We in the West have always had a fascination with all things Eastern to the extent that we have created various stereotypes and clichés to ensure that countries like India are what we want them to be. At one time she was the Mecca for all things spiritual; everybody from pop stars to bored, middle class housewives looked to India for enlightenment and sought out the services of any guru willing to take them on as a student. They reveled in the exotic and the mysterious until they discovered that spiritual advancement wasn't something that happened overnight and was a continual work in progress, at which point they dropped it like a hot potato.
Forty years later our fascination is now centred on the economic miracle that is modern India – The Economic Tiger of The East! Instead of ashrams and gurus, the West now comes to India in search of cheap labour for their manufactured products and call centre employees to explain how to use them and trouble shoot their problems. Where it used to be that the sons and daughters of the affluent West would seek India's shores for enlightenment, we now welcome the children of their rich to enlighten them with free market capitalism, business and science degrees, and the great myth of the global economy.
One thing hasn't changed, though: our unwillingness to look behind the facade of the image we have created. We continue to ignore the poverty; the way politicians exploit the mistrust between Muslims and Hindu out of one side of their mouths and condemn the violence that occurs afterwards out of the other; the caste system that continues to be rigidly enforced by society no matter what it says on the law books; and the continual degradation of women who are still often considered no more than chattel to be bought on sold on the marriage market.
Indian apologists on both sides of the world will tell you it's all different now — and by this they mean it's better hidden — but talk to those who care to see and they will tell you that nothing has changed.
Indu Sundaresan is one of the new generation of Indian novelists who not only sees, but is willing to write about those things going on behind closed doors, in the back streets, and far beyond the glare of bright city lights. In her newest collection of short fiction, In The Convent Of Little Flowers, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, she covers everything from elder abuse and the consequences of the caste system, to the hardships that are still common place for women in India. In case we think some of the more extreme things she describes are invention, she has included a postscript with the collection where she explains that each story was inspired by actual events occurring in India that she either read about or had been told about.
Lest you think she is an expatriate Indian, or Non Resident Indian (NRI), as they are sometimes sneeringly called, with an axe to grind as she now lives in Seattle Washington in the United States, the prevailing emotion that comes across in these stories is that of sadness, not anger. What makes the stories in this book much more powerful than others I've read dealing with similar subject matter is that there is no finger pointing, no laying of blame. The prevailing sentiment in all the stories is that even those characters who are the perpetrators of appalling actions are as much victims as those they abuse.
There are two stories in particular that bring this to mind for me – "Three And A Half Seconds" and "The Faithful Wife". In each of these stories there is the obvious victim, the ones who suffer because of the actions of others. Yet because of the way Sundaresan writes, without trying to manipulate our emotions and without pointing out the obvious but letting the story speak for itself, we can't help but see beyond the events described in the moral vacuum that has developed in a country that is caught in transition between its past and its potential future.
We're not really sure what "The Faithful Wife" is about for the first little bit of the story. By all appearances it seems to be about a prodigal child returning home to face the family's patriarch to seek redemption for some past misdeed. However it gradually comes out that things aren't as we first perceived, and as events unfold we begin to understand the horror that is about to take place in this peaceful village. Like the young man, we want to blame his grandfather for what is going to happen, for he, we think, has the power to stop it. After all, he's the one who asks why his grandson has come in a way that suggests he has no business being there, and it was his grandmother who sent him the message about what was to happen.
Although the practice of burning a wife with her husband, known as Sati, had been outlawed since 1829, the 12-year-old girl who had been married to the 63-year-old shopkeeper who died of natural causes has "chosen" to be burned along with her late husband on his pyre. After all, what kind of life awaits a person widowed at 12-years-old? "A blight to her family" says the grandfather, "she will be considered an ill omen." We want to hate him for those words, want to hate him for not doing anything to stop it, but he is one person against a village, so he has done the next best thing. He has let his wife summon his grandson home. He is a reporter. He can write about it so people will know it has happened, and maybe nobody else will ever have to be forced into doing what this girl did.
Poverty and caste are the villains of "Three And A Half Seconds", even though they don't own the arms or hands that beat elderly parents. These are elderly parents whose crimes of being from a poor farming village and the wrong caste are the reasons their son gives for repeatedly failing his exams at work, as nobody wants him to be promoted because of his family. The same parents who left the village they had been born in after drought had destroyed their family fields and the government had washed its hands of them, they had lived on the streets of Mumbai while working so he could have school and a future. These are elderly parents, who, in the end, only have their love for each other and who wonder where they failed their son that he hates them so much,
Not all of the stories are about people being defeated by India. Some are about the ways they are finding the means to overcome the past and move themselves, and their families, beyond the anachronistic lives that traditions have forced onto them. Things don't have to be this way, Sundaresan is saying in her stories, but only if we are willing to see what's in front of our eyes and speak out against it. There are plenty of people who are content with the status quo because it ensures their positions of power, and there are also those who will be critical of anybody daring to speak out against what they will claim are important elements of their culture.
They will denounce Sundaresan as a troublemaker who has lived away from home for too long, or will accuse her of being sensationalistic for only talking about the negative aspects of life in India and not talking up the great economic miracle, but there is nothing sensationalistic or lurid about these stories. There's a kind of beauty to them that can only exist when a writer loves her subject matter a great deal. These stories are filled with nothing but respect and admiration for the author's birth country and love for the people who live there, but they are not blind to how outdated attitudes and archaic moral codes are the biggest threat facing India.
Many countries the world over hide dirty secrets behind the veils of tradition and custom, and India is no different. More and more writers are proving their love of country by pulling back those veils in the hopes that future generations won't suffer the indignities that people today are still being forced to endure.
Indu Sundaresan's collection of short stories, In The Convent Of Little Flowers is one of the best examples of this that I've read in a long while. Elegant and eloquent, her stories speak from the heart and are full of compassion for all those caught up in the confusion of a country trying to find its way out of a dark past and into a better tomorrow.