Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Shree Ghatage’s Awake When All the World is Asleep (1997)

Two years before everybody was talking about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Shree Ghatage’s collection was published.

House of Anansi, 1997

Awake When All the World is Asleep considers similar themes, and also presents a wide variety of narrators in both Indian and North American settings. (Okay, it didn’t win a Pulitzer, but it is short fiction that has managed to stay in print for fifteen years: that’s something.)

Conflicting desires, misunderstandings between generations, tensions between cultures: these themes permeate this collection.

(Another collection which I read last year, would make an interesting companion read with Ghatage’s stories: Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac. The emphasis in that collection is on North American settings, whereas the emphasis in Ghatage’s is on Indian settings.)

The collection opens with “Heaven-Earth Difference”, and the title is taken from a passage which characterizes the work as a whole.

“‘I won’t tell you what you have no doubt already discovered: there is a zameen-aasmaa pharak, a heaven-earth difference between the East and the West. However…’”

It is not necessarily the heaven-earth difference that characterizes the collection; it is the ‘however’ which follows.

The primary concern of these stories is not so much to identify tensions and misunderstandings, but to pose the question “Now what?” and watch what happens.

The main characters in this particular story are Shaila Goray from Bombay and Simon Roberts from Winnipeg; they meet when Shaila is studying at university in Canada. Shaila’s residence there is considered temporary, but her relationship with Simon has her rethinking that, making other decisions.

“I felt a certain sadness for them now: because of the permanent distance my decision was going to put between us, because it had always been the plan that after all my studying was finished I would join Dad in his practice in Bombay.”

And, yet, there is a firm attachment to home and family which overwhelms her upon her return. (Which, too, is intended to be temporary; Simon is awaiting her return to Winnipeg.)

“As soon as the heavy doors of the airplane opened, the strong aromas of frying curry leaves, roasting brinjal, and pungent garam masala cleared my head of all previous thoughts, and suddenly I was impatient for the shikeykai smell of Mum’s wiry hair, for the bitter taste of raw betelnut that Dad often carried in his pocket.”

(For those who are unfamiliar with the cultural references, there is a glossary in the back, which explains, for instance, that brinjal is a kind of eggplant, garam masala is a pungent mix of spices, and shikeykai is an Indian Herbal Shampoo; most of these you could guess from context, which is the case for most of the words defined, but it’s nice to have the option of clarity.)

While Shaila is in Bombay, however, she is constantly pulled back to Winnipeg in her thoughts. Seemingly disconnected images align in her mind, and she thinks of all that she has come to know there, even when she was still determined to return to India.

“I sat on the divan on the verandah reading. The coconut fronds undulating against a blue sky reminded me of the stiff winds and battering snow that had almost prevented my reaching Winnipeg Airport seven days earlier.”

Her idea of home has definitely changed while she was been studying, and it’s not entirely rooted in her relationship with Simon, but with personal realizations and discoveries.

“My first two years in Winnipeg, I used to pretend I was a snail. If a snail can carry its home wherever it goes, I’d reason, then so can I. Lying in my bed, painstakingly coiling the essence of everything I valued into the shell on my back, I would fall asleep, knowing that home wasn’t distant but here, with me.”

Her mother and father do not understand. They have no conflicting ideas about ‘home’, and they are hurt and angry when Shaila resists the ideas they present, which they believe will ensure her happiness.

This is where the ‘however’ comes in: Shaila’s mother and father each respond differently to their daughter, though they are united in wishing that she would abandon any ideas that she has about another home, another way of living, another way of loving.

“I [Shaila] could imagine Mom shaking her head. She spoke softly but I heard her say, ‘The world has changed since you and I were married. Girls want independence to choose their own partners these days. The more you force her the more stubborn she will become. After all, remember, she’s your daughter through and through. I will talk to her…”

(You can hear the ‘however’ there, can’t you?)

For all the conflict and tension that the characters embody in Shree Ghatage’s Awake When All the World is Asleep, it is a measured and quietly satisfying collection.

(And those readers who particularly enjoy interconnected stories, will be pleased to have other vantage points on Shaila’s family later in the collection as well.)

Project Notes: 
Day 30 of 45:
We’re in another theme here: have you figured it out? S’ok if you haven’t…there’s a couple more days of it yet. I’m still indulging in my AList titles, and finding ways to squeeze reading into busy December days. How about you?

4 comments to Shree Ghatage’s Awake When All the World is Asleep (1997)

  • So, it could be because I’m Indian living in the US, but I am really tired of books that are all about the culture clash and how it’s so difficult to balance one with the other, etc. I get that this book is older, so perhaps it was a more original story to tell at that time, but I’m just tired of it. Even if the purpose of this book is more the “What now?” than the “Why is this a problem?”, it still seems like the same old story. I can’t imagine that my life was THAT much different than other people’s due solely to my parents’ country of origin.

    • I get your point, Aarti. And although her work preceded Lahiri’s, it did follow, for instance, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995 I think) and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993, I think), so perhaps there are other readers too who are tired of this theme. Much of it is about timing, eh? If this has been the first book that you’d read via a western publisher which put eastern characters at the heart of it, you might have been overwhelmingly excited to see even some faint echo of your family’s experiences on the page and, yet, years later, it’s repetitive, uninspiring or, even, irritating…

  • Indian Fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I am surprised to hear that this one has stayed hidden for so long. I would love to read it, and see what I think. I also love short stories, so this works for me on two levels. Thanks for the very precise and well rounded review. I think I will be looking for this one.

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