Aerogrammes by Tania James
Source: Random House India
In recent weeks, I’ve been talking about books sent to me by Random House India, for review on Daily (w)rite.
Today, I’ll talk about Aerogrammes and Other Stories, by Tania James. As I said in my earlier posts, this would be my entirely subjective take.
My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and I love short stories.
Right off the bat, I’ll tell you I didn’t read this collection at a go. Not because I couldn’t make the time, but because of two things:
1. The stories are all set in different (real) worlds, and each so transports you to its setting, you don’t immediately feel like entering another one.
2. The stories are rather sad (poignantly so), and I could only take so much of it each time.
The first story, a retelling of the history of India’s Gama pehelwan was so steeped in a kind of honor and strength and courage that we don’t see any more, that it made me tear up at times. The second one, a story set in Sierra Leone and the US, of how a chimpanzee completes a human family, had me thinking about Bruno Littlemore. I wish this one were a book of its own, because it felt like a novel cramped in the body of a short story.
My absolute favorite was “The Gulf”, told from the point-of-view of a little girl, not just for subtext between a child and adult world (something James does very well in the other stories like “Ethnic Ken”, a story of a girl’s love for the Ken from Barbie dolls, and how she outgrows it) but also because of the writing:
“After my mother leaves, my father puts his elbows on his knees and leans forward, his eyes closed. I wonder if he is dozing off. The song in the radio softens and slows, at which point my father takes an imaginary violin in his left arm, pointing it downward, and tilts his chin against it. He draws his invisible bow along with the single, smooth note from the radio’s violin, his face perfectly still, as if listening for his own pulse. The slipper with the exposed toe begins to tap against the orange carpet. The melody gathers force, and he dives into his performance, elbowing the air, rocking back and forth as he inscribes the space between us with song. The music climbs inside his body, takes possession of him like a long charge of electricity.”
James, like Jhumpa Lahiri, talks of the immigrant experience, but her assessment is less clinical, more given to emotion, in stories like “Light and Luminous” where a talented, middle-aged Indian dance teacher falls prey to the very thing she’s fought all her life, the temptation to bleach her dark skin, or a delusional old man who thinks his grand-daughter is his wife reincarnated, and wonders “Why am I here?”
I smiled at James’ tart commentary on contemporary life (in America):
“The most popular magazines at Foodfest are the ones that offer help. The experts grin from every corner, beaming with the relief that anyone can drop fifty pounds or build their own patio or achieve a positive outlook.”
Why you could read it: If you like literary stories, by the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri or Yiyun Li, you’ll love it. If you read more genre than literary, this book could be a good bridge: some of the stories have an other-worldly quality to them, and unlike most literary stories, satisfy the reader who wants to know ‘what happened in the end’.
Why you might avoid it: This isn’t light reading, so pick it up if you want to be entertained, but be prepared to be moved to sadness at the same time.
My cribs: My only crib was the the juxtaposition of the stories: “Girl Marries Ghost” felt like the weakest , added in as an afterthought at the end. It did not come across as subtle and spare as the rest of them. Personally, I liked “Lion and Panther in London” better than “Aerogrammes”, for its combination of humor, irony and pathos, and thought it might have made a better title story.
Over all, I enjoyed the book, and though I took my time reading this collection, it felt like time well-spent.
I played this first review by ear, giving you my unvarnished thoughts as a reader, and letting the format emerge on its own . What would you like to see changed in the format? Was this review helpful?