The characters in this book are people caught in a web of culture, unable to squirm out of this tightly-woven mesh, even when they dare to try. The entanglement is slightly less for those of them who live in Canada. But even in a new setting, cultural habits trap and snare the unwary.
History follows these characters to their new homes. For them the past takes for granted that by nature men are powerful and women are weak. The lessons of the title are about modes of relating governed by this past. The lessons trace the cycles of intolerance and cruelty perpetuated by history, culture, and, most importantly, the family. Held up to a magnifying glass are the narrow-mindedness and oppression of the powerful and the search of the weak for the courage and strength to disentangle themselves from a disgraceful past.
Are these lessons for everyone? Yes; and they make for interesting reading.
In a turnaround of historical veracity, the leading players in these stories are female. In "Rawalpindi 1919", wives and mothers mediate between fathers and children. The women are painfully careful to avert trouble within the family. There is little room in their tight space for spontaneity, for blurted words of frankness. Words may give offence; this is to be averted, especially by women, at all costs. "Montreal 1962" describes the trials and tribulations of the first generation of immigrants to Canada, and the new world's misunderstanding of them, sometimes deliberate, sometimes inadvertent. Women continue to be obsessed with calming their men: "Once again I climbed on a chair and I let your turbans loose. One by one, I held them to me, folding in their defiance, hushing their unruly indignation, gentling them into temporary submission."
The reader is privy to the thoughts of reticent women, even if the world around them never listens to them, never hears them. "Dropadi Ma" is narrated by a young girl. In her family, the men have customarily "wandered far" in search of a future for themselves. But no matter where they end up, it is their family duty to return home to marry a suitable bride chosen for them by the family. Dropadi Ma is the family servant, a helpful yet minor presence in the family hierarchy. She is, however, an important figure in the life of the narrator, serving as her mother and teacher. History has moved on to 1966. But the custom of fathers selecting their sons' brides has not budged one bit. "I tell you, she may be a very nice girl but I do not know her. It is not 1945 any more, Darji, it is 1966." When the eldest son goes back to Canada without the bride chosen for him, the female servant smiles, vicarious pleasure being taken in impractical rules broken, in unfeeling masters being disobeyed.
My favourite story here is "Family Ties", which introduces us to a ten-year old narrator who appears to others to be chastened by life ("Mummy always says I am such a fear-filled girl, it will be difficult to find me a good family").The story shows her seeking courage within herself, carefully pushing against the boundaries of the older generation's self-delusion. Her brother asks his questions boldly, without fear of consequence: " `Why?' is a question Mummy takes as a personal affront but Inder asks it over and over." Her brother's questions are prompted by self-interest and cannot lead the reader into the tunnel of truth.
Set in a time of communal and family clashes, the story revolves around the mystery of what really happened to the narrator's aunt, her father's sister, during the period of Partition in 1947. "Do you know the story of my aunt Chandini Kaur?" the young girl asks her father. Her father answers cautiously: "There are many stories of Chandini Kaur." The narrator knows enough about life to realize that "the trouble with stories is that some are true and some are not." We are given a brief history lesson about the continuous enmity between Sikhs and Muslims, about how the men in the family heighten and perpetuate these hostilities and the suffering of family members because of the persistence of historical prejudices. For the narrator, insight into the intertwining tangle of historical and family "tales", into the dynamics of a family "partitioned by family ties," and her father's problematic role is hushed and slow: "Dad did not kill his sister...How can I have been so base, so vile, so ungrateful a daughter as to have let such a thought enter my mind? He was just preparing us, as a father must in a time of war, for all that he could foresee." So much is said in a single line. The reader slowly realizes how to read the story; how not to believe its lies. The reader is not the only one who needs assistance. Even with the help of new glasses, the narrator has trouble wriggling free of established patterns. In the end, although she finds out the truth of family history, she keeps the family's secrets to herself. But the story is told.
These are lessons that are not normally taught in the classroom. Historical patterns are tellingly particularized within the circle of family life. Fathers are like sons. But worse still, daughters are like their mothers. One of two female characters in the story "Gayatri" disapproves of her younger sister-in-law, who has taken a job as an air hostess: "serving men in the sky or on the ground-what's the difference?" Gayatri serves the family's interests: "If I had been interested in working my parents could have found me a poor man. But...they protected me so I had a perfect reputation when I married your brother." Gayatri's protests when others make her life for her, though unspoken in real life, are heard loudly and clearly in this story. The truth of a broken spirit under the veneer of social correctness pushes through to the reader's consciousness in the story's ironic language. At its conclusion, Gayatri is instructed by her husband Ramesh to send a telegram to his air hostess sister and her "inappropriate" choice of an American husband signed "Love, Ramesh and Gayatri." The reader cannot help but step beyond the boundary of this conclusion to envisage a bitter future for all the characters.
I don't mind lessons after school, particularly when the teacher gives me something back for my attention. These stories delight in many ways. They provide an array of views through a mosaic of characters from different generations and social spheres. There is a respectful and full rendition of all the characters. Their positions and postures are finely drawn. However, there is obviously more joy for those who put up a decent fight (and win), who challenge a selfish culture, than for those who guard it for their own advantage.
There is definitely no sense of nostalgia for a world left behind, although some characters experience separation pangs, as in the story "Toronto 1984".
The stories are spare. Every detail is for a purpose. So much about a culture's values is said in this line from "Nothing Must Spoil": "Chaya wondered anew why Janet had denied herself and Arvind children to comfort them for all the things in life that might have been." Some stories are plainly told, with little embellishment. The descriptive passages in others are especially attractive: "Her hair, resting in my palms as I braid it, is the colour of spent fire-coals. My hair is orange-red in the mirror now-I buy one egg a month for myself and I mix its soft bubble yolk with dark henna powder and water that has known the comfort of tea leaves" (from "A Pair of Ears").
The stories read as if they were written at different times, understandable in a collection. Some are stronger than others. But the course of events usually led me willingly towards an outcome that was rarely predictable, and sometimes downright surprising. Always present is a lively, active, questioning spirit, nudging the reader, even when it cannot get through to the characters. This for me is the art of these stories.
Rivanne Sandler is an associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto.