||Whimsical Stories Not Without Poignancy
by Padma Viswanathan
The title story of Rabindranath Maharaj's new collection of short
fiction centres on a thick manuscript of homilies-as-hypotheticals.
Each takes the form of an if' statement followed by a corollary
but' question. In this artful tale, a struggling writer of speculative
fiction finds his apartment invaded by Pegu, a bombastic, mustachioed
older gentleman. Philip never figures out how Pegu got in or came
to know so much about him, but the evasive Pegu eventually confesses
he is fleeing the (fictional) homeland he and Philip share. He
carries with him a manuscript, "The Book of Ifs and Buts".
Pegu claims that it is a highly subversive book, written by Philip's
grandfather, so threatening to their homeland's higher-ups that a
death warrant was issued against the author and all his descendants.
Should Philip be scared? He reads the book. Turns out it's no more
than a collection of mild and ungainly aphorisms, such as "If
we look into the stream and see the face of a stranger, we scream
and run in fright. But who told us to look into the stream in the
first place?'" Philip can no longer credit any of Pegu's claims,
but he forces the older man to admit authorship of the book-and
facilitates its publication. "The Book of Ifs and Buts"
is praised by reviewers for being "deceptively simple,"
"filled with practical wisdom," and is passed off as
"a panacea for the age in which we live" and Pegu becomes
the CanLit hit Philip may never be.
The story's whimsicality and magical realist overtones are anomalous
in this collection of otherwise understated tales of displacement,
disillusionment, and reconciliation. Still, it's as though this
story epitomizes the other stories, since roly-poly Pegu, and Philip
himself, can be seen to embody the anxieties that fueled the
work-Maharaj's own duel paths as writer and Trinidadian immigrant
provide much of the material for his fiction. The Ajax, Ontario-based
author's steady output includes a previous book of short stories
and two novels. He has made the shortlists of several major prizes.
His last novel, The Lagahoo's Apprentice, was funny, intriguing,
full of absurd yet telling detail. It showcased Maharaj's humour
and his fine-edged treatment of incipient or averted bitterness.
These skills shine in the Book of Ifs and Buts' best stories, such
as "Swami Pankaj".
Pankaj is a Trinidadian fruit farmer whose dream is to pack in his
life and go meditate in the Himalayas. We meet him in Brampton,
where he has come to recover from illness possibly caused by chemical
pesticides. He has sold his farm and wants to live and work among
Indians, so he gets a job as a cab driver. Indeed, he sees suburban
Ontario as a first step toward the achievement of his spiritual
destination in India. This mild satire on occidental fascination
with the mystic east is in the vein of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha
of Suburbia or Anita Desai's Journey to Ithaca, though Maharaj also
always invites comparisons with V. S. Naipaul. One of the funniest
twists is when the Trinidad-born-and-bred Pankaj starts talking
with an Indian accent, presumably part of his intended auto-conversion
to swamidom. At one point, he says, indicating some seagulls,
"Those birdijis are so wery wery lucky. Not a single care in
the entire uniwerse." Caught off guard by the narrator's dry
delivery, I nearly choked laughing.
When lured into talking about his neighbours' reactions to his
farming success, though, Pankaj reverts immediately to a hard-core
West Indian dialect:
"They expect me to fail because I was too small. I was stepping
outa my shoes. "What wrong with that kissmeass Pankaj,"
they used to say. "He think he is some damn French Creole or
what, with all this plantation stupidness? Take care he don't bring
in a few slaves to work in the estate just now." And the rest
of them used to laugh gil-gil and say that they only waiting for
him to end up with his foot in the air like a dead cockroach."
"Swami Pankaj" is swift and well-wrought. The collection's
opening story, "The Journey of Angels", is rambling and
disjointed by comparison. Saren is an Armenian gardener in Canada
who ends up semi-intentionally passing himself off as a geneticist.
Saren is self-absorbed and perpetually bewildered by his relationships
with others. His repeated attempts and failures to connect with
others form the track of the story, but unfortunately none of them
are particularly dramatic or revealing. This is an episodic tale
about stilted relationships, stylistically akin to the work of Czech
writers such as Bohumil Hrabal, but "The Journey of Angels"
lacks the verve necessary to carry off such a literary challenge.
In the absence of drama, a central character should generate sympathy,
or even prurient interest, in the reader. Saren, who tells his own
mildly sordid story, fails to do that. An uncompelling Chauncey
Gardener, he presents himself to us as idiot and to his girlfriend
as savant-he's unnecessarily ingenuous about much of what he sees
or does, but tells us how he fooled this woman into believing he's
an accomplished scientist by reading books on science and recapitulating
facts from them in conversation.
There is the odd pithy moment. For example, when Saren attempts to
improve his English by reading newspapers, he comments on a new
vocabulary word: "Impeach. The word confused me at first. It
sounded delicious and forbidden-something you might do to your first
girlfriend when her parents were away." Unfortunately, such
wonderful bits of confusion are buried by far less credible ones.
It's clear that Maharaj is playing with layers of self-knowledge;
the frustrated reader suspects Saren must know more than Maharaj
lets him reveal.
Thankfully, that's the weakest of the stories. "The Diary of
a Down-Courage Domestic"-in which letters chronicle a middle-aged
immigrant's search for work as a maid and the responses of her
anxious husband left pining back in Trinidad-is comical and affecting.
The collection concludes somberly with "The House in Lengua
Village", a story about the return of a son, long out of touch,
to his family home. He doesn't know that his father had resolved
not to die before seeing him again, and dies immediately upon his
son's return. The returned first-born performs the last rites at
the request of his estranged alcoholic brother, striking a delicate
end-note to this varied collection.
To use the book's own formula: If Rabindranath Maharaj's new book
had made significant strides beyond his last one, this reviewer
would have been happier. But, since it does contain a few gems,
can't it still be recommended?
A cartoon representation of The Book of Ifs and Buts might show it
as a thought bubble shared by a young Bharati Mukherjee and a young
Austin Clarke-melding the gritty introspection of the former's early
short fiction with the latter's occasionally fallible ear and eye
for both dialogue and imported class struggles. Both of these authors
spread their wings slowly and fully, took risks, and now cast their
shadow over a broad swath of the North American literary landscape.
Maharaj's reach has yet to be revealed.