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Sunday, 30 January 2011





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Reality and symbolism in the South Asian Canadian short story

Part 2 :

The intentional symbolism of each of these stories is clear, although in each case (except Vassanji’s, to which we shall come presently) it has to be drawn out. But the most sustained and well incorporated use of technique occurs in Ladoo’s “The Quiet Peasant.” Gobinah, the quiet peasant of the Caribbean, is “digging the well.” The topsoil is “hard like iron,” suggesting the hard life of the poverty-ridden farmer. But “with his whole mind centred on the work, and his powerful arms holding the fork,” Gobinah continues digging.

M. G. Vassanji

With an ailing wife unable to help in the field and five daughters, one of marriageable age and requiring a dowry (tilak), “work” here represents the very struggle for existence. His commitment to his family’s welfare is described as unusual (“Most men would have beaten their wife out of the village”) and requires a totally concentrated effort as Gobinah was making in “digging the well.”

To continue the symbolism, “his powerful arms” are his unwavering determination and strength of character as a human being, for his compassion extends to animals. Thus, though he could have sold his dead bull, he buried it instead, only for it to be dug up by butchers who sell the meat in the market. The fork itself is symbolic of his two-fold attack on life: one to keep the land fed with water (for his tomato crop) and the other to keep the family going.

The symbolism continues. After digging for six feet, “it was easier for him to dig,” but “there were no signs of water” and the earth now “felt cold under his feet” even “as the direct rays of the sun hit his body.” Gobinah’s approaching death couldn’t be suggested more powerfully, one may construe, under the pressures of life symbolized by the life-giving rays of the sun, which at the same time can sap one’s energy through continued exposure to its heat. With his death comes the end of the hopes of the family, and by extension, of all those poor people in the world struggling for existence without giving up their humanity.

Vassanji’s symbolism (in “Waiting for the Goddess”), arising as it does from a combination of myth and ideology, is not simply intentional. It is part of the very structure of the story, and as such is an excellent example of the conscious use of another type of symbolism.

The title itself is symbolic of the attitude of a whole segment of society in the Third World, the middle class, well captured in the Sinhalese idiom “grimacing at the ocean”—basically an exopetal orientation which makes them wait for the goodies from overseas. The “goddess” here is the giver of the gift of emigration for a tortured soul, much as a traditional god is believed to bring salvation. Gulu, the narrator who is awaiting his American goddess, for example, leads the cheer for Devaji, literally meaning “the respected god” but here symbolizing the colonial rulers.

The picture printed on the American dollar is referred to as the god of the Americans, and given the name “Niladeva”—blue god. Extending the myth, the question is posed: “Does he have many names like Lord Vishnu—do they meditate on the names? Do they make offerings to him?” The symbolism, then, is part of the structure of the story.

The strength of the works under discussion, then, lies not in the nature of their content alone, but in their characterization, their use of literary technique and their internal verbal patterns which altogether provide a moving esthetic experience, evoking our basic emotions (another concept in Indian aesthetics).

If this summary statement is made in relation to the “regional chronicles,” it is equally a statement, as we shall see, of those other stories written in a Canadian setting, such as Cowasjee’s “Nude Therapy”; Dabydeen’s “A Kind of Feeling” (1980b) and the eight other stories in Still Close to the Island; Himani Bannerji’s “Going Home” (1980); the works of Alan M. Annand (e.g. “A Bagful of Holes,” 1977) and Sandy Pandya (“Practical Jokers,” 1979); and the two stories by Surjeet Kalsey, “Confined by Threads” (1976) and “Mirage in the Cave” (1982a), both with universal contexts and translated from Punjabi.

As in the case of several of Dabydeen’s stories, such as “All for Less,” “Mouthful,” and “Mammita’s Garden Cove” (in Still Close to the Island) and of Bannerji’s “Going Home,” the immigrant experience, both negative and neutral, though not as yet positive (perhaps sufficient time has not elapsed for these to appear), serves as the underlying theme.

Dabydeen frames racial confrontations within a larger, and sometimes even apparently unrelated, context such as, for example, romance, as in the ease of “A Kind of Feeling,” where we learn that the narrator, whose hopes of love are shattered, is an immigrant only when we read almost at the very end that he is one of a “bunch of immigrant workers.” Bannerji’s “Going Home” by contrast is the typical “racial confrontation,” not in the sense of prejudice or name-calling but in the way immigrants sometimes come to interpret a situation or to feel resentment as a result of their experience.

The “confrontation” in this story is psychological, as the Indian mother dying in a Canadian hospital bed brings to mind the impact of the clash of cultures on her children and their relationships with their parents. “Our children ... they don’t know us ... we don’t even speak the same language,” says the mother. The implicit racial confrontation uppermost in the author’s mind is suggested by the following:

There are two ways in which they could punish you for being here. They could look through you to some object beyond you ... as though you didn’t exist ... Another way ... was to concentrate their gaze on you. (1980, 25)

And Bannerji takes a paragraph to expand upon each of the two ways. Indeed the political activist in the writer, as we know for example from her poems like “Revolution in Cuba,” “Imperialist Waltz,” and “Freedom” in her collection A Separate Sky (1982a), seems to have got the better of the artist.

Symbolism, however, is used effectively by both Bannerji and Dabydeen. The mother in Bannerji’s story feels hurt at the situation. “There was this knife that they inserted into her body.” Her helplessness is reflected in the words, “She felt that she was floating, drifting down a stream.” She was resentful of it all, the resentment clearly directed at “the voice of authority” manifested in the “white woman in a while dress” standing in front of her, “ready to give a needle.” If the whiteness symbolizes the mainstream culture, it also symbolizes, in the Indian context, death.

