The Map of Bihar and other stories by Janet H Swinney, 2019
Prior to today I have posted on five short stories by Janet H Swinney. Her work can stand with the masters of the form.
I was delighted when I learned she has published a debut collection of her work, The Map of Bihar and other stories.
I find posting upon collections of short stories very challenging. In most cases, including Swinney's collection, the stories were often not written with inclusion in a collection in mind. Many reviews of collections are laced with emotion laden metaphors. I will
in this post talk in enough detail on five stories to try to convey a feel for her work. I will conclude with what I see as some unifying themes in her work.
Of the fourteen stories in the collection, three are set in India and eleven in the UK. Of the ones set in the UK, five have the lives of people from the British-Asian diaspora either central to the story, or referenced as part of life in multicultural Britain.
In a sixth, 'The Work of Lesser-Known Artists', the central character is of African-Caribbean origin
My bottom line: The Map of Bihar and other stories will delight all lovers of the form.
Goa, the setting for “Drishi “, a state in western India with coastlines stretching along the Arabian Sea, has an international
reputation as a place of unbridled hedonism, drug indulgence and
sexual license. Goa was at one time a stop on the “hippy trail”. Conservatives might see it as a place of decadence, personally I could use a month there. Tourism is the main source of income for the province. Many of the mostly European visitors are fascinated by Indian culture. Goa has a vibrant nightlife and incredible beaches. The beaches are lined with resorts.The lead character in “Drishti” works as a life guard on one of the beaches. This powerful short story takes us deeply into the life of Satish, a Life guard,we see the beach through his eyes.
As the story opens Satish is perched in his elevated lifeguard chair. It is morning, the start of his shift and the beach is not yet busy. He scans the beach. He glances at his left thumb nail, over an inch long, and varnished bright red. This denotes his membership in the Vaishnavite sect. He enjoys seeing how this makes locals uneasy and intrigues Europeans.
His friend and fellow lifeguard Dhirendra is also a Vaishnavite devotee, they have the same guru. Dhirendra has learned how to profit from the Darker side of Goa:
“Dhirendra is the kind of guy who mooches about the town of an evening, usually outside the loudest bars and wine shops. He’s on good terms with a remarkably large number of people it is important to know – bar owners, bouncers, security guards at posh residences and so on. After the power goes off at eight, he puts the bike into a low gear and trundles round the dark streets with the headlamp off, seeing what unusual goings-on he can uncover – fellows entering houses that are not their own; home-made hooch being transported in three wheelers; girls disposing of unwanted babies in garbage bins: that sort of thing. These days, Satish is often a passenger on the pillion, as Dhirendra roams the drinking dens and eateries and follows solitary women scuttling to get home after work.”
A talented short story writer can take us deeply into a social milieu, one beyond the luxury resorts, which tourists rarely see. In just a few sentences Swinney has accomplished this marvellously, as we can see in the passages above.
Satish’s work as a lifeguard, a job of which he is proud, can get tedious. He passes time by playing games on his cell phone.
We see old caste structures are still deeply embedded in the consciousness of Satish. With the beach full of European women, often very briefly attired he has eyes only for an older Goan woman that collects refuge on the beach, once a job for Dalits. He calls her “Miss Mango Slice”.
“Miss Mango Slice is the love of his life though she doesn’t know it. He calls her that because she always wears a yellow blouse and a concoction of yellow and orange shawls and skirts that he can’t quite fathom. And today, as usual, she has a red leather hat with a wide brim jammed firmly on her head. She makes her way towards him in a leisurely but purposeful manner, with her big basket braced on one hip, and her sweeping brush trailing from her other hand. He can’t take his eyes off her. He admires the way she paces herself. She works long hours, mostly in the hot sun, criss-crossing the beach systematically until the job is done...
Miss Mango Slice is way below him socially. Poor though his family is, his mother would be horrified if she knew that he entertained thoughts of a relationship with a refuse collector. Miss Mango Slice is older than him too. That’s easy to tell. He doesn’t even know if she’s married, as she wears none of the usual markers. However, as he looks down into her laconic brown eyes, and notes the jittery earring that plays against her neck in the breeze, like a bunch of keys inviting entry, he knows he just doesn’t care.
