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Roanna Gonsalves’ book of short stories is a brilliant chronicle of migrant experiences, but is it better or worse for being limited to one tiny subset of the Indian community?
Let me start by saying that the warm, fulsome praise Roanna Gonsalves’ book, The Permanent Resident, has received and continues to receive is richly deserved. The Permanent Resident is an important piece of work. This collection of short stories is the first insightful account of what life is/has been for the second wave of Indian immigrants to Australia, who have been slowly and steadily arriving here since the 1990s.
Their journey needs to be chronicled, and Roanna’s 16 stories do so without losing any of the complexity of their experience. Nothing gets missed – not the loss, bafflement, confusion, embarrassment, anger nor the hope, joy, freedom and the opportunity to reinvent oneself that migrating to another country entails. Most reviews (such as this one in The Australian) laud Roanna’s work for this reason and deservedly so.
What is less spoken of, but also needs to be mentioned, is the deftness of Roanna’s composition. Her prose has the richness and body of a good Shiraz and the highs and lows of a particularly moving choir performance. (Incidentally, one of the most masterfully crafted moments in the book takes place during a choir performance in the story In the beginning was the word.) Her rich, textural descriptions of people, places, moments and emotions are something to be savoured, not just read.
“I did truly understand how the ground wobbles when you first arrive here and only begins to steady itself when you have wobbled with it for a while and then learned to secure it with the toil of your own hands and the untwisting of your own tongue.” — page 104, CIA (Australia)
Or how she describes a woman’s orgasm:
“All form and shape began to melt; the seconds felt like blackholes, as the breath of some forgotten elemental core rose up within her, in a pure, undiluted series of Jackson Pollock eruptions.” — page 74, Straight, No Chaser
However, at the end of the book, I also found myself wondering if this book is really about Indian immigrants, when it primarily focusses on a subset of Indians, the Goan Catholics.
The pork-eating, mass-going Goan Catholics are a very small but proud clan who stand out in the large cacophonous mass of Hindus that dominate India. Their language, food, music, dress, culture is strongly influenced by the Portuguese, who ruled the state of Goa well into the 1960s. They have consciously maintained their distinctive culture, even as they have slowly migrated to different parts of India (particularly Mumbai) and indeed, other parts of the world. For most Indians, they are already considerably westernised in their attitudes and lifestyle.
All of Roanna’s immigrants are exclusively from this clan, which in itself is not a problem. Roanna is of Goan Catholic heritage herself, and it is natural that given her intimate knowledge of the culture, she would set her stories within this community. The problem is that all of her characters also seem to exclusively interact and socialise within this subset. Barring two encounters, Roanna’s Australia has been cleansed of other Indian communities. They simply don’t exist in the life or minds of her protagonists.
The Indian community in Australia is incredibly diverse. Indians from different parts of the country can differ in looks, language, culture and mannerisms. Upon migration, each community does tend to close ranks, but they also encounter each other, and when they do there is recognition and camaraderie.
But Roanna’s characters simply never encounter Indians of other backgrounds. Is it a decision taken by the author, or is it a reflection of a particular rejection of other Indians by the Catholic Indian immigrants? If it’s the first, it would be great to understand why. If it is the latter, it is a shame that the rejection hasn’t been properly explored in the stories.
The absence of other Indians also leaves a question mark on how should they read these stories from which their presence has been rubbed out?
Her work gives us a platform to discuss and explore these questions: do different Indian communities live in their own bubbles; is there more to Indian and Australian encounters than power; and are all marriages destined to fail?
Nor do the stories really acknowledge the presence of white Australians. They exist more as background noise and colour than as fleshed out beings in the stories. The precious few encounters that do take place are uneasy, with the Indian immigrant left feeling disempowered or patronised.
Again, power and patronage are both aspects of white and non-white immigrant interactions. But surely, there is more than that too. There is also genuine friendship, intimacy, acceptance and romance. These aspects are never explored because the stories’ characters remain cocooned within their Goan Catholic bubbles.
There are other homogeneities to the book’s protagonists as well. They are all women. Invariably, they are loosely connected to the Left supporting artistic communities (many are aspiring writers). And invariably, they are/were caught in suffocating, miserable marriages.
It goes without saying that transplanting oneself to a new country and culture would put the best of relationships under tremendous stress. The precarious residency status of most migrants is also fertile ground for exploitation of the weak. But that is not necessarily the dynamic of Roanna’s relationships. In most stories, the rot had set in long before migration tears the marriage apart. In fact, being in Australia acts as a positive force empowering the women to break free from their suffocating marital relationships.
Why such a persistently bleak view of marriage as an institution?
The questions above are not necessarily criticisms. In fact, her work gives us a platform to discuss and explore these questions: do different Indian communities live in their own bubbles; is there more to Indian and Australian encounters than power; and are all marriages destined to fail?
The book is a masterful collection of stories. Roanna may have defined her characters within the narrow scope of one community and gender but she does complete justice to them. She fleshes out their backgrounds as well as their experiences and anxieties, whether momentary or long standing. She is demanding of her readers – she asks us to get into the skin of her characters and think, talk and live like them, which given their cultural specificity can be challenging. But she is more interested in creating authentic portraits of her characters than in smoothening things over for us as readers.
But is authenticity only possible within the narrow confines of one’s own community?
Then again, this is her first book. Let’s hope that in the books that follow, she challenges herself to get out of her comfort zone and explore new communities and cultures just as she demands of her readers through her first.
Roanna Gonsalves will be discussing her book at the one-day Jaipur Literature Festival in Melbourne on February 12. Chetna Prakash will be reading her fiction and talking about being an immigrant writer as well.