Memphis, in Dabydeen’s story of that name, is an affable black man with a way of attracting girls easily, white or black. Often seen with “chicks” who at time “wore cut-offs, exposing as much as possible,” he easily befriends a white prostitute.

A man, angered apparently by his ability to attract while girls, sets his Alsatian dog after him, vowing to “keep this city clean,” charging him to be a pimp. And, as it turns out, the prostitute happens to be the man’s own daughter who, “very agitated,” and with “her hands shaking” cries “Memphis ain’t doing any harm,” and vows never to return home. Memphis here stands for all who have suffered prejudice and racism, and the stereotypical father stands for the racist. But more importantly—the daughter stands for the fair-minded people who share the same pleasures, desires, aspirations, values and perhaps weaknesses with the others, immigrant or native.

As can be seen from “Memphis,” and nearly half of his stories in Still Close to the Island, Dabydeen is the only immigrant of South Asian origin who has successfully written about the Canadian or North American situation. (This situation is changing now with recent and upcoming works by several writers.) The only other writer who has made a conscious attempt at this is Stephen Gill, but unfortunately he cannot be considered a serious writer, for, as one critic puts it, his works are “not really short stories” (Barclay 1974, 28).

There is little characterization and the plots are artificial. Of the twelve stories in Cowasjee’s Nude Therapy, only a few fall into this category. “Nude Therapy,” set in Saskatchewan, satirizes the North American obsession with sex, but events seem to be artificially strung together, as, for example, when a professor at a nude therapy session runs away with a woman participant he has just met, no sooner than they settle down to a corner for the evening as instructed, and driving without lights, is stopped by a policeman who turns out to he a former student.

If the story partly succeeds as a satire, it fails in artistry, though plausibility there is.

Sandy Pandya and Alan Annand are both Canadian born, as far as can determined from their stories, both apparently from the Atlantic region. The latter shows great promise. “A Bagful of Holes” is a tender story about a boy’s pain when some kittens are drowned by his uncle. To prevent Uncle Percy’s doing it again Bobby cuts holes in every one of the bags at home.

The boy’s character—his naiveté and sentimentality—is well suggested in this act, without other specific description. In his frustration and pain, Bobby doesn’t realize that Uncle Percy can get rid of kittens in a hundred other ways. Annand shows the boy’s pain symbolically, in true Chekhovian style: “Bobby walked back to the house. The trees had lost all their leaves and the sky was dark with clouds.” At suppertime, as he toys with his stew, “A potato kitten floated to the surface,” symbolizing how his pain, and its cause, kept surfacing again and again. The term “potato kitten” is powerful, suggestive of the potato sack that was used to drown the kittens.

Surjeet Kalsey is unique in dealing with a feminist theme—the oppression of women—in a universal setting, that is, with no identifiable geographic location “Mirage in the Cave,” both realistic and symbolic at the same time, deals with the “cave of the subconscious” of a woman deserted by her man. In the story, the woman’s loneliness draws her towards the door of “red and blue compartments,” a clear allusion to her anger and coldness. These feelings, which take her memory “from Volga to the Ganges” make Sirjana a symbol of women through the ages and her memory of a “lost civilization when woman was the Chief or General” serves as a prototype of the aspirations of those who want to see the woman/wife/mother as the guiding light in society/family.

The ideological component of the story peaks when women, whatever the treatment meted out through generations, always rise “from the dirt, with no fear, no sighs and no complaints.” If all this is ideology in symbolism, we have a powerful use of myth when Kalsey ironically gives the name Mokshdev (“god of liberty”) to the husband who has left her to her cruel destiny to be whipped, seduced, chained, and “worn as shoes” by the world.

This overview draws on the best work of South Asian Canadian writers (Sugunasiri, ed. 1983; Sugunasiri, ed. 1988; Sugunasiri 1985a). Other work, such as Gill’s and Leitao’s, although weak as short stories, need not be considered bad works of literature. If, for example, it is the enthusiasm in presenting a neglected cultural group, namely the Christian Indians of Goa, that has allowed Leitao’s content to get the better of form, this is not necessarily a weakness, for as George Woodcock rather reluctantly concedes in relation to the early works of E. J. Pratt and Hugh MacLennan:

At certain stages in literatures, when they emerge from a kind of colonialism to take their identity, an emphasis on content rather than form may be necessary and is to be encouraged. (1980, 29)

But in the linear rather than spatial form Leitao (like Gill in many of his works) has adopted, suggested in his title, Goan Tales, he is also seeking inspiration from traditional works such us the Kathàsaritsagara (“The Ocean of Tales”), the Pa¤catantra (“Five Threads”) and its shorter version the Hãtopadesa.

In conclusion, it is perhaps not insignificant to observe that the successful stories come from almost all the authors, indicating the overall level of the South Asian Canadian short story. These writers display knowledge of a variety of literary techniques, and examples abound of stories that fall into each of the nawa nalu rasa (nine esthetic experiences) recognized in Indian esthetics—sensitive/sensuous, comic, compassionate, heroic, apprehensive, and so on. We can also see Poe, Maupassant, Chekhov and others in them as well.

If much of the content renders the South Asian Canadian short story “still close to the island,” with writers like Dabydeen and Bannerji, Vassanji and Sugunasiri increasingly producing works in a Canadian context, the South Asian Canadian short story is not far from catching root in Canadian soil. It is a branch of Canadian literature, a sapling if you will, that the literary establishment cannot afford to ignore for much longer.


1. All the works discussed in this article are listed in the Bibliography.

2. Pat Barclay, book review in Books in Canada, 4, no. 7 (1974), p. 28.

3. George Woodcock, The World of Canadian Writing: Critiques and Recollections (Vancouver: Douglas McIntyre (1980), p. 29.

Excerpted from the author's forthcoming publication, Step Down Shakespeare, the Stone Angel is Here, Godage 2011.


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