Is fiction useful? Does the reading of novels or stories serve any constructive purpose other than diversion or, to use the specifically Indian word for the same experience, timepass? That it does not is the implicit argument of many readers who choose to apportion their reading time to history, biography, reportage, political analysis, books on management or (increasingly) inspirational literature—but not to fiction.
Jones’ backdrop evokes associations with the Catholic community in Bandra, Mumbai.
In a limited sense, this understanding is actually correct. Were the measure of a piece of writing to be its obvious utility, fiction would find it hard to defend itself in that court. After all, fiction does not offer any facts, hard empirical or statistical truths: It is by definition make-believe. It says nothing on the matter of improving relationships, establishing financial security, or controlling the breath for greater calm and energy. It seems ambiguous: it does not even deliver clear judgements on the characters it has itself presented. Fiction cannot even make up its own mind, let alone help us make up ours.
Yet, looked at from another viewpoint, the compass of fiction is precisely that which other disciplines and approaches leave out. What other schools of thought consider insignificant, or prove incapable of weighing, fiction treats with the greatest care and attention: a word, a gesture, a memory, a misunderstanding. As Milan Kundera observes, the knowledge we take away from fiction is existential knowledge. Reading the work of a skilled writer, we are at first taken by surprise, and yet we later close the book and say yes, life is like this.
Certainly, the stories of Nalini Jones’ debut collection, What You Call Winter, are full of beautifully precise and delicate observations that will stir the memories of readers. Many of the protagonists of Jones’s stories—set around a small Catholic community in Mumbai—are children, and she has a special gift for the depiction of children’s thoughts, by turns delighted, wistful or piquant.
A small girl chances upon the birthday gift her parents have bought her and lays it out upon the bed, delighted at the way “the dress held the shape of a 10-year-old girl, as if hoping for her to climb inside”. A six-year-old boy thinks about the life of his father: “His father, Jude realized, was always reading: letters, reports, notes from meetings, books with no pictures.”
Further, many of Jones’ stories follow her characters all the way through: A girl in one story, who we are told has a brother, reappears in another as the adult sister of a man through whose gaze the story is now told. Even as they link childhood to adulthood, these connections deepen and enrich our understanding of the world that Jones is observing, that of a small community finding its sense of itself becoming more uncertain.
In another story, a young woman returns from the US, where she has settled, and agonizes about how to tell her family that she is a lesbian. We are told in passing of a certain Toby Fernandez—a young man from the community—who had once proposed to her and been turned down, and is now engaged. Two stories later, as if moving from door to door down a street, we come across the same Toby Fernandez, nearly 50, but still a bachelor, remembering a woman he used to love in his youth: “Over the years the sharpness of such thoughts had gentled, from pain to longing to a kind of wonder about the life he might have lived.”
Jones lives in the US, and many of her stories are set in both Mumbai and various parts of the US, dramatizing what is now a paradigmatic Indian rite of passage: the move to the US to study or work, sometimes never to return, leaving behind longings, absences.
We see lonely old people nostalgic for the old times, when they had positions of respect in the world, and dreaming of the return of their children; to pass the time, they play cards or snap and bicker (Jones writes exceptionally good dialogue). These perfectly turned stories illumine in aching detail the life of a vanishing world; to read them is to understand how fiction may not be useful and yet be indispensable.
What You Call Winter
Alfred A. Knopf, 258 pages, $22.95 (approx. Rs900)
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