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WHEN Vassanji and his wife arrived in Toronto, they found many South Asian writers at work in Canada but no literary journal to publish them, so they established the Toronto South Asian Review. One of their first discoveries occurred in 1992, when the manuscript of a story called "Pigs Can't Fly" arrived in the mail, covered by a hopeful letter from its author, a twenty-seven-year-old Sri Lankan immigrant named Shyam Selvadurai, then working as a clerk at a bookstore. This enchanting, luminously written story is a reminiscence by a narrator who when he was a little boy preferred playing dress-up with girls to cricket with boys. His favorite game was "bride-bride," in which he and the girls play-acted a wedding.
The dressing of the bride would now begin, and then, by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki's cracked full-length mirror -- by the sari being wrapped around my body, the veil being pinned to my head, the rouge put on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, kohl around my eyes -- I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palu, seemed to revolve.
The story became the first chapter of an episodic novel called Funny Boy, which narrates the boy's coming of age and his parents' struggle to accept his homosexuality even as their country is falling into a nightmare of ethnic warfare between Tamil and Sinhalese. As in A Fine Balance and The Book of Secrets, history at once creates and mirrors the turmoil in the life of its characters. The novel ends on a note of terror, when the narrator's world literally goes up in flames, and his family leaves for Canada. Selvadurai movingly evokes his narrator's soul (of course it's his own), but in some ways his most remarkable accomplishment is his marvelous dynamic control (if I may put it in musical terms), from the pianissimo of the deft, telling detail to the thundering fortissimo of the finale.
Selvadurai's second book, Cinnamon Gardens (1999), is an ambitiously conceived historical novel set in Ceylon in the late 1920s. It centers on two characters: Annalukshmi, who considers herself to be a "'new woman,' who was not ashamed or afraid to ask for her share of the world," and her uncle Balendran, a closeted homosexual. Once again, personal and public drama reflect each other. Ceylon was moving toward independence: the labor movement was progressing, and a British parliamentary commission was laying the foundations for what would eventually become modern Sri Lanka. Yet the mores of the time remained traditional, disapproving of women who demanded their share of the world and, needless to say, scandalized by homosexuality.
Cinnamon Gardens (the title is the name of an affluent residential district of Colombo, the capital of Ceylon) is well researched and intelligent, and the fugal construction, revolving the action around two main characters with congruent conflicts, is an interesting idea made to work. However, the book is marred by flat prose and a too-dry tone of detachment, which appears to be an attempt to reproduce the ironic understatement of the English novelists writing at the time in which the book is set.
Moreover, Selvadurai is curiously indecisive about whether his novel has a social conscience or not. On the one hand, there is the subplot of Balendran's older brother, Arul, who marries a woman of low caste and is renounced by his tyrannical father, the personification of the injustice of a régime on the verge of becoming ancien. When Arul is dying, Balendran goes to him and undertakes responsibility for his nephew's education, defying his father's wrath. On the other hand, the novel glamorizes the luxurious lifestyle of Cinnamon Gardens, indulging in a genteel, Merchant-Ivoryesque eroticism of the well-set dinner table, and in nostalgia for cozy parlors and long chauffeured cars. Balendran's and Annalukshmi's rebellions both end on a muted note: he and his male lover decide to be just friends, she gives up her unsuitable suitor so as not to roil the family.
Cinnamon Gardens is a considerable accomplishment. It demonstrates that Selvadurai has the ability to create a naturalistically detailed fictional world. However, readers of Funny Boy will come away with the feeling that the author has deliberately withheld himself from his second book; and knowing what an interesting self that is, readers will miss it.
THERE'S no question that these writers form a school, perhaps a major one, but who claims them? When Bruce Meyer, a professor at the University of Toronto, wanted to include Such a Long Journey on the syllabus for his course in Canadian literature, members of the faculty objected, claiming that it wasn't really a Canadian book. Yet some Canadian academics have told me that they don't consider Rohinton Mistry to be a South Asian writer. If Mistry isn't Canadian or Indian, what is he?
The case of Vassanji is even more complicated: Could anyone call him an Indian-African-Canadian novelist and keep a straight face? Vassanji is sometimes called a Tanzanian writer, but that doesn't seem right either; he was fourteen years old when the country was created, and the socialist nation that Tanzania would become was a very different place from the Commonwealth nation of Tanganyika, whose President, Julius Nyerere, translated Shakespeare into Swahili.
