long ago and still stick to the same account.

Whether or not I saw a ghost, the account helps me relate to a man half a world away. Like for Jango, this thing did not inhabit a graveyard or castle on a haunted hill, but my childhood home. Perhaps authors are most successful when they stick to leading us to imagine the already familiar, home.

Reflections of the Hostess

“Home” means something very different to almost everyone who utters the word. To most it means comfort, or protection, while to others it means constraint. For me, it is often a mingling of the two; my family is extraordinarily close, but this often impacted my relationships with other teenagers. For example, rather than go hang out with my friends on most Saturday nights, I would lay on my parent’s bed with them and my sister and we would watch our favorite British sitcoms or a movie. Also, and more relevantly to the rest of this piece, on the first Friday of every month my mother holds a party for our block, a sort of soiree of the who’s who in southern Bolton Hill. These parties have taken on something of a life of their own, and while no one is quite so intense about it as the women in the story, there have been catfights a plenty, or people who’ve left grievously offended by some slight, unintentional action. But for the most part it is just a group of friends and neighbors gathered to share conversation, company, and of course an exorbitant amount of alcohol (after all, what’s a society event without wine and brandy). The character of each party is different, and occasionally has a theme; most of the time chinos and a polo will do for a man, but once or twice as a gag (or simply to give the women a chance to dress up) it has been a black-tie affair. While these parties, and their guests, can be especially annoying to me, I would stay anyway to help my mother with her circle of acquaintances and especially to help my anti-social father weather the storm of people. My mother, for whatever reason, enjoys holding these occasions, and especially having her children and husband there to help out and just be sociable with her friends. So my family, in this case, bands together to give my mom an enjoyable evening and aid her in spreading some joy to our neighbors.
These parties are given so the people attending can relax and have some fun, and although there is definitely some social jockeying occurring it is nothing of grand scale, and certainly no arranged marriages (although to hear some of the old hens clucking on our couch, they’d arranged every successful marriage in history). The mood at Sheila and Dolly’s Lunches in Vikram Chandra’s collection of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay, however, was very obviously competitive. The women of the Lunch Club (and later of the Shanghai Club) would arrange marriages, conduct business, and discuss politics at what was supposedly a purely social occasion. Rather than being about the comfort and well being of their guests, each occasion is a time to exhibit a bit of power or influence, and as the two women become increasingly bitter in their rivalry the glamour of each luncheon or meeting increases as well. The character of the party reflects the host; where my mother’s are eclectic or humorous, their gatherings become tense and businesslike affairs, with more wordplay than enjoyable exchange. For example, Dolly, upon having Sheila’s son introduced to her, acquired “an unmistakable look of offense, as if she had just begun to smell something bad” (Chandra 37). Impolite in the extreme, the expression only escalates the rivalry and sets the tone for their encounters. Their luncheons, despite being held at houses, never give the feeling of a home, which my mother achieves almost effortlessly. Events in a home should feel like the home, and Dolly and Sheila’s ended up more like battlegrounds. No home should feel like a place of combat.

Falling Imagery in Dharma from "Love and Longing in Bombay"

