Prepare to be annoyed, Mona Dash warns the reader on the first page of her debut collection of stories. Those expecting to find tales of saris and jasmine will be disappointed, she says. Instead, the reader should prepare for stories which have not been told before: the voices traditionally marginalized by those belonging to the powerful and the erudite.
Thus Dash sets out her manifesto in the opening chapter of the book. The following stories certainly live up to the promise of diversity. For backdrops, we are taken on a whistle-stop tour of the world. Dash evokes Reykjavík as skilfully as Las Vegas, while the tropical heat of India is showcased several times. The protagonists are equally wide-ranging, moving from a Finnish fur farmer to a thieving temple cleaner in Yemen, although more prosaic characters such as call girls and bored wives also appear. Nor does Dash limit herself to the modern day, visiting India’s colonial past in one story and a speculative London future in another.
Within these colorful variations, Dash draws out a common feature in her characters. They are all searching for fulfilment. Some characters think love is the route to contentment and strive to find the perfect partner or family. Others see a way to satisfaction by more material means. Chaya in “Formations”, for example, is under pressure from her parents (and herself) to produce a baby. She lets herself believe that, if only she and her husband could conceive, the new arrival would solve any problems in their relationship. Meanwhile, in “Natural Accents”, Renuka, a successful forty-year old, sees that the only obstacle to truly “belonging” in London is her accent. If only she could speak English like the Queen! Luckily, there’s some software which can help. She buys an addition to her voice box and has it inserted in her throat.
Sadly, for both women, the road they assume leads to salvation is a very wrong turn. For Chaya, it is clear that a baby will not be enough to compensate for giving up her lover: the real issue is her stale marriage. In turn, Renuka finds that the new accent alienates her from her family and her friends, or where she really belongs.
Such misdirected thinking can impact others too. The temple cleaner, Nathu, was once a well-paid Xerox engineer. Choosing to follow his philosophy of “live for the moment”, Nathu spends his salary on lovers and good times, eventually losing his job and his visa for Dubai thereby plunging his wife and family into poverty. Another unintentional consequence is revealed in “Why does the Cricket Sing?” The idea that sex before marriage is sinful is drummed into schoolgirl Rose by her Christian missionary teacher. Fast forward to liberal Paris some two decades later and, unsurprisingly, Rose is struggling to connect in adult relationships.
One story that stands apart from this theme is “The Boatboy”, a fictionalized account of the life of Baji Raut, a teenage ferryman from Odisha. In 1938, he refused to carry a party of British police across the river to his village which they intended to burn down. His reward was death and, as Dash points out, scant mention in the history books. By retelling his story, Dash brings this overlooked episode into the light and so adds another perspective to the record of British rule in India.
Raut’s martyrdom stands in contrast to the rest of the characters chasing contentment. Even if they achieve their aims, the holy grail soon proves to be disappointingly empty. Could it be, suggests Dash, that we are looking in the wrong places for an answer? If what we find is not enough, then we need to push our boundaries, to explore further or even, as the temple cleaner Nathu notes, “you have to forget yourself to find God”.