I have a new favourite book. Rachna Mara's short fiction Of Customs and Excise is an eloquent and unpretentious model of South Asian women's writing which interweaves the experiences of women in India, Canada, and England across several generations. The stories tackle issues that arise for people who migrate, who must redefine their sense of belonging, and who must negotiate their experience of living with cultures juxtaposed. Rachna Mara writes with a sensitivity to conflicts that arise between daughters and mothers, women and men, people who are old and young, of colour and white, poor and rich. While doing this she also creates a fluidity of experiences rather than writing of binary conflicts. In Of Customs and Excise there is no right, and there is no wrong. There is no escapist ending that leaves me feeling like the writer is trivializing her subject by tacking on a resolution at the end of the book.
Of Customs and Excise opens with a story called Pipal Leaves in which Bridget Parkinson tries to find her place in an Indian village as a white doctor visiting from England. She is forced to unlearn her Western training and privilege in order to be accepted as a medical practitioner in the village, and learns about the subtleties of Indian medicine through her co-worker Dr. Naigar When a young bride named Parvati comes into the clinic for a check-up because she has missed a few menstrual periods, Bridget diagnoses that the woman is four months pregnant.
Dr. Naigar steps in:
"Dr. Parkinson, this girl is dearly no more than two or three months pregnant. You English doctors think you are knowing everything, but you cannot even determine how far along a woman is?"
... She'd heard a fetal heartbeat. There was no question the girl was in her second trimester.. .Abruptly she said, "I'll examine her again."
"There is no need for that," snapped Dr. Naigar. "I have already corrected your mistake."
Bridget said slowly, "I am examining her again, Doctor. She is my patient"
She placed the stethoscope on the bride's lower abdomen and listened.
"I'm afraid I mistook intestinal gurglings for a heartbeat."
Her voice was tight, clipped.
"It's difficult to say how far along she is, but certainly no more than two or three months."
"How long has she been married?"
Dr. Naigar, her back to Bridget, continued to collect the instruments. "Three months."
Bridget leaned against the table.
"Do you know what happens if they find out she is more than three months pregnant?" Dr. Naigar's hands, suspended above the tray, gleamed with steel. "There'll be an accident, screams in the night They'll say her sari caught fire while she was frying something, or she ate poisoned food put out for rats."
Bridget's stomach cramped. She saw a peacock-blue figure bobbing under a vulturous black umbrella, saw Parvati's eyes on her again, the eyes of a cornered bird, knowing there is no reprieve.
When I think about the pool of writing by South Asian women in the West, I see Bharati Mukherjee as a reference point. As I locate Rachna Mara in that pool, I know she has become my new landmark. Mara's Of Customs and Excise succeeds where Mukherjee's novel Jasmine falls short. Jasmine is about a woman who has lived in both Indian and American communities. Mukherjee's apparent view that cultural assimilation is necessary in order to live happily, is reflected in her writing. Whether or not this is true, the fact that this value judgement is conveyed in Jasmine detracts from the realistic representation of a woman's experience. People don't live according to static theories of cultural assimilation. Mukherjee's character Jasmine runs away from responsibility and from prejudice, and ultimately runs away from herself. Mara, however, does not imply that you have to lose your 'Indianness' before you can begin to negotiate your past and enjoy the present. Mara's series of related characters do not seek black and white resolutions—they learn, they take two steps forward and one step back in their acceptance of their backgrounds and their resistance to prejudices. Rachna Mara does not fall into the trap that gets so many women—the trap which is popularized by a movie such as Thelma and Louise, in which two women choose to escape rather than fight, and the trap set up by Mukherjee, whereby a woman's only option is to run from her background. By preventing her characters from leaping over the edge of that metaphorical Thelma and Louise cliff, Rachna Mara creates a tension in the lives of her characters that is believable and refreshing to read.
In the concluding story Parvati's Dance, the protagonist is Parvati's daughter Mala and the setting of the story is Canada. When Mala learns that the man she thought was her father really is not, she turns to imagining a segment of Parvati's life in order to understand the history of her conception.
How do I tell her story? Do I tell it as she told me, pitiful, skeletal, the edifice of their love gutted, steel girders gaping? Or the way it seemed to her then, rose-and-ivory marble?
...a secret marriage takes place between Parvati and a mysterious man she met at the movies.
And the marriage is consummated. Is it hasty, fumbled, in a park, or the car perhaps? Does he take her to a seedy hotel, rent by the hour? Maybe she lies again to the nuns, says she has to be away for the weekend, go home to meet a man her parents want her to marry...
Is he gentle? Does he take time? She's never seen a man naked, though she's probably seen some creep exposing himself. She has no idea what to expect. Some elaborate dance, perhaps, on cool marble floors. I hope there is tenderness, ecstasy. I can't ask.
By rewriting her mother's history in her own mind, Mala manages to bridge a generation and span two continents of misunderstanding. Rachna Mara clearly believes that it is necessary to acknowledge and accept one's heritage before it can be documented. By rewriting this history (and by writing all of Of Customs and Excise) Rachna Mara supports the need to record women's experiences. I really do think that Rachna Mara's clear, accessible writing will have as great an impact on all you other readers as it did on me.