In class when asked what home meant to all of us, one of the common threads among all was family, and the people that are close to us. To me, home is my father, my mother, and my two younger brothers, and without them my life and my home would not be complete. Of the first stories I read in “Love and Longing in Bombay” by Vikram Chandra, the story that most greatly impacted me was the first story entitled “Dharma”. As I read the story of Jago Antia, a question that was raised in class echoed in the back of my mind… “Can you ever really go back home?” The imagery of falling in “Dharma” shows how the loss of a loved one can affect your concept of home, happiness, and can in fact turn your world upside down.
The story begins by describing General Jago Antia in the present day, and we learn that he is a well admired, feared, and respected leader who leads by example and accepts nothing less than perfection. Jago beings to have sleepless nights where a numbing pain creeps into his senses, and we learn that Jago for many years has had to force himself to sleep by imagining falling into a deep dark abyss. “Every night he thought of falling endlessly through the night, slipping through the cold air, and then somewhere it became a dream, and he was asleep, still falling. He had been doing it for as long as he could remember, long before para school and long before the drop at Sylhet, towards the hostile guns and the treacherous ground.” (p.6)In this passage we learn much about Jago that only fully makes sense upon finishing the story. When first learning that Jago thinks of falling in order to fall asleep, one would tend to think it was because this is his profession, and perhaps is a memory of paratrooping that he cannot escape, however he makes it clear that he used this method long before he entered the army. This insinuates that his obsession with falling occurred before joining the army, and perhaps may have been the reason he joined the army in the first place.
We will later learn that this obsession with falling is due to his brother Soli’s unfortunate death falling from the roof of their house as children. The concept of falling to Jago changes throughout the story and through the numerous flashbacks.
While the most powerful instance of falling is in Soli’s death, Jago encounters the negative effects of falling once again when he is crossing a street in battle and is hit by a mine in a corner and is thrown through the air. Due to the impact of the mine, Jago’s leg is severely injured and he is forced to amputate it. When describing the amputation and the pain that accompanies the fall, Jago uses specific gory details to describe the events, creating an unsettling and nervous tone, however when describing the fall itself, relates a more peaceful tone. “ He started off confidently across the street, and then all the sound in the world vanished, leaving a smooth silence, he had no recollection of being thrown, but now he was falling through the air, down, he felt distinctly the impact of the ground, but again there was nothing, no sound.”(p.19) Diction such as the words smooth, creates a softer tone in comparison to terms like “crunching” or phrases such as “ against the darkness and mad sorrow(p.20)”.
When one thinks of falling, one does not usually associate peace or a settling feeling, in fact many people can be awaken from a deep sleep due to the sensation of falling, yet for Jago to imagine falling is the only way he is able to slip into sleep. I believe it is because of his inability to control his brother’s fall that he recreates his own slip into darkness while he sleeps. The fact that Chandra chooses not to tell us about Silo’s death until the end of the story allows us to form our own judgments and opinions of Jago before understanding the events that formed him as a person. We are able to see Jago as an incomplete, complex, confused character and then see the path that lead him there. I think the story was ordered in this way because Jago himself could not remember or understand how he came to be the person he was in the present until he returned to his house and remembered what had changed and what happened.
Overall I think the imagery of falling both in its physical consequences in Jago’s brother and amputation as well as the dream imagery help to show that Jago’s home was lost in his brother’s death and ever since that moment he has been falling and trying to gain control of his life. While I do not think that Jago can ever truly go back home, I think that in remembering the home he had, and in returning to the physical location where the memories of his home were made, he was able to better understand himself as a person, and regain his purpose in life.

The comfort of home

I very much associate home with comfort. Home cooked food is comfort food. We get homesick when we are away, and always feel a sense of relief, of comfort, when we return. Our homes are always thought of as our own safe havens, a place where we can get away from it all. A lot of what creates the sense of comfort and safety in a home is the group of people we associate it with. In class on Monday, many people mentioned that they associate home with family. For example, people who move a lot may not associate a specific place with home, but they might associate a group of people with home.

Because my family is fairly large and very close knit, I think that as long as I am with them, I could learn to feel at home anywhere. In contrast, there was a particular instance when I was in my very own home, and felt a little bit out of place. When I arrived home from Loyola last May for the summer, I arrived home to an empty house. I knew that my Mom was out for the afternoon. My Dad was at work. My younger brother was at lacrosse. Both of my sisters were still at school. My summer homecoming experience was very abnormal. No one was there to hug me and ask me incessant questions. There was no “welcome home” meal out on the table. It felt strange, like I had walked in and was not supposed to be there. It certainly did not feel like home. I truly did not know what to do with myself. I associate home with the persistent buzz of conversation, the hum of a television, and the phone constantly ringing. Without the companionship of my family, my home did not bring me comfort.

In Vikram Chandra’s novel, Love and Longing in Bombay, the association between home and comfort is severed for the character Sartaj. We learn, through the beautiful and winding short story “Kama,” that Sartaj is going through a divorce. He is troubled, to say the least. The story of his divorce is intertwined with the murder case that he is trying to solve. At certain moments, Sartaj’s discomfort is revealed, such as when he finds out that his soon to be ex-wife is remarrying: “Now he sat with his hands on his thighs and found himself looking for a way to stop it, for a place where he could apply pressure until something snapped” (Chandra 95). The news of Megha’s new marriage seems to finalize something for Sartaj. It’s really the end of their time together, and Sartaj moves into “a loneliness so huge and so feral that he wanted to give up and collapse into the thick green swamp” (100). With Megha gone, Sartaj loses his sense of comfort, his sense of home. We can see that he is reluctant to let go of his attachments, because his divorce papers are sitting on a table in his home.

One of the most poignant moments in the story occurs in Sartaj’s home, the home he and Megha used to share. While he makes tea, “the smell of heating milk and the leaves, and the wisps of steam, sent him reeling into the first morning of their marriage (117). The act of making tea, paired with Megha’s presence, conjure up a specific home memory for Sartaj. When she leaves, “he [Sartaj] felt very empty, his mind a hole, a black yawning space” (125). It is clear that a large part of both Sartaj’s home and identity are tied up with Megha, which reinforces the idea that home relates largely to the people we share it with.

