When cultures clash

When cultures clash

The Prayer Room Shanthi Sekaran Harper Collins 2011, pp 382 350Locating her story in the year 1974, Shanti writes about the marriage of a Tamilian girl, Viji, to a callow, young British PhD student, George Armitage. Soon after, the couple move to his parents’ place in Nottingham, England and from then again to Sacramento in the USA, where George finds a university job. Sekharan is remarkably adept in describing life in these three countries. But the interesting part of this story is that it speaks in many voices, besides that of Viji.

There are juxtapositions of impressions in the way that Viji views Madras before she leaves it and after her return; George’s views of it when living there as also those of their triplets whom Viji takes there for a holiday.

The story draws its name from the little puja room that Viji makes for herself in Sacramento, a place that she seeks out as a refuge from the rough and tumble of daily living in an unfamiliar world. She seems to derive solace from speaking to the photographs of dead people who are up on the wall in the prayer room. They surprisingly talk back to her, especially her mother who occasionally plays her conscience keeper.

Shanti brings to the novel her deep understanding of cross-cultural differences, which sometimes cause barriers, and at other times are tactfully surmounted. For instance, Viji and George’s first fight occurs because of Viji’s desire to know and ask the prices of everything and George’s refusal to tell her! In another instance of a cultural clash, George’s father, Stan, belittles Viji for cutting vegetables on the floor, which is “for the animals,” and Viji complains about Stan, “wearing his dirty shoes in the house, bringing in the filthiness from the street.”

There are other brilliant touches too, as when the author speaks of how Viji’s marriage to a European scholar has raised their status in a “class-conscious set, that still considered the English to be superior.”

After George’s mother’s death, when Stan comes to stay with his son in Sacramento, the conflicts between Viji and her father-in-law get exacerbated. Through Viji’s eyes, Shanti reveals Indian puritanical and prejudicial notions when Viji thinks that Stan is “defiling the memory of his wonderful wife with the likes of a low-class cleaning lady!”

The author brings out the different conceptions of race in an interlude between a black woman and Viji where the former keeps asking Viji, “You black?” and she replies, “No, I’m Indian.” To which the reply is, “Indians, beautiful black folk!”

To Viji, the ultimate desecration happens when Stan and Lupe enter her puja room and touch her idols. This is the turning point in the story, which forces her to leave the country and return to Madras and her old home, where her spinster sister, Shanta, lives with a couple of old aunts.  From here on, it is an unravelling of mysteries from the past that had probably haunted Viji at some subliminal level. Sekaran managed to sustain the interest and the suspense almost till the very end.

Overall, a good read, despite some meanderings. The author is to be commended not just for her deep insights into human nature but also for her lyrical style of writing.

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