Tragedy central

Tragedy central

Drowning Fish
Swati Chanda
2015, pp 326, Rs 399

“All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?/All the lonely people/Where do they all belong?”. Substitute the word displaced for lonely, and the Beatles could be singing not about Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie in 1960s Britain, but about the protagonist of this book.

A teacher on an American campus, Neelanjana is a third-generation displaced person (DP). Her grandmother was a DP from East Bengal after Partition. Her mother was a child in the family home on the East Pakistan side of the border when her beloved elder brother was killed while returning by train from medical college. Like millions of others, her family fled to Kolkata. Her aunt married another DP whose sister had to sell her body to prevent the family from starving on the platform of Sealdah station.

Neelanjana’s parents are better off and reasonably content after getting jobs as an accountant and a librarian, respectively, in the steel township of Jampot (Jamshedpur). A literature student, Neelanjana does her PhD in America where it is not so much the pursuit of happiness as the overwhelming of sorrow which engulfs her life. While teaching Advanced World Poetry, she goes to bed with a student who files a complaint of sexual harassment when she doesn’t give him the grade he wants. Her visa is about to expire and she needs to be employed to renew it but the campus authorities initiate action against her on the grounds of “gross impropriety”. Her former university colleague, a South Indian who loves her and is employed with a company in California, says she can stay on without a job if she becomes his wife. She marries him and, at some stage, decides to have a child, and her life looks set for a conventional, if not happy, ending when fate intervenes.

They go to Arizona to attend an Indian friend’s wedding just weeks after 9/11. Neelanjana insists on going out late at night to buy tandoori chicken, which she prefers to the motel’s vending-machine snacks. At a petrol pump outlet, they run into three rednecks who mistake them for Arabs and threaten them but leave when another vehicle arrives. Her husband suggests they drive back to the safety of their motel but Neelanjana insists that they go to a nearby shopping mall to buy the food she wants. At the deserted parking lot outside a lonely restaurant, they again encounter the three rednecks who attack them. The pregnant Neelanjana loses her child and her husband is beaten to death.

In the wake of the tragedy, Neelanjana tells her parents she will fly back to Kolkata and asks them not to come to America. She, however, decides to stay on after re-reading a letter from her late grandmother, the original DP, who tells her, “Don't be afraid of being alone in the new country.” The book ends with Neelanjana realising that “she is not made of the places she has already lived in: they have no more claim on her than the places she is yet to live in”. She remembers lines from a poem by Mark Strand: “We all have reasons/for moving.../I move to keep things whole.” She applies for two tenure track-teaching positions in Georgia and Missouri, and tells her mother, “I am not coming back home. I am not afraid to live alone in this desh, this country. This is where I want to live.”

Neelanjana has a quote for every occasion (from John Donne to F Scott Fitzgerald, and Erica Jong to Pablo Neruda), perhaps something to be expected from a PhD in literature. The more conventional reader could be left wondering whether some protagonists are accident-prone. The more unorthodox reader could wonder about the occupational hazards of leading a liberated lifestyle in post-9/11 America. The more professional ones could remember recent news reports about American Ivy League institutions cracking down on professors and lecturers who bed their students. After all, not every student is like Benjamin Braddock (as played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 Mike Nichols’s movie, The Graduate) who, after being seduced by his mother’s neighbour, tells her husband that “It was like shaking hands.”

Drowning Fish is compulsive reading as the reader hopes in vain that things will get better before they get worse. The author perhaps takes in too much of territory and history from Bengal during Partition to America post-9/11. Perhaps the author is striving to make the point that being a DP is both a matter of choice and genes. As Joan Baez sang some 44 years ago, “I feel like a lonesome tumbleweed/Rolling across an open plain/Lord, I feel like rolling,/Till my days are all gone.”

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