Haunted house

The first short-story, ‘‘Dharma’’, clearly reminded me of a particular story back home. In Guadeloupe, there is house called ‘‘Maison Zévallos’’, which was built in the nineteenth century on a sugar plantation. It cannot be visited because it is a private property, but it is possible to stop in front of the gate and to admire it. It is said that numerous slaves were slaughtered in the back yard of the house. This the reason why their cries can still be heard by people today, according to some. Other people said that they could hear a baby crying. They said that during slavery, the masters hung a mother in the mill, and her baby stayed next to her corpse all night long, crying. The slaves promised that when they die, they would come back and haunt the house so that nobody could live in it. The owners of the house declared having witnessed supernatural events : big rocks falling into the living room, shoes moving on their own, a white horse in the yard at midnight…In reality, I did not become aware of the existence of this house until a few years ago. One day, I was with my friend, and we just stopped there, and she showed me the house. The first thing she told me about this house had to do with ghost stories. Actually, it is how this colonial house had become known in Guadeloupe, contrary to other colonial houses that don’t have ghost stories attached to them.
In the same way, Jago’s house is different from any other house because there is a particular story, a past and personal memories attached to it. In other words, the first short-story as well as the example detailed earlier, show that story-telling and memories help define home. For instance, when Jago Antia anounces to Todywalla that he wants to sell his house, the latter replies : ‘‘Sell that house ? Na, impossible. There’s something in it.’’ (Chandra, 14). Todywalla is not the only one aware of this fact Thappa tells Jago : ‘‘No one on this street will come near this place after dark. Everyone knows. They were telling me not to stay.’’ ( Chandra, 15). Interestingly, the verbs ‘‘know’’ and ‘‘tell’’, which are both linked to orality are used. Again, we see how storytelling help construct a definition for Jago’s home. Everybody knows about the reputation of Jago’s house because of the numerous stories that are told and retold by the people who live around. However, Jago does not adhere to this ghost story. It is the way others define his home. Actually, the short-story brings out a tension between superstition, traditions conveyed by story-telling and the rationalism of others, usually youngers ones who have been educated according to Western standards. At first, Jago refuses to acknowledge the presence of a ghost in the house. When Todywalla, a toothless old man mentions it to him, he says : ‘‘I haven’t heard a damn thing, be rational.’’ Similarly, not everybody believes that the ‘‘Maison Zévalos’’ is haunted. They just think that it is a legend. Some have rationalized the story by saying that the supposed cries of the slaves are the product of the wind.
As we have mentioned earlier, home also involves memory. When Jago decides to face the ghost uspstairs (or to reexplore his childhood), ‘‘somewhere deep comes the poisonous seep of memory.’’(Chandra, 24). The narrator uses the stairs as a symbolic bridge that allows Jago to go back in time and to reexplore memories attached to this house. He sees his parents, he witnesses the death of his brother Soli again, he sees himself playing with his brother, he remembers the stories told by his mother…Those memories do not only involve what he can see, but also feelings, odors, food, all those elements converging to what he calls home. If he decides to sell this house, he also decides to sell a part of himself, to give a part of himself away. Jago’s house becomes the locus of his identity. As I wrote before, we can’t go into the ‘‘Maison Zévallos.’’ However, when I see it from outside, I go back in time. I think about all those slaves who worked on the plantation, I think about the harvest of the sugar canes…all those memories that define home and the Guadeloupean people.

If you want to see the house, you can click on this link :

The Shanghai Club

There are many country clubs in my area. They set back from the main town centers, surrounded by tall trees and golf greens, bordered by winding two-lane roads. Because my Dad loves golf, I am a member of one of these country clubs. Growing up I’d take tennis lessons, and I’d go with my siblings to the pool at the end of June as school died down and beg my mom to buy me an Italian ice from the snack bar.

But as I got older I started to feel more and more uncomfortable as we pulled into the long driveway, and parked our car facing the yellow dining room building with the patio jutting off to the right. The strict pool rules, the mothers with their bright pink tennis skirts, prep school boys with their golf shoes, and the graying old men who didn’t have to look you in the eye when they wore your sunglasses. Then my parents told me the stories of membership, and all of the obstacles young couples had to climb through in order to be accepted into a community that in the end wanted to a consume a large sum of their money. The process seemed strange for me. It seemed wrong. People must be interviewed? I’d ask. They need recommendations? What kind of criteria is this? What defines a good member?

When I came across the passage about the Shanghai Club in Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, I immediately thought of the country club my family belongs to. Chandra presents the strange and unfair membership process before he expands on the role of Mr. Fong, as Freddie rejects T.T. from joining their gym. He writes: “There was nothing to be done about it, the rules were clear and ancient and unamendable…if you weren’t in you were out, there was no middle ground” (48). Chandra is smart to set this scene up before he brings in the quick progression of popularity the Shanghai club attains. This idea of prominence that Freddie unjustly bestows on Sheila and T.T. is accepted within this society, as it is in the community of country clubs I’ve come to know. Due to personal issues Freddie (most likely forced upon him by his wife) ostracizes a family that wants to use their clubs facilities to exercise. There is no reason, no questions asked, and eventually Dolly and Freddie come to know the pain that they throw upon others.

