Reviewed by E.B. Heath
This little book, of ten short narratives, is a refreshing read.
The author, Sreedhevi Iyer, writes from the perspective of multiple ethnicities and as such the reader enters into diverse cultural spaces and enjoys a literary holiday. Iyer’s cultural heritage is Indian-Malaysian-Australian; she wrote her PhD at City University Hong Kong and continues to be based in Asia where she writes for a global audience. And, thankfully, has compiled this engaging book.
The themes of Jungle without Water and other stories are ethnic, spiritual, language difference and identity. The characters navigate their lives through obstacles of political and social inequality. They are funny and charming in turn; nevertheless, their condition prompts the reader to self-reflection.
Most of the stories are written from the first person perspective; this has the effect of removing barriers between reader and the narrative, perhaps allowing the foreign to fade into the familiar.
‘The Man with Two Wives’ is a soliloquy, explaining to his detractors how he came to have two wives. He justifies this position; how he suffers through not being articulate, for not being part of the Malaysian mainstream culture. Like Philip Roth’s presentation of Jewish life in New York in Portnoy’s Complaint, Iyer really gives the reader access into her character’s thought processes, to experience his language and context.
Similarly, and yet differently, we enjoy the machinations of a coconut in ‘The Last Day of a Divine Coconut’. This is a really delightful history lesson about Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. The colonial displacement of Hindu Indians to Malaysia, and their voluntary movement across the globe and how coconuts are distributed to Hindu enclaves every year and then destroyed in re-enactments of cosmic redemption.
It’s like dying inside a dream, although the event itself is real enough. The fragility of such a concept.
Iyer’s writing here is imaginative and amusing.
The point of view in ‘Green Grass’ changes from singular to the plural ‘we’, like a Greek chorus, the whole village comments as one as they welcome Mohan and his new Australian wife Ray-chil (Rachael).
Ray-chil loved Thirumugam and we loved her right back.
Mohan is jealous of Rachael’s celebrity status and the relationship begins to unravel. The village dialogue touchingly reveals readiness to incorporate this different person.
‘I.C.’ is a story that illustrates how prejudice and status combine to cause suffering. It is cleverly told via the present experience of a taxi driver, written in the first person, and in flashbacks to his childhood, reverting to third person point of view. I.C. stands for Identity Card that everyone must have in Malaysia. The card indicates the class of each resident; it fixes identity, and status to the detriment of its citizens’ lives.
‘Kadaram’ is about the need for connection and like ‘I.C.’ shows how identity and status is integral to lives. A family, who lives in Kedah, a northern state of Malaysia, seeks out their roots in India. The father particularly wants to prove a lost connection between Kedah and Kadaram and the great Raja Raja Chola dynasty.
Kadaram … father flinched as if the sound had touched his body.
It speaks of how we are connected not just to one another but also to the past, perhaps assuaging feelings of inferiority.
In ‘The Lovely Village’ a wall is constructed to keep new arrivals out, villagers are fearful wanting to protect their identity and way of life. The plight of the migrant seeking refuge is perhaps better depicted in ‘Circular Feed’, which consists wholly of dialogue. This is to good effect, as the reader feels like one of the crowd watching young men climbing onto the roof of a detention centre, to protest.
The title story ‘Jungle without Water’ is about the strangeness of dislocation. Newly arrived in Brisbane Jogi is struggling. He must find a temple to do the Japji Sahib prayer for his father, according to his mother’s urgent requests. What follows is an account of Jogi and his friend, Sandeep, as they move from one side of Brisbane to another. Jogi discovers that spirituality does not conform to artificial boundaries. This title story is particularly engaging.
An editorial glitch on the bottom of page thirty omits the word ‘girl’, in the sentence “ … and that the little (girl) should show some character and apologise to the different looking man.” Beyond that the work shows a high degree of care the writer took to ensure a professional outcome.
Iyer is a fine intercultural writer. This volume of short stories immerses the reader to the point that the difference she describes begins to dissolve.
By Sreedhevi Iyer