For the Sake of the Boy and other stories, by Ramola D, published by Paycock Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-0-931181-79-5.
Can ten short stories that share the same context, basic premises, and regional flavors be that different from one another? In the case of Ramola D’s collection, For the Sake of the Boy and other stories, the answer is, most definitely.
D has created a world whose surface looks placid enough, but whose core seethes with a deep frustration and desire for release. Like most women, the women in her stories want the freedom to be themselves outside of the expectations of parents, husbands, and, in this case, the constraints of their roles as ‘other’ brought on by their status as immigrants. The notion of what it means to be a free, American woman is tantalizingly close—just past the door of the traditions that tie them to men they may or may not have chosen for themselves and, the desires of some like Sadhana of the title story, to maintain a firm connection to the ways of her native country. That desire works as a kind of antidote for that sense of otherness.
In “The Smell of Tulips,” we watch a husband watch his wife teach traditional classical Indian dance in a suburban Washington DC after-school program. She is beautiful and, in that setting, exotic looking. He enjoys watching other people take note, because she is his. But now, he wants a child, which, she apparently is not ready to give. When she behaves too freely—befriending a male colleague of her husband, with whom she has lunch and happy phone conversations, we begin to understand along with the husband, that she has decided she is not HIS. There is a moment, near the end of the story, when he places his hand on the wall outside of the dance studio glass door and ‘…the textured surface of it cracked beneath his hand, came off…..The wall was swollen and cracked, as if water had long ago seeped and spread under it…’ The reader understands; he is beginning to realize that the beautiful façade of his marriage is truly damaged from the inside out.
Other characters, such as the narrator in the title story, are up before dawn to prep kids for school, serve a husband breakfast, etc. before setting off to high-stress IT jobs, after which they are home first to pull together the expected traditional supper, maybe parathas and savory brinjal and potato fry…dahl with pumpkin…broccoli…with tumeric, onions, and ginger, etc. All of this happens in spite of ongoing infidelities, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and drunkenness in “For the Sake of the Boy.” The story of domestic violence is universal, but Ramola D’s setting shines a particular light on both the cultural acceptance imposed on the women in these stories as well as the way distance from home lends an extra sense of loss of control over one’s autonomy. After all, how does an immigrant wife, even one with a high-paying job, navigate separation and divorce in a foreign culture. (Spoiler alert: in at least one instance it becomes clear that for the sake of the child separation (at least) will happen).
The conditions vary from story to story in some basic ways: some taking place in southern India and some in leafy suburbs around Washington D.C. Some stories move between these two locations. In all cases, there is a husband, unfaithful or estranged or emotionally absent or all of those things. In some cases, there is a child as in the ‘boy’ of the title story, who internalizes the emotional betrayals of the father. In “Dance on the Turquoise Whale” Aneesha, a pre-teen daughter narrates the increasing estrangement between her handsome, but clearly philandering, American father and her clearly brilliant, lovely mother. Father flirts with all kinds of women to varying degrees, bringing Aneesha in on the assignations; flirting, in a way, with his daughter, buying her silence with presents and added affection. Mother ignores, ignores, ignores. A visit to the aquarium does not end well for anyone except the intentionally oblivious father.
What I love about the women in these stories is their striving after a sense of self. Some would appear to have arrived at that sense because they avoided arranged marriages back in India and/or chose their own spouses. Some married other IT engineers, others married white American men who are handsome, successful, etc. But in each case, the fulfillment of that desire to be autonomous in a culture that resists autonomy for its women, is challenged. The characters must find their way to the next step on that journey. Some have affairs. Some, like Mira in “The Smell of Tulips” present a wall of indifference and innocence, choosing which cultural norms to maintain and which to ignore.
“Just the Door Ajar” appears three-quarters of the way through the collection. It is a cautionary tale about arranged marriages in the 21st Century. Set in a wealthy suburb of Madras, we meet the teenaged narrator hired to tutor nine-year-old Hanif in English literature so that he can get into medical school down the road. Parental ambitions for sons are on full display here. Through the tutor’s eyes, we watch Hanif’s beautiful mother, Ruksana, and Ruksana’s equally beautiful cousin, Kareem carry on an affair in the same room where Hanif and his tutor sit. While tutor and tutee study Wordsworth’s “To a Small Celadine” and the next week, discuss Dickens’, Oliver Twist, the young, blythe mother snuggles with Kareem on the sofa.
The much older and baleful husband of their arranged marriage is nowhere in sight. Until he is. Then, our narrator understands what awaits her; the real possibility of a controlling spouse and a loveless marriage in which the wife must find ways to dissuade, deceive, and distract the man if she is to have any chance of happiness at all.
D shows us unfamiliar landscapes with a deft, painterly touch. Some place names do not slide easily off the western tongue which causes a bit of internal dislocation that invites readers to try on unfamiliar sounds as well as locales. In “Salt”, Prithika, the narrator mulls over her own sense of becoming a visitor in her country of birth. Married to an American and making a point to introduce her husband, Bruce to many of the ‘brochured destinations’ of India, Prithika realizes she is becoming a tourist as well. However, as she travels with her parents and husband from one firmly touristic destination to another, she manages to immerse herself in the landscape during a short break in their drive from Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram. She approaches the “wide expanse [ ] with reeds at the edge, and herons, here and there, graceful arches of white, flying across the water” and wades into the salt pond at a distance from her husband and out of reach of her parents who are content to share fruit and water beside the car. A moment of passage is upon her that she is just coming to terms with. Her husband has a secret life, which, upon discovery, he has agreed to forego, but does not. Her father is inclined to protect his son-in-law from criticism rather than validate his own daughter’s concerns. Her mother will neither defend nor validate, choosing to be a non-player. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of the parent’s sunny dining table, and later, the moire sheen of the salt pond at midday. For contrast, a small, cheerful family in the distance, catching crabs offer their hospitality in the form of a shared lunch, which Prithika, feeling even more isolated in the face of their contentment, turns down for all of her party.
Arguably, that sense of isolation is a given in all of these stories. In spite of marriages, work friendships, the presence of parents and/or siblings at a distance, each story dwells on a feeling of separateness. The universal challenge of self-ideation worked out within the frames of cultural claims made on these characters is expertly and intimately wrought throughout. As Susan Muaddi Darraj, author of The Inheritance Of Exile, wrote of these stories, “They unfurl steadily, drawing you into the lives of her characters, startling you with the depths of their experiences, their loves, and their tragedies.”
© Ramola D and Miriam O’Neal
Ramola D is the author of Invisible Season (WWPH, 1998), which co-won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry Award in 1998, and Temporary Lives, awarded the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and finalist in the 2010 Library of Virginia Fiction Awards. A Discovery/The Nation Finalist and five-time Pushcart Prize Nominee, she is the recipient of a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
Miriam O’Neal‘s work has appeared in AGNI, Blackbird Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, Ragazine, and many other journals. She is a 2019 Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in the 2019 Disquiet International Poetry Prize. The Body Dialogues (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2020), was nominated for a Massachusetts Center for the Book Award. A portion of her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini’s, Rose Volanti appeared in On The Seawall, in the Fall of 2019.