August 1st, 2013

Indira Ganesan's The Journey

Indira Ganesan's first novel The Journey (Beacon, 2001), originally published in 1990, was subsequently reissued as part of the wonderful Bluestreak paperback series of innovative literary writing by women of all colors.

This novel introduces the fictional island of Pi that is also the setting for her other novels Inheritance (see my earlier review) and As Sweet as Honey (see stephenhongsohn's review) and includes many fascinating passages describing it. The name comes from "Prospero's island," a reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Journey, in fact, begins with an epigraph from that play: When I wak'd, I cried to dream again (III, ii). These lines by Caliban speak of the wrenching feeling of waking from a wondrous dream. Ganesan's Pi has a dreamlike and magical quality, and the sense of being unmoored from time as well as inextricably bound to colonial forces (as Shakespeare's Prospero took over the island) is significant for the characters and their lives.

The Journey focuses on 19-year-old Renu, who returns to Pi with her sister and mother after they have been living abroad in the United States for a decade (her father passed away in the states). The occasion for their return is the tragic death of Renu's "twin," a cousin who was conceived and born on the same day as she was. The twin Rajesh haunts the narrative throughout as Renu grapples with this sudden loss and what it means to go through her life alone. The first paragraph describes Rajesh's death in a train accident, and I found it this line curious since Jhumpa Lahiri's later novel The Namesake revolves around the titular character's naming stemming from the same author and a near death experience with a train wreck: "Her cousin, the Gogol diving from his pocket, his ugly slippers crushed, must have spun like a Catherine wheel in the air, tumbling, his glasses flying as the train fell."

As in Inheritance, this novel also centers on the possibilities and limitations for women in the traditions of Pi and India. While Renu is a fairly obedient daughter, her younger sister Manx (a self-ascribed nickname) is much more rebellious and Americanized. While the sisters spend time in Pi at their grandfather's house, named Nirmila Nivasam after an ancestor, their different ways of dealing with the death of their cousin and the relatives around them reveal this difference in their temperaments. Manx begins hanging out with Freddie, an older white American man who hangs around town just to catch glimpses of a woman he calls the Light of the World. Like the white American male characters in Inheritance, Freddie comes across as an Orientalist, obsessed with Eastern philosophies and ways of life, while also appearing more sympathetically as yet another wayward soul in search of meaning. He eventually joins Renu, Manx, and another character Kish on a journey around the island to visit a holy statue.

Kish is a young man the same age as Renu who was left at the doorstep of Highway Amir, a man known as a leader in the Free Island Party on Pi who became the Number One Enemy of Pi when he orchestrated and perpetrated some attacks against the newly established Indian government following the British withdrawal from colonial rule on the subcontinent. Amir is an interesting figure, helping demarcate a rift between Pi and India in political and cultural terms. The novel also mentions that the original inhabitants of Pi were the Banacs, a nomadic, tribal people who were pushed into the interior of the island by successive waves of colonization and eventually killed off in a campaign that painted them as cannibals and thus unworthy of existence in a modern world.

The Journey definitely has a more wandering narrative than Inheritance, with Renu taking literal journeys as well as metaphorical ones as she navigates the loss of her twin cousin and considers what it means for her to grow up and become a woman.
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