In this fine, intelligent, and passionate collection, Rabrindranath Maharaj constantly slips into that thin deep land between fantasy and reality. Often the fantasy is embodied by Canada, and the reality by Caura, the archetypical Caribbean island. This is a common dynamic for any discussion dealing with immigrant issues. But Maharaj is too smart to posit the argument in simple binary terms. He takes the time and the care to understand characters struggling to understand themselves.
In "Kevin's Log", a ten-year-old boy asks his mother, "You think I was born in the right place?" His island home is "small and square". In "The Other", the narrator begins with the observation, "To be an Indian is to be nothing." They are all in search of themselves. They come to Canada-mostly to Fredericton-to find the hope that languished in Caura. In "The Embassy", Suren is denied a visa to Canada, because, according to the immigration officer, "You are all the same." Suren's grandfather says, "I don't know who is to blame more. The people who treat we this way or we who accept everything like if we deserve it." Suren chooses to stay in Caura where he can be himself. It is a difficult choice.
Blessedly, for Maharaj, all of his characters are not the same. There are affinities among them, of course. Quite a few are journalists, or want to be. Two of them have fathers who are "returning" to India, though they have never been there. These could be hints of autobiography, but they do not intrude on the story-telling. And, most assuredly, Maharaj's characters all choose their destinies. None is forced into servitude. Unless unfulfilled dreams enslave us.
They come to Canada for a various reasons. They realize that they leave something behind. Most of the stories are flashbacks. In "Never Forget", a character comes to the realization that "we live where our dreams are." Most of Maharaj's characters live outside Canada-that is, Canada bears their house, but not their home.
This collection is free of political manipulation. The word "multicultural" never appears, and its absence is delightful. Maharaj tells the stories of people tossed between two homes, lost in Caura, living in Canada. They are caught between hopes and dreams. They make their choices and they live with them. Some are crushed by the choice. Some aren't. But collectively their stories form a rich profile of some immigrant lives. Not immigrant woes, not immigrant joys, but honest lives, told simply.
Canada brings little solace, because Caura is still unresolved. They run away from themselves, only to find they haven't moved an inch.
"The snow falls softly and, like the faint echoes of some dimly recalled melody, mocks me with its gossamer evanescence.. I look back and watch my footsteps disappearing in the enveloping whiteness. I have left no trace; perhaps I have ceased to exist in this place." In this story, "Snowfall", a man thinks about his sister dying in Caura. He had serenaded his baby sister with stories of "enchanted land[s] with lakes of gems, wish-bearing trees, and miraculous taps". His sister found such a land, in Caura, by becoming a successful lawyer. He sought it in Canada. Instead "he longed for Caura with a fierceness and a desperation which surprised him.. He saw poetry where before he had seen only insubstantiality. He longed for the simple villages and the soft rain littering his feet." Canada brings him back home.
He asks himself, "Memories are too frivolous to be reliable, but did I, in Caura, feel cheated?" Almost all the characters ask this question in one way or another. They are constantly tossed between what was, what is, and what could have been. In "Never Forget", someone observes:
"This morning while driving across the St. John River I looked down and saw my fears discoloured with the water.. We live where our dreams are.. Every departure forces you nearer to your point of origin. I cannot be an exile in Fredericton because in so many ways I have never left Caura. However, because of this, I cannot return."
And they don't. They can't. In the title story Malcolm is all paranoia. When his cousin Alvin arrives from Caura, he advises him, "Try and don't interlope in these people territory too much." That is Malcolm's philosophy. He views Canadians as racist and hateful, and they prove him true.
Alvin is another story. He is "The Interloper". He throws himself into the country head first. Aggressive and charming, Canada embraces him. There is truth in both versions. A country is merely a reflection of what one sees of oneself. Alvin sees opportunity; Malcolm sees nothing.
This is an exciting story, brimming with Alvin's enthusiasm. He is not limited by lost dreams and vague regrets. He does not see this country through his losses, but through its potentials. He views Canada as opportunity, and Canada is not shy in responding. Every immigrant is an interloper; that is just the way it should be. Let them get in our faces and change our ways. We could do with a little of that hopefulness. And, we could certainly do with a lot more of Rabrindranath Maharaj. His hope is infectious; his skill is a pleasure; his stories a real awakening.
Which is not to say he hits a home run every time. I found two stories told from the perspective of white Canadian women to be weak. I don't want to suggest a voice appropriation argument; I just didn't believe him. I didn't believe in any of his Canadian women. They were too simple. And Maharaj has an occasional tendency to slip in some purple prose. But these are minor quibbles with a very good writer. In the end how can one say anything bad about a writer who gives us this passage:
"I told her she should exercise instead because it was healthier than liposuction. She became angry and said that I couldn't understand because I would never have a problem with my weight."
Now that's the sort of issues more immigrant writing should tackle. Rabrindranath Maharaj is a breath of fresh air.
Andrew Faiz is a playwright and has finished a draft of a first novel.