Tuesday, January 27, 2009

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.

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