Empire writes back

South Asian emigrants put today's spins on stories like Kipling's tales about people far from home

More than a century ago, a young reporter named Rudyard Kipling began to publish a series of short fiction works in an Indian newspaper. These enormously popular "plain tales," as he called them, chronicled the exploits of British colonists in India. A recurring character was the Englishman who had "gone native" - often lured by love of an Indian girl. Without fail, a cultural misunderstanding would doom these men. After all, for Kipling, East was East....

In a phenomenon cleverly known as "the empire writes back," the genre has been turned on its head by emigrants from former European colonies - particularly British India. A new collection of short fiction entitled "Story-Wallah" gathers these modern plain tales from the South Asian diaspora. They show that being a stranger in a strange land holds psychological perils even in a world free of the imperial politics of Kipling's day.

Some of the writers are well known: Salman Rushdie of fatwa fame; Michael Ondaatje ("The English Patient"); and Jhumpa Lahiri ("The Interpreter of Maladies"). All the writers or their ancestors hail originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka, but they also have a dual identity, living in locations as diverse as Trinidad, the United States, and Tanzania. The editor, Shyam Selvadurai, calls himself Canadian-Sri Lankan, writing novels from the hyphen space between.

In Rushdie's "The Courter," the narrator attends an English boarding school. Over the summers, he lives in a cultural no man's land between India and England: a "seedy mansion" rented by his Indian family "which lurked furtively in a nothing street" of London. In adjacent apartments live two maharajas, who have been cashiered into a life halfway between royalty and oblivion. The mansion's Eastern European doorman is a mentally handicapped former chess Grand Master.

The narrator is the least conflicted: He clearly prefers an English life - singing Beatles tunes and aspiring for a British passport. He dislikes his father, a distant and capricious drunk. When his father is slapped by a shopgirl after mixing up words, the narrator feels schadenfreude as well as fear that he would have made the same faux pas.

Ultimately the gambling and philandering of the two maharajas bring doom to the house. In the end, each character leaves the "seedy mansion" and, in an echo of Kipling, chooses either England or India - not both.

Other stories hold out more hope for cross-cultural understanding. Anita Desai's "Winterscape" begins with a fight between Rakesh and his pregnant American wife, Beth. Rakesh has booked tickets for both his mother and his aunt to fly from India to California to help after the baby arrives.

Beth was annoyed. "It had seemed an outlandish, archaic idea even when it was first suggested; now it was positively bizarre. 'Why both of them? We only asked your mother,' she insisted."

South Asian identity within an extended family versus Western individualism is a common conflict throughout this collection of stories. Beth comes to understand this difference through a parable of sorts about Rakesh's upbringing. She learns he had been raised by both women - he had "two mothers."

For Beth, the concept was not only foreign but frightening. Why wasn't Rakesh's mother jealous about sharing her role? After all, Beth could not imagine entrusting her baby to her own, irresponsible, sister. Beth begins to understand the depth of the relationship between Rakesh's two moms when she catches sight of them standing at a window, looking out for the first time at snow. "Their white cotton saris were wrapped about them like shawls, their two heads leaned against each other as they peered out, speechlessly."

For all the cultural friction present in these works, there shines in all of them a universal humanity. The reader will see in Michael Ondaatje's Lalla that one crazy relative in anybody's family. "She stole flowers compulsively, even in the owner's presence."

Meanwhile, at a time of deep divisions between the West and Islam, Zulfikar Ghose's "The Marble Dome" comes as the reassuring voice of moderate Muslims. A few other stories break the general tone with explicit sexual scenes and vulgarity.

Beyond this collection, other works of the South Asian diaspora are well worth checking out. "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives," a collection of short stories by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, explores the contemporary struggles of Indian- Americans trying to bridge the cultural divide. And the film "East Is East," a British dark comedy, tackles the tribulations of raising children in a mixed English-Pakistani marriage.

Ben Arnoldy is on the Monitor staff.

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