Chandra illuminates this need for elite belonging and power when he writes about the Shanghai club, an establishment that no one seems to understand or care about until they know that the memberships are given out sparingly. Once the competition is initiated the community needs to fight to be in the running. Those accepted celebrated, and those left out rolled their eyes and pretended not to be bothered. Dolly is especially affected by the outcome, as she is not one to receive a letter in the mail. The narrator describes her behavior during the process, stating, “She grew to resemble a kind of stately ship in sail, constant and beautiful, unmoved by choppy waters” (52).

The idea of prominence in this passage can resonate throughout any culture, as trends form without reason and people gain popularity just because of the beliefs of one person and the power of manipulation. Even as the opening night arrives, there is no solid evidence of the club being especially brilliant. Chandra writes, “Everything was quite ordinary. But it was quite transformed that night by an extraordinary electricity, a current of excitement that made everyone beautiful, a kind of light that came not from the dim lamps but from the air itself” (56). The opportunity to become accepted into a club over others was enough to stir the determination and anger from the people of the community. This ideal, even though it didn’t have reason and couldn’t be defined, turned people against each other. It made people feel privileged or marginalized, and what was most heartbreaking was that need for power seemed to replace meaning behind the club and become the meaning itself.

There are groups like this lurking in every area, ripping apart every homeland, and making people measure their worth arbitrarily. After reading this I started to think of all of the groups that I’ve wanted to join in the past, and the goals I’ve tried to achieve. I wondered what, exactly, motivated me be a part of the things I’ve been a part of, and in the end if it was worth it.

Many Lenses, One Home

My favorite painting is a fresco by Rennaissance artist Raphael called “the School of Athens.” It depicts Plato and Aristotle in its center holding a discussion as they walk, while around them a dozen or so other philosophers hold discussions, conversations, and arguments of their own. In this painting I feel there are two important facets of a homeland which Raphael has managed to capture. The first part is the importance of the orality of a culture; the second is that though two people may call the same place home it will be an entirely different view, one from the other.

The painting depicts the oral tradition of the Grecian philosophers who taught the privileged of Athens through lecture and seminar, though records of such “classes” do not really exist. Writings are few and far between, the earliest and most prominent we have being those of Plato and supposedly Socrates, Plato’s teacher. What is critical to remember here is that anything that we have written was once delivered through word of mouth and remembered as such. Many can be seen in the painting to be copying away at parchment, it can be safely assumed that they seek to capture the power of the words spoken at the moment. Rather than seeing this as an irreverent treatment of oral tradition, it can be seen as a tribute to the power of the words spoken. Such is the dedication to the oral tradition as depicted in the School of Athens.

The final point to remember is that of the philosophers depicted in the painting, not one of them completely shared the other’s opinions. Each one had their own way of thinking and of viewing the world, begging the question: living in the same city, how does one man think so radically different from another? But this shows us that a homeland is the same: one person sees his homeland through one lens, while another may view the same place with a very different light.

Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay can be compared quite favorably to Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Both of the elements of homeland that Raphael depicted with brush, paint, and plaster were captured just as surely by Chandra’s ink on paper. His beginning with the oral retelling of a ghost story concerning a famous general Jago Antia sets the stage for the rest of the novel, each aspect of the plot supposedly being a story told by Subramaniam; thus, for the large part, the novel’s narrator is this Subramaniam though the “listener” and initial storyteller is another man depicted in the first person. The entire novel is as an oral tradition dictated to paper much like the ancient Grecian philosophies, a tribute to the narratives of Bombay. Each story’s magic is in its narration, where not a single detail is spared and the thoughts of all are known, much in the way a legend grows so that every detail, no matter how unbelievably, is unquestionably known.

And yet, though the three stories of the first half of the novel each take place in Bombay, drastically different homes are depicted. For the Major General, he is returning home to a foreign yet comfortable land and is haunted by the memories of that homeland which he tried to forget. Another, the inspector, lives in a rain-soaked dreary world moving from case to case unable to separate himself from the memory of his ex-wife. Still another, an ambition woman seeking to climb the social hierarchy which dominates her home only to discover that her son will ultimately dictate how she views her home. Altogether these stories fit perfectly with Raphael’s image of Athens: dozens of thinkers, all born of the same blood and city yet none of which can claim to see their own home as another’s. In this way is a homeland defined, created from the minds and lenses of the many so that it can be a home for one and all.