Book Review

Book Review: ‘This Is Salvaged’, An Author’s Salvational Journey, Ours Too

By
Himansu S Mohapatra

Vauhini Vara, a US-based writer of Indian origin, won the Kalinga Literature Festival Fiction Award for her short story collection This is Salvaged. Joining the awards ceremony online on 11 February in Bhubaneswar, she said the book was her struggle to deal with grief and loss and an ‘attempt to find a way to write about them.’ The tell tale sign of it is the dedication of the book to her elder sister, Krishna Dweepa Vara, who died of cancer at a tender age.

The stories themselves, suffused with a brooding tone of introspection and melancholia, carry the burden of a lost dear much more poignantly. It is directly stated in the story “The Hormone Hypothesis” where the lead character, an Indian-American woman, ‘traverses the world in search of sister-shaped people’ (p. 111) to fill the space her deceased elder sister had left.  The very first story “The Irates” changes the ‘dearly departed’ to a brother. But the effect of the loss is the same, a sense of futility and growing void, leading one at a psychological or rather ‘subliminal’ level, to use a concept from F.W.H. Myres discussed in the last story, to substitutes and at a philosophical level to a quest to ‘find your own meaning’ (p. 5).    

But there is a third level, an intermediate level, which, as the book shows, comes via writing stories about people, mostly women—but men too—who have experienced loss and grief. Thus we have the canvas of the ten searing stories  in this book filled with sisters grieving for sisters/brothers, mothers grieving for daughters/sons, and wives grieving for their partners. Only by diving deep into other people’s grief one can rise above one’s own suffering to empathise with others as well as recognise and explore other sensitive areas with the same potential for causing soul pain.

Thus the loss of a mother or a daughter can also indicate—and sometimes heighten—the loss of a home, a motherland and a language, especially for an expatriate. In the story “You’re not Alone” a Brazilan woman married to a white American—referred throughout the story as a ‘stranger’—feels acutely the loss of her father who died in her native town in Brazil  a few hours before she arrived to see him. Likewise, her mother, who comes to Florida to keep her company and to mitigate her loneliness, leaves even before she has had time to unpack, the reason being—and it would strike a chord in the heart of every immigrant in America from the non-white nations—‘she couldn’t handle the isolation of life in the Unites States, the emptiness of its streetscapes’ (p. 90).

From the experience of grief it is but a short step to female bonding, which is the underlying theme of many of Vara’s stories here. This is Salvaged is a wonderful testimony to the communion between women. The lead character in “The Hormone Hypothesis” says that women, driven by higher levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin, ‘arrive at answers to life’s questions together’ (p. 101). This is a neat subversion of the male bonding theory promoted by patriarchy, for men actually fare much worse when it comes to grief sharing, and, are, therefore, damned to a lonely existence.

Vara’s book excels in its insights into immigrant life in America. But this is not to say that she doesn’t write about the natives equally perceptively. The white presence in her stories, though thin and diffuse, is inescapable. The story, which gives the title to the book, stands out for its all white cast, with its lead pair, Marlon and Glenda, revealing the emptiness of an artistic and a religious life respectively, symbolised by the burning of the ark Marlon has laboriously built for three years. The story ends on a note of profound irony, showing how items salvaged from the wreckage of ark —hence the title ‘This is Salvaged’—make up the décor of philistine homes.

Vara’s stories are truly about people caught in life’s imbroglios.  She steers clear of the sentimentalism of Us vs. Them. She does not spare the American society. She does not let Indian society off the hook either. In “Sybils” the young daughter reminds her mother that Indians can be just as racist as the white Americans. Also, “What Next”, the last but one story, focuses on the Indian society’s obsession with wealth and residence in America and how Indians in America have created an extension of this India in America.

The real achievement of Vara’s book is its crisp, crystalline and shining language that offers to authorize a simple diction for imaginative writing which it sets out to redeem. This is Salvaged is a tremendous work of short fiction, life sustaining in is penetrating insights into the unconfessed areas of our lives, and, in its liquid and flowing lines, is a pure joy to read.  This is Salvaged is the author’s salvational journey, ours too.

  

Himansu S Mohapatra

A former Professor of English & noted translator

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