She gathers up her things, and drifts off again across the sand, showing him an excellent pair of pink heels and long, narrow, well-formed calves.”
Satish is excited by a glimpse of her calves, but not near naked much younger Europeans women.
We observe the beach from the lifeguard stand. We learn the supposed reasons Indians are not allowed in the whites area of the beach.
Satish’s shift is almost open. He is thirsty and wants some food but the next on duty lifeguard has not yet arrived. He cannot leave the station unattended but if he calls he office to inform them his friend will be in trouble.
There is a lot more to this story. I found the point of view very imaginative. Swinney is very good with small details.
“Where is Chandernagore”
Some of Swinney’s stories are set on The Indian Subcontinent. “Where is Chandernagore” is set near Newcastle in North Eastern part of England. The locale is a newspaper editorial office. Here is how Mr Peabody, the paper’s owner and editor describes it:
“There were other publications with far larger circulations in the city. They had reporters to send hither and yon. ‘Let them focus on the big news,’ Mr. Peabody said. ‘At the Examiner, we deal with the significant detail, the family, the community.’ “
There are two women employed in the editorial office. One is given assignments to cover murder trials and such, the other does recipes and housekeeping articles. The women want to cover a big rally where Churchill will be confronting advocates for the vote for women. The time is not spelled out but from the details involving Churchill’s opposition to giving women the right to vote (which occured in 1918) I am guessing 1910 or so. The editor of paper, a lower circulation publication which prides itself on quality journalism and supports The Conservative Party overall, wants an article written on a community in India, Chandernagore, near Calcutta. Here is how the trouble starts:
“The following morning, Mr. Peabody allocated Enid the task of drafting something about an impending spat between the French and the British somewhere west of Calcutta. ‘Come on strong about the Empire quashing any interference from Johnny Foreigner,’ he said. ‘We can’t have these Frenchies getting above themselves.’ To Hattie, he allocated a feature about the history of milk puddings. ‘You can link it nicely to Enid’s piece about the Empire,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing like a good rice pudding with the skin on, topped with a sprinkle of nutmeg.’ George, on the other hand, was given the job of covering the two-day visit of the President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Winston Churchill, who would be speaking at the Assembly Rooms that very evening”
Enid is infuriated, she tries to talk Hattie into jointly demanding Mr. Peabody allow them to jointly cover the rally. Swinney does a marvelous job showing us what happens at the rally.
The story takes a very interesting direction. I will not say more of the plot so you can enjoy it, as I certainly did.
“The Menace at Gate”
Swinney has the gifts of a first rate historical novelist. Using background details derivitive from reality, she creates characters in and of their time, persons with a strong feel of vermisilitude and settings with near cinematic vividness. I can feel the heat, the sensual overloading, the political chaos and clash of cultures that are her the daily life of those in her stories, whether it be on a beach in Goa, the birthday observation of a venerated guru or, as in “The Menace at The Gate” the coming of age of a young woman in violent times.
As the story opens a young woman, maybe 18, is trying to sleep but the sweltering heat and the swarms of mosquitoes that won’t leave her alone keep sleep away. We are in a violent place, learning of acts of terrorism and political kilings. She lives with her parents, her aunt and uncle from England are visiting. As she tries to sleep, problems treated in her classes run through her mind. To make it worse, her period is late.
In opening of the story you can see the skill of a serious artist:
“Her period refused to come. She lay in turmoil beneath the ineffectual ceiling fan. No position brought relief from the heat. After days of tossing and turning and lying in limp sheets, her shoulders and her buttocks were disfigured by the blemishes served up by prickly heat, and the monsoon was still an age away.
Clans of mosquitoes infested the room, convening under the bed, as well as in the adjoining bathroom, where you took your pants down at your peril. Every night, before coming to bed, she fumigated the entire place with Deet, and plastered herself with Odomos. It made no difference. The evil empire persisted in rude good health, while she lay upon the bed like a living sacrifice. Despite a monstrous nightgown and cotton socks that came up almost to her knees, her ankles, wrists and toes were swollen with multiple bites, the flesh ripped raw with scratching.