Selvadurai calls himself a Sri Lankan writer, saying that Cinnamon Gardens was written with a Sri Lankan readership in mind; but aside from some epigraphs from the classical Tamil poem the Thirukkural, the literary references and world view of the book are thoroughly Western, with echoes of Jane Austen, Leonard Woolf, and even Louisa May Alcott. But the President of Sri Lanka read Funny Boy, and the book provoked a national debate about homosexuality and led to proposals to repeal the anti-sodomy law there.
The concerns of these writers are entirely those of their native countries and their countrymen. Forty years ago, when Rohinton Mistry was a child, the chief subject of literature in the developing world was the evil of colonialism. Then, in 1961, V. S. Naipaul published A House for Mr. Biswas, an epic comedy about the Indian community in Trinidad. At that time Trinidad was still a British colony, yet none of the principal characters in the book (which Naipaul wrote in London) is British; the author found his material in his own people. Naipaul's vision was radically new, and his example seems to have inspired the Torontonians (though Vassanji, for one, says that he has avoided reading Naipaul, lest he be influenced).
When I began reading these novels, starting with A Fine Balance, I was baffled: How was it that this vivid evocation of Bombay had been written in Toronto, of all places? It would be hard to think of two cities more antipodal: hot, smelly, boisterous Bombay, one of the oldest cities on earth; cold, pleasant, orderly Toronto, where almost everything is shiny and new.
Many of the people I met on a recent visit to Toronto made a great fuss about how Canada's multiculturalism differs from the multiculturalism of the United States, invoking metaphors such as the mosaic and the salad bowl as opposed to the melting pot. As Bruce Meyer put it to me, "When you come to Canada, you don't have to leave the other country behind."
The weakest work by M. G. Vassanji that I have read is No New Land, in which he describes how immigrants from Dar es Salaam have re-created their African life in Toronto and attempts to discern exactly what has been lost.
Their Dar, however close they tried to make it to the original, was not quite the same. Rushing to mosque after work in your Chevy, through ice and slush, for a ceremony organized in a school gym, dumping your coats on a four-foot mound of other coats and throwing your shoes and boots among the several hundred other pairs -- and then afterwards scrambling to retrieve them -- was not the same as strolling to your own domed, clock-towered mosque fresh after a bath.
Rohinton Mistry's weakest work is the short story "Swimming Lessons." Most of the other stories in his collection are about the lives of the Parsi residents of Firozsha Baag; a few contain anecdotes about former residents who have emigrated to Canada; but "Swimming Lessons" is set entirely in Toronto. The nuanced pathos that animates Mistry's fictional vision of India is altogether lacking in this clumsy, insubstantial effort at autobiography.
Perhaps the reason that Vassanji's and Mistry's attempts to write about the immigrant experience fall flat is that they themselves aren't immigrants in the usual sense but rather exiles. (The case of Selvadurai is more clear-cut, because the decision to move to Canada was made for him by his parents, when he was nineteen, against a background of war.) Toronto is home to these writers, in that it is where they live, but it can never become their homeland. Immigrants come to a place precisely in order to leave the old country behind, to make a new home; exiles cannot do that.
The prototypical artist in exile is, of course, James Joyce. He left Dublin when he was twenty-two, and spent the rest of his life writing about the city, in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. As the years passed, the Dublin of Joyce's fiction became ever more remote from contemporary reality -- yet it was never anything less than authentic Dublin. Even in Finnegans Wake, which lacks the vaguest semblance of reality, the city that had been lost to Joyce for decades is still present, as a sort of distilled cultural essence coursing through the riotous prose.
Whatever brought Mistry, Vassanji, and Selvadurai to Toronto, they have stayed there to distill the essence of Bombay, Commonwealth East Africa, and Sri Lanka. Like Joyce, they inhabit in their imaginations places that have ceased to exist, as time has cruelly transformed home into a strange land. The act of strolling to a sunny mosque fresh from a bath gains in power and significance precisely because it is recalled in the slush of a Canadian winter, and because the remembered mosque may not still be standing. For these writers, the only way to hold onto home has been to leave it behind.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Toronto Circle - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 126-130.