Her mind was in no better state. Her head was filled with equations that she could not solve. The reek of formaldehyde from the lab was still in her nostrils. She had never guessed when she chose her subjects for Ten Plus, that even Biology, which was her favourite subject, would involve so much chemistry. She thrashed about the bed, struggling with valencies that were at odds with one another, and the chemical description of photosynthesis that she could not complete.”
We learn of terrible violence. In a very vivid scene the woman tries to relieve her stress through a casual sexual encounter, one that would horrify her conservative parents.
I dont want reveal too much of the exciting story line. The conclusion was very unexpected, dramatic and perfectly wrought.
I endorse this story to all lovers of form. It can serve as an object less about to write historical Short fiction.
"The Queen of Campbeltown"
Frank O'Connor said short stories were often when at their best about people with no one to speak for them. "The Queen of Campbelltown" epitomizes this. We first meet the central character in a government welfare home for children taken from unfit mothers. He is maybe ten,he misses his mother. Having never known any better, he did not understand why he was in the home. He hates the food and has no friends there. He knows how to take the ferry back to his hometown. Having no money for the fare, he sneaks out to go back home. He sneaks on the ferry by pretending he is with a family. In a very poignant scene we see him lying to a girl he meets about where his father is on the boat, he never understood why he disappeared. The conclusion is sad beyond sadness, deep pain to come inflicted upon and caused by the boy should he grow to be a man. A truly wonderful story.
"Private Passions" the lead story in the collection, lets us know we are in for a wild ride. I have a fondness for collages, whether those of Mexican or Filipino masters, or literary collages like those in Manhattan transfer by John Dos Passos. "Private Passions" is a collage of goings on in a low rent complex in Glasgow, Scotland.The story illustrates the negative attitudes toward immigrants held by many from this region. We begin with a man ranting about a "darkie" in the building who has a vegetable and fruit business. There is a man rising up in the banking world, he and his wife aspire to move to Edinburgh. There is a Hindu couple from East Africa, who have a store, similar to the ubiquitous sari-sari stores of the Philippines. They feel totally lost. We witness the various couples sexual activity. In one scene a man more or less coerces his wife into sex in the bathroom. What follows has to be the most vividly depicted scene in which all hope of romantic activity is squelched for a long time to come. It was laugh out loud funny.
Swinney’s stories often deal with conflicts. In “Private Passions” we see marital conflicts,cultural and racial barriers and a split between people based on their economic status. In “Drishi"we see the impact of lingering caste issues in Goa, the explotation of the poor, the indifference of the rich.
In "The Queen of Campbelltown" we see how unwanted children are treated, how drugs and poverty drag people into the gutter.
In "The Menace at the Gate", set in India, we see generational conflicts, tensions between Indians who live in the UK and back home family.
The settings of her stories themselves are in trumoil. One has, I think, to see the social troubles depicted in her stories as yet another legacy of colonialism.
From her profound work we see how self knowledge, cultural depth and a grounding in history can help us transcend our prejudices.
I hope to follow her work for years to come. There is sadness and pain, wisdom and possibly the most disturbing episode of coitus interruptus I have seen depicted anywhere.
From the Author's Website
"Janet was born and grew up in the North East of England in a time of soot, formica, and winkle pickers; when it was actually compulsory to smoke on buses and packets of crsips used to have blue twists of salt inside them.
Her education was something she can’t talk about without getting variously annoyed, upset and outraged.
She spent many years oscillating between Scotland, where she felt more comfortable culturally and politically, and the South East of England where there were better employment opportunities. She now lives in London.
She worked for many years in post-16 education as a practitioner, manager, trainer, inspector and consultant, but has always felt compelled to write. Now, writing is her top priority.
She shared 45 years of her existence with the composer, Naresh Sohal, and has travelled widely in India. She is a long-standing practitioner of yoga, which she also teaches."